Mug's Game

When Will Democrats Stop Allowing the GOP to Define the Political Center?

In 2008, the largest number of voters in U.S. history gave the Democrats their largest share of the presidential vote in forty-four years and big majorities in the House and Senate. How did Republicans react? They held their ideological ground, refused to give an inch to the new president, and insisted that persistent opposition would eventually yield them victory. And on November 2, it did. Yet now that Democrats have suffered a setback—in an election, it should be said, involving many fewer voters than the big battle two years ago—they are being counseled to do the opposite of what the Republicans did, especially by Republicans.

Democrats who stand up to say they were right to reform health care and stimulate a staggering economy are told they "don't get it" and are "in denial." Liberals who refuse to let one election loss alter their commitments are dismissed as "doubling down" on a bad bet.

President Barack Obama made the word "audacity" popular, but conservative Republicans practice it.

Mainstream commentary typically bends to the more audacious side. As a result, there was far less middle-of-the-road advice in 2008 urging Republicans to move to the center than there were warnings to Obama not to read too much into his victory. The United States, we were told, was still a "center-right" country. The actual election result didn't seem to matter back then.

Funny, isn't it? When progressives win, they are told to moderate their hopes. When conservatives win, progressives are told to retreat.

Worse, Democrats tend to internalize the views of their opponents. Already, some moderate Democrats are claiming that all would have been well if Obama had not tried to reform health care or "overreached" in other ways. Never mind that Obama's biggest single mistake (beyond the administration's projection that unemployment would peak at around 8 percent) was giving in to Senate moderates and not demanding the much bigger stimulus plan a weak economy plainly needed.

In fact, moderate Democrats would do better calling attention to how extreme and out of touch the conservative program actually is. Moderates should be more offended than anyone that the GOP's ideological obsessions (health-care repeal, tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation) have little connection to solving the country's problems, particularly the economic difficulties in the electorally pivotal Midwest.

The best news for Democrats is that the Republicans' fixation on repealing the health-care law will give its supporters a tenth inning--an unexpected second chance to win the struggle for public opinion.

The most politically potent attack on the health-care effort was not on the plan itself. It was the argument that Democrats should have spent less time on this bill and more on job creation. Every moment the Republicans devote to destroying this year's reform opens them up to exactly the same criticism.

Moreover, reopening the health-care debate will allow the law's supporters to defend its particulars. What, exactly, do the Republicans want to repeal? Tax breaks helping businesses cover their employees? Individual tax credits? (Yes, repealing the health bill would be a big tax increase.) Protections for people with pre-existing conditions, or for adult children under age twenty-six?

And Republicans are showing who and what they really care about by their other big priority: making sure the Bush tax cuts are extended for the wealthy in the coming lame-duck congressional session that Democrats will still control.

Even in this year's very conservative electorate, only 18 percent said cutting taxes should be the highest priority of the next Congress. Only 40 percent said the Bush tax cuts should be extended for all, including the wealthy; 51 percent were opposed to this, including 36 percent who favored extending them only to those earning under $250,000 a year (Obama's position), and an additional 15 percent who opposed extending them at all.

Yes, the moderate, middle-of-the-road position is the one held by the president. Why sell it out? Raising the $250,000 ceiling a bit might be called a compromise. Any wholesale extension would be a shameful and abject capitulation that would just prove how easy it is to bully Democrats.

Give Republicans credit for this: They don't chase the center, they try to move it. Democrats can play a loser's game of scrambling after a center being pushed ever rightward. Or they can stand their ground and show how far their opponents are from moderate, problem-solving governance. Why should Democrats take Republican advice that Republicans themselves would never be foolish enough to follow? 

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group


Related: Loud & Unclear and No Compromise? by the Editors

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What has happened to the 'audacity of hope?' A democratic counter attack is badly needed. The economy is still in the toilet, and the repugnants want more austerity, more tax cuts, more of the power unto themselves.  But most importantly, why do they hold up health care reform as the primary boogey man to be exorcised? There are simply no plausible explanations, no logical reasoning, not even some proposed amendments. They have suceeded in poisoning the discussion and their false allegations have convinced all the beneficiaries that they should return to the prior state of chaos and coverage gaps and denials.

Democrats must find hard-bitten protagonists to speak for the common-man agenda.  Who among the current Democrats has the backbone & fervor, dogged conviction, & tough political savvy of, say, Hubert Humphrey & Lyndon Johnson? Nancy Pelosi has worked hard yet is derided & vilified for her acumen. Yet criticism of her unaccountably sticks. When slick, truthy Republicans concoct facts from thin air, the citizenry is swayed, & the Truth goes begging.  Republicans want government to fail for the next 2 years, they want us citizens to suffer for their aggrandizement & remuneration. 

It's a tremendously complex issue, but the bottom line is corporate (financial) power. Our mass media are corporate entities, and they do, indeed, make the public opinion.  They choose the issues to spotlight, the issues to ignore, and select the catch-phrases that define public opinion.  They are essentially a single-source voice that tells us what is "popular," what is a "crisis." This is true on a full range of issues.  One of the first issues used in this new form of journalism was smoking, for example, and the public was so well-trained over a period of roughly half a century that any facts that contradict the popular opinion are considered something near blasphemy. (Sorry, but the most carconogenic smoke is the kind that contains oil particles - from traffic, not tobacco. Few have any exposure to tobacco, most have high exposure to traffic smoke. Smoke from burning of fossil fuels is not only the leading cause of cancers/breathing-related disease today, but of greenhouse gases that are actually putting all life at increasing risk.)  How are our politics shaped?  Certain ideas are simply kept out of the media (hunger and homelessness, consequences of welfare "reform," etc.) The welfare family getting by on some $4000-$5000 per year was described as virtually living in lazy luxury, creating great resentment among the public.  The same family, getting by on a $20,000 job, is described as "struggling." On a strictly political side, a Republican with a 40% public approval rate will repeatedly (daily) be labeled as "popular;" when a Democrat's rating slides down to 60%, he is described in terms of "losing popularity." Russ Feingold is an outstanding example of political careers shaped by the media.  If mentioned in the media at all over the last two years, it was on vague terms, and the impression was that Sen. Feingold wasn't doing much of anything any more.  This was in almost-shocking contrast to what he actually HAD been doing as one of our hardest-working senators, consistently representing the general views of the majority.  It's a powerfuil strategy.

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).