Liberal readers of this blog will have noticed my annoying inclination to see the poisonous lead lining every glimmering liberal cloud. In this case, however, I’m not alone. You can’t miss the wistful tone of liberal sighs of relief over the Delaware results. Here, for example, was E.J. Dionne contemplating the Delaware primary before the outcome was known (my emphasis):
And here’s Matthew Yglesias echoing Dionne’s ambivalence after the returns were in (my emphasis):“Democrats may be rooting for O’Donnell because they need all the Senate seats they can get this year. But my hunch is that a lot of them would quietly mourn if Castle, a guy of old-fashioned decency, were to lose. If there is no longer any room for him and people like him in the GOP, it will be the clearest sign yet of a party that has decided to go off the edge.”
You can get a bead on what I suspect is bothering Dionne and Yglesias by distinguishing between the electoral battles waged by the political parties and the generational ideological war between liberals and conservatives shaping the terrain on which those battles are fought. There’s no denying that, electorally speaking, nominating O’Donnell for the Senate was a tactical misstep on the part of Republicans. But that doesn’t mean the Republican propensity to nominate people like O’Donnell, Rand Paul and Sharron Angle for state-wide office augurs well for liberals in their continuing ideological war with conservatives. Consider two crude theories in this connection.“Looks like Christine O’Donnell will be the Republican nominee for Delaware. That means the aggregate impact of the Delaware Senate race is likely to be Democrats holding the Senate seat and picking up the House seat Mike Castle is vacating. In the short-term, that’ll be good news for progressive politics but as I said yesterday I don’t think that kind of narrowly partisan thinking gets you very far in the long run. Ultimately, the two-party system operates near equilibrium, and so the internal state of both parties counts. It’s better for progressives and better for the country for Republicans to field strong, reasonable candidates.”
The first is music to liberal ears. According to it, changes in the ideological composition of the political parties aren’t causally related to the ideological composition of the electorate. So while the Republican Party moves to the right, the ideological center that parties need to capture to win elections is likely to stay in roughly the same place. On this theory, to the extent that Tea Party conservatives become the face of the Republican Party, it’s marginalizing itself ideologically by moving farther away from a fixed ideological center. That should help Democrats maintain an ideological affinity with electorally crucial independents over the long run even if they’ve turned them off in the near term.
The second theory is less reassuring to liberals because it posits the causal interdependence of party ideology and the ideological leanings of the electorate. On this view, most voters aren’t ideologues; they have better things to do than to organize their political preferences according to a coherent set of political principles. They get interested enough in politics around election time to form preferences over the (mostly binary) options with which they’re presented. Yet the menu of options before them is the product of continuous competition among ideologically committed political activists. That leaves open the possibility that ideologues on one side or the other can move the whole grid of political opinion in their direction by shaping the alternatives presented to the electorate.
Seen in this light, the fact that Tea Party conservatism has become respectable enough to be embraced by a significant wing of a major party is evidence that the whole spectrum of political opinion is moving in a conservative direction. The Tea Party movement is just the latest incarnation of the “movement conservatism” that’s been shaping the ideological terrain since the Reagan presidency. It must mean something that, over that period, no one’s been talking about “movement liberalism.” The Democratic Party has spent most of the last thirty years making its way as best it can over inhospitable ideological ground. Liberal politicians have slowed the rightward movement of the ideological center, but they haven’t managed to reverse it.
The political price Democrats are paying for passing ObamaCare is the best evidence in favor of the second theory. Events had conspired to present them with enough political power to realize a seventy-five-year-old ideological aspiration to socialize the costs and risks associated with the delivery of health care. They were careful not to repeat the political mistakes in wielding it they’d made over HillaryCare by overreaching ideologically (so there went the public option, the Medicare buy-in, etc.). Democrats ended up passing legislation that looked a lot like what moderate Republicans were proposing in the early 1990s and a Republican governor (soon to be a serious presidential candidate) had signed into law in Massachusetts a few years before. Now, to their astonishment, liberal Democrats find themselves as far from the ideological center of the electorate as the Tea Partiers.