Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Playing to the Republican Base

Howard Kurtz has a post up about the indignities Republican presidential candidates are suffering in their efforts to keep themselves in their party’s ideological sweet spot as it shifts precipitously to the right. Tim Pawlenty is abjectly apologizing for the fact that he recently supported Cap-and-Trade. Having used up his requisition of flip-flops last election cycle, Mitt Romney is trying to stand his ground over RomneyCare in the hope that his ties to the Republican establishment will override the disapproval of restive Tea Partiers.

In each case, an otherwise formidable-looking presidential candidate is struggling to maintain his conservative authenticity because he took a policy position that was cutting-edge conservatism just a few years ago. Whoever the Republican nominee ends up being, Kurtz observes, will “have to pivot back to the center . . . where [general] elections are won.” So we can’t know how seriously the Tea Partiers’ standards of ideological rectitude are going to jeopardize Republican chances in the next election without knowing where the ideological center of the electorate now is and how much the Republican base really cares about doctrinal purity. Your guess is as good as mine.

Kurtz reminds us that playing to the base isn’t an exclusively Republican phenomenon:  Democrats, of course, have their own version of playing to the left. Hillary Clinton and other Dems spent much of 2008 trying to explain away their vote to authorize the Iraq War.”  Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to cast Pawlenty and Romney in the roles John Edwards and Hillary Clinton played on the Democratic side of the last presidential election cycle.   These parallels are worth considering because they illuminate as much by where they break down as by where they hold.

I’ve noted before that both Edwards and Clinton were well within their party’s ideological mainstream when they voted to authorize the Bush administration to prosecute the Iraq war in 2002. By late 2005, however, it was rapidly becoming conventional wisdom in liberal circles that the decision to go to war had been not only an egregious strategic mistake, but a betrayal of core (but mostly unspecified) liberal principles. So Democratic presidential candidates who’d supported the Iraq war had some explaining to do. Edwards managed to re-ingratiate himself with liberals early in the election cycle by apologizing profusely for his 2002 Iraq vote, just as Pawlenty is apologizing today for having supported Cap-and-Trade. Hillary Clinton never regained the wholehearted allegiance of born-again liberal doves because, like Romney, she refused to apologize for taking a position that was now outside her party’s ideological center of gravity.

Edwards and Clinton made their choices long before an Obama candidacy was even a gleam in Democratic eyes. They probably thought that they were reenacting an intra-party drama from the Vietnam era. Edwards was hoping to take the party’s liberal base away from Clinton, the way Robert Kennedy might have taken it away from Hubert Humphrey in 1968 (had he not been assassinated) by recanting his earlier support for the Vietnam war. Clinton was probably figuring that, as the candidate of a party establishment that had been assembled during her husband’s presidency, she could hold onto her status as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee by remaining unapologetic about having once supported an unpopular war the way Humphrey did in 1968.

Edwards was betting that the Democratic base had undergone a real ideological conversion about Iraq comparable to the one it had undergone about Vietnam in the late 1960s.  Hillary was betting that, although the Democratic base was making a lot of noise, it either hadn’t undergone a real ideological conversion over the war, or wouldn't play for keeps ideologically even if it had. Their separate calculations would become merely academic, however, once Obama stepped into the role of a modern-day George McGovern, as the uncompromised head of an anti-war party.

In hindsight we can see that, although Hillary lost the nomination to Obama, they'd both figured out along the way that ideological opposition to the war within the Democratic base was mostly an affectation. Otherwise, having won the presidency as the guy promising to end a war that never should have been waged, Obama wouldn't have dared to retain Robert Gates (who’d overseen the troop surge in Iraq that Democrats had uniformly opposed as a foolhardy escalation during the last two years of the Bush administration) as Secretary of Defense and appoint an Iraq hawk like James Jones as the head of the National Security Council. And lo and behold, there was Hillary Clinton, the woman liberals thought was too morally compromised by her Iraq vote to be President, serving as Obama's Secretary of State, the top foreign-policy job in a diplomacy-minded administration. It was as if George McGovern had managed to get himself elected president in 1972 running against the Vietnam war and then, without encountering much resistance from his liberal base, appointed Robert McNamara as his Secretary of Defense, McGeorge Bundy as his National Security Advisor and Scoop Jackson as his Secretary of State.

It’s been a long time since ideologues in the base of the Democratic Party played for keeps.  Democrats are hoping, and establishment Republicans are fearing, that Tea Party types in the Republican base are made of sterner stuff.

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