Here’s the main thought Republicans are consoling themselves with these days: Notwithstanding President-elect Barack Obama, a nearly filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate and the largest Democratic majority in the House of Representatives since 1993, the United States is still a center-right country. Sure, voters may be angry with Republicans now, but eventually, as the Bush years recede and the GOP modernizes its brand, a basically right-tilting electorate will come back home. Or, in the words of the animated rock band the Gorillaz, “I’m useless, but not for long/The future is comin’ on.”
Thus Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, in Outlook last week: The United States “is indeed, as conservatives have been insisting in recent days, a center-right country.” On election night, former Bush guru Karl Rove opined on Fox News, “Barack Obama understands this is a center-right country, and he smartly and wisely ran a campaign that emphasized it.” And it’s not just conservative pundits and operatives singing this song. Take Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, who wrote an Oct. 27 cover essay entitled “America the Conservative,” which argued that Obama will have to “govern a center-right nation” that “is more instinctively conservative than it is liberal.”
The only problem: It isn’t true. Or at least, not anymore. If you’d asked me a year ago whether the United States is really a center-right nation, I would have said yes — after pausing for a second to contemplate the GOP’s big congressional losses in 2006. At the time, Republicans cheered each other up by assuring ourselves that the worst was over: If you were running for Congress and survived 2006, you could hold your seat forever.
Tell that to Christopher Shays. After 2006, he was the sole surviving GOP House member from all of New England, but he went down this year, 51 to 48 percent. We are now two elections into something big. This month’s drubbing is just the latest sign that the country’s political center of gravity is shifting from center-right to center-left. Republicans who fail to grasp this could be lost in the wilderness for years.
Here’s the stark reality: It is now harder for the Republican presidential candidate to get to 50.1 percent than for the Democrat. My Hoover Institution colleague David Brady and Douglas Rivers of the research firm YouGovPolimetrix have been analyzing data from online interviews with 12,000 people in both 2004 and 2008. It shows an overall shift to the Democrats of six percentage points. As they write in the forthcoming edition of Policy Review, “The decline of Republican strength occurs by having strong Republicans become weak Republicans, weak Republicans becoming independents, and independents leaning more Democratic or even becoming Democrats.” This is a portrait of an electorate moving from center-right to center-left.
Some analysts like to explain this shift by pointing to Democratic gains and Republican losses among particular regions and demographic groups, arguing that the GOP has growing problems winning over such areas as the Southwest and such groups as Latinos, educated professionals, Catholics and single women. There’s something to this, but the Republican problem is actually larger and more categorical. In 2004, Republicans and Democrats each constituted 37 percent of the electorate. In the 2006 congressional election, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 38 percent to 36 and won big. This year, the Democrats made up a stunning 39 percent of the electorate, compared with just 32 percent for the Republicans. Add the painful fact that Obama outpolled McCain among independents, 52 percent to 48, and you have a picture of a Republican Party that has lost its connection to the center of the electorate.
Shortly after the GOP convention, McCain looked as if he could still come back. But it was the “maverick” McCain, running against party type, who was winning over independents at that point, not a conservative campaigning as a conservative (compassionate or otherwise).
Perhaps, as Rove says, Obama was running to the center. But can anybody make a serious case that people were mistaking him for a center-right politician? Or even a “New Democrat” such as former president Bill Clinton? The McCain campaign was not shy about letting voters know about the elements of Obama’s record that marked him as a man of the left. Perhaps voters simply didn’t believe a word of it, but a better explanation is that a majority of them heard McCain’s warnings and just didn’t mind. Center-left nation, anyone?
And the GOP has been heading left, too. Exhibit A is the $700 billion government intervention to rescue the financial-services sector — proposed by the conservative party! It may have been necessary, but it would not have made Milton Friedman happy. Anyway, the quarrel over whether to spend $700 billion was so October. Today, many Democrats are keen to see a chunk of the bailout cash go to help the auto industry, which has triggered Republican ire. I can see how supporting a bailout for the financial sector but opposing a bailout for Detroit is more conservative than supporting a bailout for both, but if that’s the distinction that makes you a conservative these days, liberals ought to be pretty happy with their prospects.
True, the percentage of voters describing themselves as “liberal” and “conservative” has held relatively constant over many election cycles, with self-described liberals checking in at 22 percent this time around (up one percentage point over 2004) and self-described conservatives at 34 percent (unchanged from 2004). The numbers may not have changed, but the views behind those labels certainly have. Nowadays, it’s a fair bet that most of those calling themselves “liberal” support gay marriage. In 1980, those same liberals were, no doubt, cutting-edge supporters of gay rights, but the notion of same-sex marriage would have occurred only to the most avant-garde. In 1980, having a teenage daughter who was pregnant out of wedlock would have ruled you out for the No. 2 spot on theDemocratic ticket. This year, it turned out to be a humanizing addition to the conservative vice presidential nominee’s résumé.
We have only just begun to explore this new political landscape. The United States was indeed a center-right country for several decades, since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, with his ability to peel off “boll weevil” Democrats to create a congressional majority. Clinton really did have to come to terms with governing a center-right nation. I was the editor of the Washington Times’s editorial page back then, and my most prized possession from the period is a personal thank-you note from then-Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen for our vigorous editorial support of the Clinton administration’s campaign to ratify NAFTA.
Don’t count on many Obama administration initiatives that conservatives can sign onto based on good old-fashioned conservative principle. On trade, for example, the question is whether today’s Democrats will succumb to the siren song of protectionism. It’s not just American conservatives who are worried; British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a pointed warning to Obama last week.
Today’s Democrats may well overreach in much the same way that Republicans did after they won their congressional majority in 1994, when they took the “center” out of center-right. If so, Democratic hubris will create opportunities for the GOP to get a hearing.
And so far, center-left government is largely an abstraction for the country. People like the sound of it, especially against the backdrop of a financial crisis and recession. In these center-left times, voters are receptive — or rather, it is their receptiveness that makes these times center-left. But whether they will like the new Obama tilt in practice remains to be seen.
So Republicans should not despair. They will have plenty of time to work up a critique of Obama’s policies as they unfold. But Republicans should not count on Democratic failure — and they certainly should not regard it as inevitable because of a conservatism they impute to an electorate that has, shall we say, moved on.