This past weekend, the Washington Post devoted a chunk of its “Outlook” section to a “step-by-step guide for Democrats.” The premise was that the Republicans have led the nation into one calamity after another (you know, all those successful post 9/11 terrorist attacks on the homeland, high unemployment, runaway inflation, etc.) but the Democrats are still at risk, and in need of free advice about how to win elections. Inevitably, the discussion turned into a debate about whether the party should appeal to the left-wing “base” or to centrist “swing voters.”
The answer, of course, is that the Democrats must do both. No Democrat (or Republican for that matter) can expect to win if the base is disaffected. Ask Al Gore or the first President Bush. But no Democrat, no matter how many true believers he or she energizes, can win without substantial support from moderates and independents. Ask John Kerry.
So the question becomes, which group — moderates or base members — is more likely to compromise its preferences and/or be deceived into believing that the party reflects them. Traditionally, and especially when a party has been out of power for a while, that group is the base. Moderates have less reason to compromise because, by virtue of the ground they occupy, they have more options. Moreover, they tend to feel less frustration with the outcome of past elections.
That’s why those candidates who, since World War II, were able to lead their party out of the wilderness had, with one exception, a foot in the centrist camp at the time they were first elected president. I’m referring to Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Clinton, and Bush II. The exception is Reagan, but he was running in a time of stagflation and national humiliation. Moreover, the Republicans in 1980 weren’t very deep in the wilderness — they were coming off of only one defeat in an extremely close election.
What about the Democrats of today? In 2004, not being very deep in the wilderness, they focused on the base and tried half-heartedly to fool moderates by nominating a war protester and presenting him as a war hero. Expect more sophistication this time. Front-runner Hillary Clinton is working more than half-heartedly to get one foot (the foreign policy/national security foot) near the center. And even elements of the party’s hard core left are flirting with a centrist style candidate, Mark Warner. Indeed, the left’s attack on Clinton seems to have more to do with the fact that it can’t claim credit for her rise than on any principled desire to uphold the party’s ideological purity.
Selling Hillary Clinton as a centrist won’t be an easy task. Moreover, with the exception of Nixon, all of the above-mentioned candidates who led their party back into power had reasonably strong personal appeal and few sworn enemies at the time they did so. This is not the case with Hillary. But I doubt that any other Democrat can get closer to the center without either incurring the wrath of those whose support he will need to contend with Clinton or (equally fatally) receiving their embrace.