The politics of 2015 reflect the differing moods of liberals and conservatives. Liberals are frustrated at the moment, but are ever more confident in their ultimate victory. Conservatives are even more frustrated, and they suspect that they are going to lose no matter what. It does not have to be this way.
The shift among liberals is impressive. Barack Obama first captured the imagination of many Americans (not all of them on the left) by arguing that decency and common sense resided in both Red and Blue America. In his 2008 campaign, Obama made multiple concessions to public opinion. He was careful to lie about his opposition to granting legal protections to the unborn. He lied about supporting a health insurance purchase mandate (and he attacked Hillary Clinton from the right on the issue), and he lied about how his health care plan would lead to the cancellation of some existing insurance plans.
Overall, Obama was an unusually good candidate who tried to project moderation. Now we have a group of Democratic presidential candidates who are less talented than Obama (at running for office) and who are trying to seem like leftists rather than moderates.
It isn't just Hillary Clinton moving to the left on crime, trade, and the Keystone pipeline. She is an opportunistic politician. What is surprising is that the socialist in the race is being forced to move left on gun regulation and immigration policy. If Joe Biden were to enter the race, he would likely have to shed his (relative) moderation on abortion policy and come out for partial-birth abortion, federal funding of abortion, and federal funding of partial-birth abortion.
In 2008, Obama's moderation was rooted in the sense that he could lose even under ideal circumstances. The Democratic radicalism of today is rooted in the idea that Democrats can only lose in the case of a fluke. If Democrats are going to win the White House anyway, then there is less need for concealment or compromise.
Matthew Yglesias has gotten some criticism for celebrating Clinton for being “more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas,” and for being the kind of person who “believes in asking what she can get away with rather than what would look best.” Yglesias argues that liberals can count on winning the presidency, but not the Congress, so Clinton is the sociopath the American left needs.
Embedded in that analysis is the assumption that, even under ambiguous conditions, the marginal voter will vote for the Democratic presidential nominee regardless of what that Democratic nominee actually does. Yglesias was writing in defense of a candidate whose favorability rating had gone underwater (more people rated her unfavorably than favorably) largely as a result of an email scandal in which her explanations of her email policies as Secretary of State had repeatedly collapsed. The assumption is that it doesn't matter how many lies she gets caught telling. What are people going to do? Vote Republican?
It is unlikely that this argument will work especially well with Democratic voters. Even if Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, it will be in spite of—not because of—her ethical lapses. But Yglesias actually shares many of the assumptions of the supporters of Bernie Sanders. If liberals felt political constraints, then Sanders pushing Clinton to the left would increase the risk of the election of a (more conservative) Republican. Since neither cynical liberal supporters of Clinton, nor idealistic liberal supporters of Sanders see much prospect of general election defeat, they are both willing to take more risks (both ethical and ideological) in order to get more of what they want after the 2016 election.
Populist conservatives also seem willing to take some risks, but they have less (possibly no) hope of victory in the foreseeable future. Protest candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson can be conduits for the frustration of voters (or, to be more accurate, poll respondents), but they will never be president, and most of their supporters probably know it.
A similar dynamic is at work in the House of Representatives. Dissident conservatives have forced out Speaker John Boehner and his heir apparent Kevin McCarthy. Paul Ryan is now being pushed by the Republican leadership. To the extent that immigration policy is a proxy for the divisions between Republican elites and populists, McCarthy was worse than Boehner, and Ryan is worse than McCarthy. The dissident conservatives might block Ryan, too, but there is still no endgame.
Whether at the presidential or congressional level, populist conservatives are stuck with either media shows or rearguard actions. If liberals feel like they are limited by what they dare, populist conservatives feel like the system is so stacked against them that they are going to lose anyway. So why not lose loudly and defiantly?
It doesn't have to be this way. Populist conservatives are in a stronger position within the Republican party than they think. A majority of Republican poll respondents favor candidates that are opposed by the Republican elites. As Henry Olsen pointed out, many of these antiestablishment Republicans are working-class moderates, but it is the challenge of populist conservatives to reach out to these disaffected voters. These voters don't want to vote for an establishment Republican candidate (or a Democrat) and it is up to populist conservatives to find the common ground.
Conservatives are also stronger in the country than either the left hopes or the right fears. Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out that, on many key issues, the public is not that much farther to the left than it was when Republicans were routinely winning presidential elections. Opinion polls indicate that the share of the nonwhite population holding (moderately) center-right policy views is significantly larger than the share that voted for Romney. According to one opinion poll, Ben Carson is even beating Hillary Clinton by double digits.
Carson will not beat Clinton (or any other Democrat) in the 2016 general election. Carson is a decent and accomplished man, but he is no more likely to be president than Donald Trump is. But Carson's lead over Clinton is the sign of an opportunity. Confident liberals and despairing conservatives are making the same bet. They are both betting that conservatives will never reach out to moderate working-class whites and moderately conservative nonwhites. They are betting that conservatives will never become more discerning in what candidates they support. It is up to populist conservatives to shake off their despair, and go about showing that liberal confidence is misplaced.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.
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