On Oct. 28, 1980, a beleaguered President Jimmy Carter stood on a debate stage with his Republican challenger, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Carter’s one chance to save his presidency depended on his ability to portray Reagan’s views as extreme. The best levers appeared to be Reagan’s criticisms of Social Security, but especially his vocal opposition in 1961 to a federal program to provide medical care to seniors — a plan that became law, as Medicare, in 1965.
With his characteristic pinched and humorless mien and preachy schoolmarm look, Carter noted that Reagan had begun his career by opposing the future Medicare program. As Carter spoke, Reagan laughed, and when it was the Republican candidate’s turn to respond, he said, “There you go again,” and went on to say that rather than opposing the concept of Medicare itself, he had actually preferred an alternative piece of legislation that was before Congress. (There is no evidence of such legislation at the time.) Carter’s charge drifted away, and with it, the election.
The process of reassurance continued, even into Reagan’s presidency. In fact, it was Reagan who, as president a year later, invented the term “social safety net,” to assure voters that his budget cuts to domestic programs would not eviscerate support for the “truly needy.”
As we observe the final days of the 2012 election campaign, I’m reminded of the difficulty Democrats have faced in their attempts to highlight the rightward turn the Republican Party has taken since Reagan’s rise. Even as Republicans have adopted positions that are increasingly unpopular with the American electorate, they have nevertheless managed to remain closely competitive in presidential elections. How have they done this? The question is particularly relevant as Mitt Romney, who committed to very conservative positions throughout the campaign, now seeks to move toward moderate positions that will resonate with voters in the final days before the general election.
While Republicans have marginalized their moderates, Republicans nominate presidential candidates with moderate histories like John McCain and Mitt Romney, then demand that they toe the conservative line and bring on running mates like Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan to lock in the base. It was McCain who memorably said in 2008 that, if his own immigration plan came to his desk, as president he would certainly veto it.
Voters want to believe that the Republican candidate for president does not really share, or would not really act upon, the party’s extreme views in such areas as abortion, immigration, international relations, taxes and spending. The slightest moderate noises are magnified by voters’ own wish that it be so. According to Robert Draper in The New York Times (July 5, 2012), Democratic pollsters have found that when they “informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed ‘ending Medicare as we know it’ — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.”
It is, indeed, hard to distinguish between a real moderate (such as Arlen Specter, who died on Oct. 14, or former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan) and moderate-sounding politicians. A long history of moderate Republicanism remains ingrained in our minds and clouds our view of the contemporary Republican Party. It was ingrained in my own mind growing up in New Jersey. Clifford Case, a moderate Republican, was my U.S. senator. In New York, Nelson Rockefeller was the popular Republican governor, and Jacob Javits was a well-loved Republican senator.
This is why the Obama campaign made the shrewd decision not to focus only on Romney as a “flip-flopper,” someone whose positions on issues such as abortion or Medicare seem to be constantly in flux. A politician who changes positions may seem safe if the change is in the moderate direction that voters prefer. While we like consistency in our politicians, we also like them to agree with us and to reassure us that they could not possibly hold such extreme positions as giving tax breaks to the rich while privatizing Medicare. Fortunately for the Democrats, Romney’s insensitivity to working Americans has provided a much more fruitful target than the hard-to-pin-down charge of extremism.
This analysis suggests that Republicans can remain competitive at the presidential level, as long as they nominate candidates who can seem moderate when they need to, and who reassure voters that the real changes in the Republican Party will somehow not affect them. The picture, though, is quite a bit different at the state level.
In the states, to the joy of Democrats, Republicans are far less cautious and have nominated some candidates who are obviously out of the mainstream. Democrats openly rooted for Republicans to nominate candidates like Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell in 2010; her bizarre campaign (including denials of witchcraft) helped keep the Republicans from winning a majority in the Senate. Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape,” have turned a sure Republican victory in Missouri against the vulnerable Claire McCaskill into a likely Democratic win. And Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown is being dragged toward defeat by his association with his national party, and therefore with candidates like Akin.
Democratic candidates have a stake in encouraging Republican radicalism at the state level. In 2002, Gray Davis helped Richard Riordan lose the Republican nomination by highlighting to Republican primary voters Riordan’s moderation on abortion. Davis then went on to win against the more conservative and much weaker Bill Simon. When Davis faced the moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger the next year in a recall election, he had no chance. So, while conservatives go after Republican moderates for ideological reasons, Democrats want those same moderates to lose Republican primaries for tactical reasons.
At this point, Democrats would rather face right-wing Republicans than Republican moderates. But, as unlikely as it seems today, it would certainly be better for the states and for the nation if real moderates somehow recovered their standing in the Republican Party. A moderate Republican party would force Democrats to compete to offer the best solutions, with both parties offering to solve problems, respect science and weigh real-world evidence.
Wishing, though, will not make it so, nor will a willingness to accept reassurance instead of real moderation.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.