Since Election Day the great intra-Democratic debate over What Went Wrong has been dominated by two visions of how liberalism should be organized, identity politics versus economic solidarity....Before I got to the end of Douthat's column, I was guessing that he meant Democrats should tack right on social issues. That was an easy prediction:
This is an interesting and fruitful debate ... but it has been mostly about a debate about two different ways of being (sometimes very) left-wing. There has been much less conversation about the ways in which the Democratic Party might consider responding to its current straits by moving to the right.
For instance: Democrats could attempt to declare a culture-war truce, consolidating the gains of the Obama era while disavowing attempts to regulate institutions and communities that don’t follow the current social-liberal line. That would mean no more fines for Catholic charities and hospitals, no more transgender-bathroom directives handed down from the White House to local schools, and restraint rather than ruthlessness in future debates over funding and accreditation for conservative religious schools.That's classic Douthat. But he also thinks Democrats should move right -- not all the way, of course! -- on the social safety net, immigration, crime, and terrorism; "both identitarian and populist liberals" should "accept that open borders and desexed bathrooms and a guaranteed income and mass refugee resettlement will remain somewhat-radical causes rather than simply and naturally becoming the Democratic Party line."
I can understand why a conservative would want Democrats to reorient themselves in this way. But why would Democrats want to?
Because, Douthat writes, moving toward the center works:
It’s what Democrats did, slowly but surely, after the trauma of Ronald Reagan’s triumphs; it’s what Bill Clinton did after his 1994 drubbing; it’s what Rahm Emanuel and Howard Dean did, to a modest degree, on their way to building a congressional majority in 2006. And it’s also what Donald Trump did on his way to stealing the Midwest from the Democrats this year -- he was a hard-right candidate on certain issues but a radical sort of centrist on trade, infrastructure and entitlements, explicitly breaking with Republican orthodoxies that many voters considered out-of-date.But it's not what Republicans usually do. After Richard Nixon resigned, Republicans started their comeback in the late 1970s with the hard line on taxes represented by California's Proposition 13 in 1978. Two years later, the far-right Ronald Reagan won the presidency for the GOP.
Republicans lost the White House in 1992 -- and came back with two years later with Newt Gingrich's ideologically pure agenda. After the George W. Bush presidency, Republicans came back again by letting their angry-right Tea Party flag fly.
And is Trump heading to the White House because he ran as a "sort of centrist"? Yes, the populist talk had some impact, but his base was really inspired by the wall and the Muslim ban and the endless denunciations of "political correctness." He attacked Black Lives Matter and the media and Obamacare and the Clintons. He promised to torture and to "bomb the shit out of" ISIS. That was centrism?
And even if his deviations from GOP orthodoxy were what put him over the top, what explains the success of other Republicans, both in 2016 and in the last few election cycles? Douthat is right about this:
The Democratic coalition is a losing coalition in most states, most House districts, most Senate races; the party’s national bench is thin, its statehouse power shattered, its congressional leadership aged and inert. It has less political power than it did after the Reagan revolution and the Gingrich sweep.In terms of offices held at the federal, state, and local levels, the GOP is more powerful than it's been since the 1920s. Until Trump came along, the party got there with ideological purity, not with moves to the left.
It works for the GOP because incessant GOP brand-building, especially on Fox and talk radio, turns out voters in every election. Even the intraparty squabbling of the Tea Party era brought out the vote. Democrats claim to be the party of the have-nots, but their candidates tack to the center too much, in words and in deeds. So plenty of voters just don't believe they stand for what they say they stand for. By contrast, everyone knows that Republicans stand for God, guns, and political incorrectness.
Democrats don't need to moderate. Voters already believe that they water down their message. They need to persuade the electorate that they actually stand for something.