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Morning Jay: Four Enduring Truths of American Elections

6:00 AM, Nov 16, 2011 • By JAY COST
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Those principles, however, admit of enough flexibility to enable the parties to modulate their campaign platform and message depending on the electoral circumstances. They regularly change issue emphases, sometimes (as in the case of the GOP “flip-flop” on tariffs) they can even change issue positions, and all the while they can still be consistent with their core values.

When, for instance, the Republican party was on the ropes in the 1930s, it remained the conservative party, but it nevertheless moderated its positions for the next couple decades as it tried to win back its base in the Northeast. When the party found an opening in the West and South, the latter for the first time in more than a century, it moved back to the right to appeal to the more conservative voters in those regions.

Recent history also contains such examples. After the Democrats were shellacked in the 1980s, Clinton offered to be a “New Democrat,” and after the Republican revolution seemed to have been repulsed in the late 1990s, George W. Bush promised to be a “compassionate conservative.” These are the kinds of modulations that are electorally expedient without betraying a party’s core philosophy of government.

In the end, this is a big way that parties go from defeat to victory: they really don’t alter their basic beliefs, but they refine their presentation of them, depending on the preferences of those swing voters in the center.


As mentioned above, the Democratic leaders and liberal opinion makers forgot these rules in 2009-2010. Too many of them believed that the 60-year political dynamic had suddenly been displaced, that a new age of Democratic dominance was at hand, and that the party should go about achieving its long-standing ideological goals.  Democrats passed an inefficient stimulus that favored party clients too heavily, then spent more than a year working on health care and cap and trade while real incomes declined and unemployment continued to soar. The public made them pay for their neglectfulness in the 2010 midterm.

Republicans cannot make the same mistake as the Democrats in 2012. What this means in practice is not that the party must forsake its conservative values, but rather it must find a nominee who can relate them to the practical worries of these non-partisan, non-ideological voters in the center, and make those voters believe that he will be the best choice for the future. Put another way, he must be a great salesman of conservatism to non-conservatives. And then in office, he must govern always with an eye to holding them in his voting coalition.

An ideological firebrand or a polarizer who alienates the political center will not do. Because, after all, the GOP’s opportunity next year is not thanks to an emerging Republican majority, but because the emerging Democratic majority the liberals were awaiting never happened. That means all those swing voters who backed Obama in 2008 are up for grabs, and the top priority of the GOP is now to find a candidate who can win them over.

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