Jun 1 2004

Move to the Right!

Pundits' advice for Kerry has a familiar ring

With John Kerry having emerged as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, prominent TV and print pundits are peddling the same campaign advice they give Democratic candidates every four years: Move to the right, abandon progressive stances and occupy the political center.

At Newsweek, political reporter Howard Fineman (4/12/04) counseled Kerry to craft “a coherent, centrist vision.” Citing anonymous “wise guys,” Fineman declared, “There’s room in the middle.” To Fineman and his unnamed experts, “Kerry can’t occupy the center if he’s defined as a mere liberal. He has the most liberal voting record in the Senate. What to do?”

This claim about Kerry’s voting record is dubious. National Journal (2/27/04) ranked him as the most liberal senator in 2003–a year when Kerry voted on only 25 out of the 62 bills that the publication scored as either liberal or conservative. In a more comprehensive, less subjective ordering of senators by votes–available at voteview.uh.edu–Kerry was the 25th most liberal voter, right in the center of the Democratic Party.

But Fineman has the cure for Kerry’s imaginary ailment: The candidate should “run ads in battleground states reminding voters that he was a prosecutor and that he voted for welfare reform in 1996, a brave (for Massachusetts) stand that drew picketers to his home.”

Time magazine’s Joe Klein (4/12/04) had his own prescription for Kerry to make a “radical move to the middle, a campaign that looks and sounds different from the usual partisan claptrap.” “The ideal step,” wrote Klein, would be to name Republican Sen. John McCain his running mate. (McCain, though beloved by centrist media pundits, is himself no centrist; he’s the fourth-most conservative senator, according to the ranking at voteview.uh.edu.)

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman shares Klein’s ideal, writing on March 27, “I want to wake up and read that John Kerry just asked John McCain to be his vice president.” Friedman explained that the only way to tackle the country’s problems is “with a bipartisan spirit and bipartisan team.”

The notion that the Democrats’ problem is that they are too far left has long been conventional wisdom for the media–but voters don’t necessarily agree. Many elections are won by the party most able to energize its base, which is why the Republicans have several times won the presidency with candidates who quite consciously moved away from the center, toward their party’s ideological pole. Candidates who alienate their base–for example, Democrats who pick anti-abortion running mates, or run by touting their opposition to welfare programs–are not guaranteed to pick up enough support from the center to make up for diminished support from their own side.

Pundits like to point to the supposed electoral benefits of Clinton-style “triangulation” as evidence that moving to the right helps win elections for the Democrats. But the Democratic Party lost control of Congress and many statehouses during the Clinton years, in part because the Democratic faithful were unimpressed by the party’s shift to the right.

Both Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 took the pundits’ move-to-the-right advice–with little notable success (Extra!, 9/92). The selection of conservative Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as Dukakis’ running mate, wrote Washington Post scribe David Broder at the time, “sent an unmistakable message to the activist constituencies of the Democratic Party that the days of litmus-test liberalism are over.” Of course, after both Mondale and Dukakis were defeated in landslides, the conventional wisdom was that they hadn’t moved to the right far enough.

The script might be the same this year. The New York Times (4/11/04) devoted a whole story to the notion that appearing with Sen. Ted Kennedy was a liability for Kerry. Even some Democrats were worried, according to the Times–though the paper quoted no Democrats actually saying this.

Kerry seems to be heeding the media’s advice, however questionable; an April 16 New York Times report recapped his center-right pitch to the Democratic Leadership Council, a corporate-backed group dedicated to moving the party rightward. The Times noted approvingly that Kerry sounded less like the “outraged, populist scourge of special interests” he had been earlier in the campaign. The piece failed to include anyone who might question a move-to-the-right strategy; outside of Kerry’s quotes, readers only heard from the DLC’s Al From and Sen. Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat who is supporting Bush.

Perhaps moving to the right has been the conventional media wisdom for so long, some reporters have forgotten there’s another point of view. Time magazine expressed the press’s attitude in a May 17 headline: “Kerry to the Center!” That exclamation point is the media trying and failing to contain their enthusiasm.