Every four years, loud voices in the media advise the Democratic presidential candidate to abandon progressive stances and occupy the political center. With Sen. John Kerry having emerged as the presumable nominee, the pundits are once again issuing the same prescription.
Time magazine’s Joe Klein wrote (4/12/04) that Kerry needs to be bold: “The ideal step would be to make [Republican Senator] John McCain his choice for vice president and announce a government of national reconciliation composed of moderate Democrats and Republicans.” Klein recommended making a “radical move to the middle, a campaign that looks and sounds different from the usual partisan claptrap.”
Over at Newsweek (4/12/04), political reporter Howard Fineman had the same advice. In a column based on what anonymous “wise guys” are saying, Fineman says Kerry needs to craft “a coherent, centrist vision.” As Fineman puts it, “There’s room in the middle, wise guys insist.” 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?” Fineman has the cure: Kerry 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.”
(Incidentally, the claim that Kerry has “the most liberal voting record in the Senate” is dubious. National Journal–2/27/04– ranked him as having the most liberal record in 2003–a finding based on candidate Kerry’s votes on only 25 out of the 62 votes that the publication ranked as either liberal or conservative. In a more comprehensive, less subjective ordering of senators by voting–voteview.uh.edu–Kerry was the 25th most liberal voter, right in the center of the Democratic Party.)
And New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote on March 27 about his political dreams: “I want to wake up and read that John Kerry just asked John McCain to be his vice president.” Friedman explained that’s the only way to tackle the country’s problems, “with a bipartisan spirit and bipartisan team.”
The notion that the Democrats’ problem is that they are too far left has been conventional wisdom for so long (Extra!, 9/92) that it’s worth noting that this is not the only possible diagnosis. 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, a Democrat who picked an anti-abortion running mate, or ran by touting support for limits on welfare–are not guaranteed to pick up enough support from the center to make up for diminished support from their own side.
Both Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 took the pundits’ move-to-the-right advice–with little notable success. “Democrats’ Platform Shows a Shift From Liberal Positions of 1976 and 1980” was a New York Times headline in 1984 (7/22/84). The selection of conservative Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as Dukakis’ running mate, wrote David Broder at the time (Washington Post, 7/14/88), “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.