APRIL 19, 2016 — Between the loose cannon Donald Trump and the ultraconservative Ted Cruz, Republicans have been doing their best to give the presidential election away. But it’s worse than that: They are doing their best to drive voters into the Democratic fold for years to come.
With their targeting of Muslims, hostility to immigration reform, rejection of climate-change science and opposition to same-sex marriage, the two threaten to sharply narrow the party’s slice of the electorate.
The question is: Will the Democrats accept the favor? It’s easy to overlook how they are putting their own political future in peril. Bernie Sanders is not likely to win the nomination, but his robust challenge to Hillary Clinton makes it plain that the Democratic Party has shifted leftward just as Republicans marched the opposite way.
Sanders, remember, is a self-styled democratic socialist who always ran as an independent because he considered the Democrats insufficiently progressive. At the outset, he was considered this year’s Dennis Kucinich — a preachy gadfly with no chance of winning. Yet he has come out ahead in 17 state contests, including eight of the past nine. In the process, he has exposed major weaknesses in Hillary Clinton’s appeal.
Though he is the older candidate, his support skews young. Sanders leads among men and whites, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found, but his most notable feat is beating Clinton among Democratic voters younger than 50 by a 2-to-1 ratio. This is the party base of the future.
He also rouses more fervent ardor than she does. Even if Clinton wins this time, there is a leftward riptide that she will have trouble resisting, on the campaign trail or in office.
Not that she’s trying very hard. Her husband recaptured the White House for the Democrats after three consecutive losses by candidates perceived as too liberal on big issues such as taxes, crime and Communism. Bill Clinton was a master of playing to the center, providing an attractive option to independents and “Reagan Democrats.”
Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 with a similar approach. Barack Obama followed suit in 2008, stressing his support for more troops in Afghanistan, the conservative pedigree of his health care reform and the sanctity of the Second Amendment.
But Hillary Clinton is doing something very different, in an obvious effort to appease the Occupy Wall Street faction. Eight years ago, she strongly identified with her husband’s record. This year, she has said the 1994 crime bill he signed was too harsh, rejected a Pacific trade agreement she had previously lauded and endorsed a $15 minimum wage enacted in New York. She has also tried to sound like populist firebrand Elizabeth Warren on banking issues.
Maybe she can veer back toward the middle if and when she gets the nomination. But motivating Sanders’ supporters to get to the polls will be crucial, and that need will put strong pressure on Clinton to stay in the left lane.
So it looks as though there will be a gaping hole in the middle of the political spectrum, with centrist voters forced to choose between an increasingly liberal Democratic Party on the one hand and, on the other, Trump or Cruz — who are anathema even to relatively moderate Republicans, much less independents.
The last Republican to win, George W. Bush, called himself a “compassionate conservative.” George H.W. Bush emphasized his own “kinder and gentler” approach. Adjectives such as that have gone out of style in the GOP.
But the Democrats also have contributed to the polarization. Sanders has nothing good to say about capitalism. And it’s hard to imagine Clinton echoing what President Clinton said in 1996: “The era of big government is over.”
Looking at the two likely Republican nominees, centrist Americans ask: “What about us?” So far, the Democratic response is: “What about you?”
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