According to Peter Wehner, the Democratic Party has moved far to the left while the Republicans have stayed pretty much where they were. The New York Times gave him a thousand words to make a shockingly disingenuous case for his claim, Have Democrats Pulled Too Far Left? But that title gives entirely the wrong impression, because it is not a question. Wehner is convinced of it. And by cherry picking issues and creatively starting the clock at the presidency of Bill Clinton, he sounds sorta reasonable. The problem is that his argument would only be convincing to readers of The Wall Street Journal editorial page — because they already believe such nonsense.
Wehner’s main argument is that the Democratic Party has moved back to being as liberal as it was before Clinton. This is supposed to be some terrible thing, because one of the things that all conservatives know is that the Democrats lost three presidential elections (1980, 1984, and 1988) because it was too liberal. As I’ve discussed to the point of exhaustion: this narrative is wrong. The Democrats lost those elections because the political science fundamentals were in the Republicans’ favor: the economy was bad in 1980 and then good in 1984 and 1988. What’s more, Clinton won in 1992 because the economy was bad, not because he was conservative and had a “Sister Souljah moment.”
But is the modern Democratic Party more liberal than it was under Bill Clinton? In some ways it is. But this isn’t because of some great lurch to the left. It is because times and evidence have changed. Wehner pointed out that the Democrats have turned against Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies. Yep. That’s because they have been terrible for the nation. Also: Clinton has turned against them. Democrats have also turned against Bill Clinton’s end of welfare as we have known it. Again: that’s one that has long been shown to be a failure and only ever looked like it worked because we were in the middle of a stock bubble created economic boom. In addition, you can add Obama being more liberal on things like gay rights, where the entire country has moved left. Finally, Clinton did not make as big a deal of global warming as Obama does — I wonder why! But that’s the extent to which Obama is more liberal than Clinton.
Wehner also noted that Clinton lowered the capital gains rate and Obama raised it. Yes, but Clinton lowered it to 20% and Obama raised it to 20%. Nothing is said of the fact that Clinton raised the top federal income tax rate from 28% all the way up to 39.6%. Obama only allowed it to return from 35% back up to 39.6% — while allowing all the lower income tax brackets to stay lower than they were under Clinton. And then, Wehner noted that Obama created Obamacare. Fair enough. But Clinton tried to create the even more liberal Hillarycare — and failed. So how is it that Obama is more liberal than Clinton?
And then, as though Wehner can’t write so much as transmit his conservative id onto paper, he switched his discussion to the recent UK elections. According to him, the Labour Party lost because it “ran hard to the left.” Again, this is the kind of nonsense that is believed only by those who get their “news” from The Wall Street Journal editorial page. The Labour Party ran a decidedly centrist campaign, promising (very much like Democrats in the US) to be Conservative Lite. Wehner also mentioned that the election gave the Conservative Party its first outright majority since 1992. Yes, but with 36% of the vote — one of those oddities of supposedly democratic political systems.
As for how far to the right the Republicans have moved: he’s not even right on that account. He starts the clock at Clinton, so basically the big move right had already happened. But even still, as recently as 2008, the Republicans wanted to do something about global warming. As recently as 2006 they wanted to do something about immigration. On the issue of abortion, the Republicans have largely become absolutists, even while claiming that Obama’s position has somehow moved left. Republicans are now for giving more money to farmers and less food to poor children. Wehner’s entire argument is based on a very selective reading of history. It’s shocking that this guy has a job.
What comes across loud and clear in Wehner’s article, however, is his desperation. Anytime a conservative comes out in public trying to save liberals from themselves, you can be certain that it means that said conservative is very scared. And that is because conservatives long ago learned something that most liberals still don’t understand: you don’t need to win elections if you can move the political playing field far to your side. The fact that Wehner doesn’t get laughed out of polite society for claiming that Obama is a liberal firebrand shows just how successful the Republican Party has been at moving the playing field far to the right. The last thing he wants is for extremely moderate candidates like Hillary Clinton to take up any actual liberal — and popular — policy positions. So I’m glad to see him sweat. But I cannot say why The New York Times thinks it is appropriate to give such a disingenuous, nervous fool this very valuable exposure.
I wrote this yesterday morning. I didn’t think that Wehner’s article would cause so much of a stir, but at this point, it looks like everyone has written about it. The consensus is the same: Wehner is an idiot. But I thought Ed Kilgore had a good take on it, The Tired Old “Both Sides Getting More Extreme” Meme. He noted that since Wehner is a non-crazy Republican, he has to make these kinds of arguments to justify staying in the party.