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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

GOP’s ‘Asymmetric Polarization’ Muddles Ideological Categories

At The Washington Post Catherine Rampell’s “The GOP’s shifting goal posts” adds some clarity to defining political ideology of candidates in the age of Republican gridlock.
Rampell begins by noting that current Democratic presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee are former Republicans (less convincing is her including Sen. Bernie Sanders in the used-to-be-conservative category because he is a self-described “Independent” and Martin O’Malley doesn’t really fit it very well). Rampell argues that these Democrats matured into a more thoughtful liberalism. But it’s a very different dynamic for Republicans:

Polarization in the House and Senate is now at the highest level since the end of Reconstruction, according to at least one measure. And it’s true that both parties have moved outward. But the polarization has been asymmetric, with Republicans having moved much further right than Democrats have moved left.
Today’s Republican Party is one that would likely consider Richard Nixon — who created the Environmental Protection Agency, championed affirmative action and advocated for national health care — too liberal. Even Reagan — who granted amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants, raised taxes 11 times and was willing to negotiate with the Soviets — might not survive a Republican presidential primary today.
If there isn’t room for Nixon and Reagan in today’s shrunken GOP tent, there definitely isn’t space for centrists such as Chafee and Webb. Webb’s views are eclectic, including a dose of economic populism, support for abortion rights, skepticism about immigration and opposition to gun control laws. Chafee likewise supports abortion rights and gay marriage. He also voted against the Bush tax cuts — on fiscally conservative grounds, mind you, since he thought they would irresponsibly widen the deficit. In a speech that I attended in 2003, Chafee lamented the rise of “right-wing fanatics” but said he truly believed Republican moderates would regain their clout, so he was committed to sticking with the party of his childhood. They didn’t, so he didn’t.
In other words, it’s wrong to say these Democratic presidential hopefuls left the Republican Party. The Republican Party left them.

Rampell’s case for “asymmetric polarization’ ought to help political journalists avoid getting hustled by Republican-inspired false equivalency scams. But it probably won’t, since so many political reporters seem to be too lazy, biased or conflict-averse to use her insights to edit out the memes they have been spoon-fed by the GOP.
One of these days a genuine Republican moderate — not a pseudo-libertarian who opposes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the very existence of unions and modest environmental protection measures — will come along and probably do pretty well. Today, however, we have so many Republican presidential candidates that they can’t figure out how to hold a functional debate, and not a one of them has the guts to stake out a moderate course. It’s a sad commentary on a once-great political party.

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