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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

You Don’t Have to “Pivot to the Center” To Appeal to Swing Voters

There’s been a lot of argument since the Democratic convention as to whether in her acceptance speech Hillary Clinton “pivoted to the center” and potentially abandoned the progressive voters she appealed to earlier. I don’t think so, and I discussed this issue at New York:

Between the first and last days of the Democratic National Convention last week, there was a much-discussed change of tone. Monday was all about progressivism and unity between Clinton and Sanders supporters. Thursday was about the flag, and national security, and chants of USA! USA!

Now, it’s not surprising that folks with Bern marks on their psyches — who weren’t totally convinced by Monday’s unity display — got the willies from Thursday’s rhetoric. OMG, some doubtless thought. Here’s the Clintons triangulating again, and “pivoting to the center.” Progressives could be abandoned entirely by Labor Day!

Was there actually a contradiction between Clinton’s progressive gestures and outreach to Republicans in Philly? Is it possible to energize the base while persuading swing voters at the same time, without betraying somebody’s trust?

To answer that question, it’s important first to take a look at the nature of Clinton’s “outreach to Republicans.” Andrew Prokop put it well at Vox:

“If you look closer, it turns out that Clinton and the Democrats are indeed embracing the symbolism and tropes that the right has loved — but they really aren’t making policy concessions to win them over … Indeed, all of this imagery and rhetoric was deployed in service of an agenda that is remarkably liberal — at least when it comes to domestic and economic policy.”

Even on national-security policy, notes Prokop, Clinton didn’t really “pivot to the center”; she stayed pretty much where she has always been. But the heart of her persuasion technique was not about convincing swing voters she was something they did not think she was; it was about convincing them — and most definitely including Republicans — that Donald Trump was exactly what they feared he was.

In this respect, Clinton deployed a technique I used to call “Barbara Boxer centrism” (named after the famously combative liberal senator from California), wherein a politician “seizes the center” not by occupying it with any surprising or “moderate” policy proposals, but by pushing their opponents out of the center by constantly labeling them as extremist. It just so happens that Clinton’s opponent is an exceptionally good foil for this kind of attack. And so she does not really have to choose between “left” and “center,” or between base mobilization and swing-voter persuasion. He’s dangerously crazy is a message that serves both purposes equally.

You cannot get much better than that.

One comment on “You Don’t Have to “Pivot to the Center” To Appeal to Swing Voters

  1. Matthew Smith on

    At last, Democrats may finally be figuring this out. I would argue that there are three other ways progressives can appeal to mainstream America without modifying our liberal agenda:

    1. Adopt the language of patriotism, positivity, American exceptionalism (meaning simply America’s greatness and uniqueness), and religious conviction (for candidates who are religious; for example, relating progressive anti-poverty programs to the Christian idea of helping the poor). Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Obama—the three greatest political communicators of our time—mastered much of this, and the Democratic convention finally—finally!—seemed to catch on.
    2. Loudly voice support for blue-collar workers. At least since the New Deal, Democrats have always been the voice of the American worker. We gave America the 40-hour workweek, Social Security, paid vacations, and much more. Today we’re fighting for health care, a decent minimum wage, guaranteed sick pay, and affordable child care. These messages were strangely absent from the Democratic convention, while Republicans spoke almost exclusively to the white working class. Democrats must reclaim this ground!
    3. Don’t just attack Republicans, attack CONSERVATISM. We need to make ‘conservative’ a dirty word, the same way Republicans did for ‘liberal.’ We shouldn’t just quibble with Republican policies, we should undermine the very foundation of Republican ideology. We should be characterizing conservatism as
    * Outdated
    * Backward-looking
    * Contrary to American values of progress, equality, and personal freedom
    * Angry
    * Concerned more about the wealthy than about average Americans
    * Afraid of new ideas
    * Pessimistic
    * Stingy, hard-hearted, and callous
    * Fiscally incompetent (conservatives exploded the deficit twice under Reagan and Bush and experts say Trump’s proposals will do the same)
    * Unworthy of leading a great nation
    * More than a little nuts

    Liberals just suck at this. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Democrats haven’t figured this out. With Trump, we have a golden opportunity to label all of conservatism a farce. Let’s get started.


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