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Heads They Win, Tails You Lose: For the Beltway Media, Even Democratic Victories Prove the Country is Conservative

Posted: 10/21/08 02:20 PM ET

We usually have to wait until after the Democrats emerge victorious at the polls for the Beltway finger-waggers to begin warning them not to be too ambitious, not to do too much, not to actually follow through on the proposals they presented to the voters. But this year, it's starting early: Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, penned a 3,300-word cover story warning that, as the subtitle says, "America remains a center-right nation -- a fact that a President Obama would forget at his peril." Because, God forbid, a progressive candidate who wins an election should actually keep the promises he made to the American people.

It's an interesting contrast to what happens when Republicans win. While Democratic victories are seen as signifying nothing about the electorate's fundamental beliefs, Republican victories are inevitably described as revealing profound sea changes in American ideology. When the GOP took over both houses of Congress in 1994, The New York Times wrote the next day, "[T]he country has unmistakably moved to the right." The Washington Post agreed, saying, "The huge Republican gains also marked a clear shift to the right in the country."

And after Election Day 2004, the Times intoned, "[I]t is impossible to read President Bush's re-election with larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress as anything other than the clearest confirmation yet that this is a center-right country -- divided yes, but with an undisputed majority united behind his leadership." The article was headlined, "An Electoral Affirmation of Shared Values." The Los Angeles Times agreed that the election proved voters "don't believe that the Democrats share their values." Chris Matthews wondered, "Can the Democrats ever connect with the country's cultural majority?"

Yet we heard nothing of the sort from elite media outlets in 2006, when Democrats retook both houses of Congress -- no grand proclamations that the country had moved left, no ruminations on whether conservatism was an electorally bankrupt ideology. Instead, the news media focused on a few conservative Democratic candidates who won seats in Republican areas, despite the fact that they were far outnumbered by the new Democratic members who held traditionally progressive positions.

In other words, when Republicans win, we're told that Democrats need to move to the center, because the country is too conservative for them. When Democrats win, on the other hand, we're told that... Democrats need to move to the center. Their victory must have been some kind of accident -- it couldn't have been because the public actually agreed with what they want to do.

So what kind of evidence does Meacham offer for his oh-so-familiar thesis? First off, he says, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton didn't accomplish everything they wanted to. Interesting -- but last time I checked, liberal programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Clinton's expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit remain pretty popular. And remind me how George Bush's 2005 attempt to privatize Social Security -- a longstanding conservative goal -- went.

Then Meacham gives us the oft-noted fact that when asked by pollsters, more people will call themselves "conservative" than "liberal." The problem with this is that people who know a lot about politics -- like journalists -- assume that ordinary people have the same interpretation of those terms as political junkies have. But the truth, as nearly a half-century of political science research has made clear, is that a significant portion of the public has little or no idea of what these terms mean in the political world. A third of the public can't even tell you which of the two major parties is the "conservative" one.

Meacham also argues that America is "center-right" because we're more conservative than most Western European countries, which is kind of like arguing that Kevin Garnett is a mediocre basketball player, because Kobe Bryant scores more points than he does. The American public is much more liberal than publics in almost every region of the world other than Western Europe. Does that tell us that we're fundamentally liberal, or does it tell us not much of anything?

Comparisons to our friends in Sweden aside, a look at the issue terrain at the moment shows a public firmly in the progressive camp. On foreign policy, on economic policy, on social policy, on just about everything, it's the progressive position that is more popular. The median voter in 2008 is pro-choice, supports civil unions for gay Americans (a position that seemed insanely radical only a decade ago), rejects the Bush foreign policy, supported the recent increase in the minimum wage, wants strong environmental protections, favors reasonable restrictions on gun sales, thinks the wealthy and corporations don't pay their fair share of taxes, and wants the government to guarantee universal health coverage. Does that sound conservative to you? And younger generations are more progressive than their elders -- in fact, it is the pre-baby-boom generation that is the most conservative on most issues. And they will only be around for so long.

There is another reason the country is likely to become more progressive over time: The presidency of George W. Bush has discredited conservatism for years to come.

With the exception of a reduction in the size of government -- something Republicans always promise but never deliver (consider that no one since Roosevelt spent more as a percentage of GDP than Ronald Reagan) -- conservatives got pretty much everything they wanted from George W. Bush. They got tax breaks for the wealthy, huge increases in defense spending, a bellicose foreign policy, two Supreme Court justices ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, a mania for deregulation of business, a Justice Department devoted to advancing the electoral interests of the Republican Party, a consolidation of power in the executive branch, lackadaisical enforcement of environmental regulations, constant efforts to undermine labor unions, and the list goes on and on. This administration has been conservatism in action, and the country couldn't be more disgusted with the results.

Conservatives are increasingly sounding like they're stuck in the 1980s, as they warn against the creeping tide of socialism and denounce Obama's tax plan as "welfare." You almost expect to hear John McCain take the stage to a pulsing Richard Marx tune, then start reciting lines from "Red Dawn." It may have reached its apogee when, in her debate with Joe Biden, Sarah Palin quoted Reagan on the danger that if we're not careful, one day we'll be telling our children and grandchildren about a time when America was free. What was Reagan warning against in that quote? The passage of Medicare, one of the most successful and popular programs in U.S. history, brought to you courtesy of big-government liberals.

When conservatives take stands like these, so far from the American mainstream, the Beltway acolytes of the Church of Centrism never seem to mind. Will a GOP defeat be greeted with columns by Jon Meacham and his ilk instructing Republicans sternly that they need to abandon their ideology and move to the center, lest they permanently alienate themselves from the public?

Don't hold your breath.

Paul Waldman
Media Matters Action Network