Matthew Yglesias argues today that "Democrats are learning the wrong lesson from Donald Trump."
If Trump is president, the thinking goes, it’s the ultimate proof of “lol nothing matters” politics. And if anything doesmatter, it’s riling up your base to go to war, not trimming and tucking to persuade precious swing voters....
This is, however, precisely the wrong lesson to learn from the Trump era.
It’s true that Trump is president, but it’s not true that Trump ran and won as an ideological extremist. He paired extremely offensive rhetoric on racial issues with positioning on key economic policy topics that led him to be perceived by the electorate as a whole as the most moderate GOP nominee in generations. His campaign was almost paint-by-numbers pragmatic moderation. He ditched a couple of unpopular GOP positions that were much cherished by party elites, like cutting Medicare benefits, delivered victory, and is beloved by the rank and file for it.
First of all: No, Matt, Trump is not "beloved by the rank and file" for rejecting Medicare cuts. It's true that the rank and file opposes those cuts. But the rank and files loves Trump because he makes you, me, kids in detention cages, and Jim Acosta cry.
But Yglesias's central point is that because some of Trump's positions weren't conservative, he wasn't a conservative overall. Given the fact that he race-baited Muslims and Mexicans, expressed agreement with the idea that women should face legal punishment for having abortions, and published a short list of monolithically corporatist and theocratic potential judicial nominees, it's credulity-straining to suggest that he actually was a moderate. He was a good liar -- waving an LGBTQ flag when he was about to crack down on trans servicemembers, promising universal health coverage at low cost when he would ultimately sign on to a lawsuit attempting to overturn Obamacare, after gearing up to sign bills that would do the same thing. He was no moderate.
But how was he perceived? Yglesias writes:
... voters saw [Hillary Clinton] as largely liberal on the issues. Trump was perceived as conservative, to be sure, but also as less uniformly conservative than Clinton was liberal.
And here Yglesias dodges the obvious problem with his argument: A serious poll shows that Trump was perceived as less conservative than Clinton was liberal, but was that actually true? Would Yglesias argue that Clinton actually was a liberal ideologue?
The lesson here is not that a winning candidate should be more moderate than his or her opponent -- a winner should just be seen as more moderate. The facts don't matter: In 1988, Mike Dukakis was a left-centrist technocrat and George H.W. Bush was the guy saying, "Read my lips -- no new taxes," but it was Dukakis who was perceived as the beyond-the-pale extremist. There was a similar dynamic in 2004, with an even more conservative Bush as the candidate.
Republicans start with an advantage in presidential races because the mainstream press prefers not to portray even ideologically extreme conservatives as what they are, while the conservative media depicts every Democrat as Chairman Mao and Joe Stalin.
Two extraordinary political talents -- Bill Clinton and Barack Obama -- were able to overcome this handicap. They actually made Republicans seem like the extremists, even though they weren't notably more moderate than Democrats who failed at this, and even though their opponents were no more wingnutty than the Republicans who'd won.
So that's the ultimate lesson: If you can paint a Republican as extreme, you can beat him. But if you're successfully stereotyped as the real extremist, you're in trouble, even if you're name is Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, or Hillary and you're not extremist at all.
Published with permission of No More Mr. Nice Blog