Opinion writer

Republicans are listening to the new Democratic voices — presidential candidates, newly elected members of Congress — and they are, at the same time, seriously freaked out and hopeful that there’s an opportunity to reverse their recent struggles:

Democrats, after two years largely spent simply opposing everything President Trump advocated, are defining themselves lately in ways Republicans are seizing on to portray them as far outside the American mainstream.

Casting Democrats as a scary and radical force is giving a fractured Republican Party a common thrust at a time when Trump’s standing even within his own party has started to dip.

For a long time, Republicans were used to beating the daylights out of easily frightened Democrats who were constantly trying to prove to voters in the center that they weren’t too liberal. We’re tough on crime, the Democrats would say. A war in Iraq? Sure, we’ll support that. Let’s just not talk about guns, okay? I, too, enjoy NASCAR and hunting!

Those days are over, and the Democrats in ascendance now offer a contrast to the past that is both substantive and stylistic. They aren’t hesitant to propose liberal policy solutions, and they don’t act as though they’re afraid of Republican criticism.

In response, conservatives are offering liberals the friendly advice that if they don’t tack toward the center, they’re doomed. Here’s a brief roundup of recent right-wing punditry along these lines:

  • If Democrats “really want to beat Donald Trump and outflank any independent challenge they should consider running a more moderate candidate,” says John Fund, on Fox News’s website. 
  • “The rapidly growing Democratic field has collectively moved so far to the left that it is about to fall off the edge of the political charts,” writes Michael Tanner in National Review. “In playing to his base, President Trump has left millions of voters up for grabs. Democrats appear set to make the same mistake.” 
  • “The more full of themselves the Democrats get, the more voters learn about this new breed of radical zealots,” writes Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “The less they are going to want to roll the dice with this crowd, and the more they’ll start to appreciate President Trump.”

And, of course, every new liberal idea will inevitably send us tumbling toward one destination: Venezuela. “Democrats now pushing many of the same socialist policies that destroyed Venezuela,” reads the headline of another story on Fox’s website. President Trump agrees that Democrats are becoming far too extreme:

But there’s a pattern developing: First, a Democrat proposes a new policy idea — such as Medicare-for-all or tax increases on the wealthy. Then Republicans say, “My god, are you insane? If we do this we’ll become Venezuela!” Then some polls are taken and it turns out that the crazy socialist idea is, in fact, extremely popular among the American public.

For instance, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) proposed a wealth tax on fortunes of more than $50 million, conservatives were aghast, crying that this was horrifying socialism. But the progressive group Data For Progress just polled the idea and found out that people supported it by a rather dramatic margin of 61 percent to 21 percent.

Likewise, a 70 percent marginal tax rate on income of more than $10 million, which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has proposed, garnered the support of 59 percent of respondents in one poll, which isn’t too surprising given that taxing the rich more is consistently one of the most popular ideas in American politics. And for years, polls have shown majorities of the public favorably disposed to Medicare-for-all.

You could quibble with one or another of those results, or argue that they’ll change if you alter the wording. But the point is that, on their face, these supposedly wacky socialist ideas Democrats are proposing are things Americans think are perfectly worthwhile.

That’s only part of the story, however. The fundamental premise of the conservatives’ warnings is that when voters go to the polls next November, they’ll be making an ideological judgment, and that if Democrats are too far from the center, they’re guaranteed to lose.

This is what political scientists call the Median Voter Theorem, which assumes that you can array both candidates and voters on an ideological scale from left to right, and the candidate closer to the median voter is the one who wins. The problem with the Median Voter Theorem is that, in the real world, it seldom works.

That’s because it’s just not how voters understand candidates and how they make decisions. Ideology plays a part, but if it was just about aligning their positions with the median voter, Republicans would not have won the White House at any time over the last few decades. That’s the irony of their advice to Democrats: Nobody knows better than Republicans how little relevance that ideology really has.

So many of the issue positions Republicans hold — tax cuts for the wealthy, opposition to increasing the minimum wage, dismantling environmental regulations, loosening oversight of Wall Street, outlawing abortion, privatizing Medicare — are deeply unpopular. They understand this perfectly well, which is why they run shrewd campaigns built on identity, not ideology, and capitalizing on their voters' higher propensity to turn out. The last presidential candidate who lost because the public judged him to be too far outside the mainstream was George McGovern, and that was nearly half a century ago.

That is not to say Republicans aren’t sincerely horrified when they hear someone such as Ocasio-Cortez suggesting higher taxes on the wealthy, or when they see all the Democratic presidential candidates advocating universal health coverage. But it’s not because Republicans actually think those policies will be electoral poison, let alone that they would turn the United States into Venezuela.

The reason Republicans are so frightened is the prospect that the American public might hear what Democrats are offering and say, “You know, that sounds like a pretty good idea.”

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Cory Booker is running for president. Here’s why it won’t be easy.

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s what should worry Republicans

Greg Sargent: Republicans are trapped inside one of Trump’s biggest lies

Catherine Rampell: The GOP has become the Soviet party