It’s said that if you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, and if you’re not conservative by middle age, you have no brain.
By this standard, our Democratic presidential candidates have lost their minds.
Thanks to Lincoln Chafee’s recent entrée into the 2016 primary, it would seem that a majority of the Democratic Party’s expected contenders are former conservatives who converted to liberalism later in life. That’s what you’d guess from their shifting party affiliations, at least: Chafee, James Webb and even Hillary Clinton all once proudly called themselves Republicans. (Rounding out the field are Bernie Sanders, a socialist senator who has traditionally called himself an independent, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley.)
At first blush, this might reflect poorly on the Democratic Party by making its talent pool appear so shallow that it must poach politicians from across the aisle. But in truth it’s much more damning of the GOP.
First, some background:
Clinton, today sometimes caricatured by the right as a pinko commie, was once president of her college Republican Club, according to her autobiography. And she was not just any flavor of Republican: She was a proud “Goldwater girl,” after the canonically conservative U.S. senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater.
“I liked Senator Goldwater because he was a rugged individualist who swam against the political tide,” she writes, describing donning a straw cowboy hat emblazoned with “AuH20” in the senator’s honor. She began her conversion to liberalism relatively early, though, completing it by the end of her studies at Yale Law School (where she met Bill, with whom she worked on Democrat George McGovern’s presidential campaign).
For Chafee, the transition arrived much later in life. Like Jeb Bush, his high school classmate, Chafee comes from a Republican dynasty. His great-great-grandfather and great-great-uncle both were Rhode Island governors; another great-great-uncle was a U.S. senator. And of course Chafee’s father served as both governor and a U.S. senator for the state. All these forebears were members of the Grand Old Party, as was Chafee himself as mayor of Warwick and then successor to his father’s Senate seat. Until, that is, he defected in 2007. He later won a gubernatorial race as an independent and rebranded himself as a Democrat in 2013.
The lower-profile Webb, a former U.S. senator from Virginia, has not yet announced his candidacy, but he formed an exploratory committee last year. He aligned himself with Republicans for most of his adult life and served as secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan (with whom he appears in a photo on his Web site). After growing disillusioned with President George W. Bush’s military policy, Webb ran for, and won, a Senate seat in 2006 as a Democrat.
So what’s the deal with all these turncoats?
Clinton seems to have simply acquired her new ideology once she gained some distance from her Republican upbringing. But for Chafee and Webb, the transformation seems to have been less a result of shifting views than shifting goal posts. The candidates themselves didn’t get more liberal; the conservative party these moderates once identified with got radically more conservative.
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.
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