But there are times when a badly flawed essay can nevertheless generate some interesting thoughts. Wehner seems mostly concerned about the presidency, and even Democrats in good standing would acknowledge that: a) Barack Obama is more liberal than Bill Clinton; and b) Hillary Clinton’s initial campaign pronouncements have her moving leftward on a lot of issues. Yes, Republicans have shifted even farther to the right, but the consensus in political science is still that Democrats have shifted to the left over the past few decades.
But here’s the thing: What if, at the presidential level, these party shift towards their respective bases are mutually enabling?
At the presidential level, the general presumption is that the Median Voter Theorem should hold — that is, in order to win, candidates can’t deviate too far from the median voter’s policy preferences, in order to ensure receiving a majority of votes:
This fits the conventional wisdom of the need for major party candidates to gravitate toward the center in the general election.
The thing is, political scientists can think of a lot of ways in which the median voter theorem might not hold. Thirty-five years ago, Thomas Romer and Howard Rosenthal pointed out that agenda-setters could exploit the differences between the median voter’s policy preferences and the actual status quo to articulate a new policy that comes as close as possible to the agenda-setter’s preferences. The key part of their finding is that the farther away the status quo is from the median voter, the more a partisan agenda-setter can propose an alternative that deviates from the center while still attracting a majority of support.
In presidential politics, the agenda-setters who matter are the party activists and funders, and an awful lot of them have more extreme positions than the median voter, or even the median voter within the party. And, as I’ve noted repeatedly in this space, the fierce competition on the GOP side is causing all of the candidates to shift ever rightward on foreign policy and many other issues. But as Romer and Rosenthal would note, the GOP’s sharp shift rightward enables the Democrats to move somewhat leftward while still attracting the median voter.
Conservatives might not like this, so here’s a narrative that might resonate more. If you postulate that President Obama’s policies are to the left of the median voter, then Republicans do not need to articulate perfectly centrist policies — they can articulate proudly conservative policies that are just a little closer to the median than Obama. The problem is that if GOP presidential candidates go too far in outbidding to please party activists, then this allows Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to shift even more leftward.
It’s possible that conservative Republicans are betting that the median American voter has also shifted rightward. Maybe that’s true. But the biggest problem with Wehner’s op-ed isn’t that he’s wrong about Democrats; it’s his assumption that Republicans are not shifting rightward. Simply put, in presidential politics, the farther the crop of GOP presidential candidates shifts to the right, the easier it will be for Clinton to shift slightly less to the left and still seem like the more moderate candidate.
This dynamic work in reverse: If Democrats shift too far leftward, it enables the GOP to move even farther right. Which makes me wonder if there’s a Straussian interpretation to Wehner’s op-ed. He’s not concern-trolling; he’s legitimately worried that a leftward-shifting Democratic Party will push the GOP so far rightward that Wehner will start to feel uncomfortable in his own party.