The Moderate Republicans of the Democratic Party

“I don’t know that there are a lot of Cubans or Venezuelans, Americans who believe that. The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.”
~Barack Obama, 2012 interview (via DarkSkintDostoyevsky)

Not just a moderate but a moderate Republican. His argument was that GOP has moved so far right that he is now holding what was once a standard position among Republicans.

This is supported by his having continued Bush era policies, further legalized the War on Terror, and deported more immigrants than any president before, even a higher rate than Trump. His crown achievement was to pass Romneycare healthcare reform that originated from a right-wing think tank, while refusing to consider that most Americans being far to his left were demanding universal healthcare or single payer. Heck, he even expanded gun rights by allowing guns to be carried on federal land.

The unstated implication is, in order to occupy what once was Republican territory, that has involved the Democrats also moving right. But this didn’t begin with Obama. Mick Arran notes that, “In ’92 or 93 Bill Clinton said, in public, on the record, that his admin would be a ‘moderate Republican administration’. It was.” It’s easy to forget how that decade transformed the Democratic Party. This is made clear by E.J. Dionne jr. in 1996 piece from the Washington Post (Clinton Swipes the GOP’s Lyrics):

The president was among the first to broach the notion of Clinton as Republican — albeit more in frustration than pleasure. “Where are all the Democrats?” Clinton cried out at a White House meeting early in his administration, according to “The Agenda,” Bob Woodward’s account of the first part of the Clinton presidency. “I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans. We’re Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”

To be fair, this shift began much earlier. What we call Reaganomics actually began under Jimmy Carter. This change included ushering in deregulation. From CounterPunch, Chris Macavel writes that (The Missing Link to the Democratic Party’s Pivot to Wall Street):

As eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an aide to President Kennedy, posited, Carter was a Democrat in name only; his actions were more characteristically Republican. He observes: “[T]he reason for Carter’s horrible failure in economic policy is plain enough. He is not a Democrat — at least in anything more recent than the Grover Cleveland sense of the word.” Grover Cleveland, it must be remembered, was an austerity Democratic who presided over an economic depression in the late 19th century. According to Schlesinger, Carter is “an alleged Democrat” who “won the presidency with demagogic attacks on the horrible federal bureaucracy and as president made clear in the most explicit way his rejection of… affirmative government…. But what voters repudiated in 1980 [Carter’s defeat] was not liberalism but the miserable result of the conservative economic policies of the last half dozen years.” (Leuchtenburg 17)

It was Carter who, as the first Evangelical president, helped to create a new era of politicized religion. He was a conservative culture warrior seeking moral reform, as part of the Cold War fight against Godless communism — of course, conservatism meant something far different back then, as it still could be distinguished from the reactionary right-wing. Strange as it seems, Carter was a conservative who wanted to conserve, although he didn’t want conserve a progressive worldview. His austerity economics went hand in hand with an antagonism toward welfare, unions, and leftist activists. New Deal Progressivism was mortally wounded under the Carter administration.

As fellow Southerners, Carter and Clinton were responding to Nixon’s Southern Strategy by rebranding the Democratic Party with conservative rhetoric and policies. There was a more business-friendly attitude. In place of progressivism, what took hold was realpolitik pessimism but with a friendly face.

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8 thoughts on “The Moderate Republicans of the Democratic Party

  1. This is something I have thought on before. The Democrats moving right was not of their choosing. Over the length of my lifespan, I have watched the Republicans march ever further rightwards. Much like in physics, Nature abhors a vacuum. With the GOP moving rightwards, one of two things could happen. A third party could pop up in between them and the Democrats, or more likely, the Dems would get pulled rightward also.

    As the Republicans moved right, they were bound to drop people. There are those who are very happy and secure in the centre, they do not want to make waves, they do not like being considered “radical” and perhaps, they like some systems of our government that the Radical right finds so distasteful, so they either became independents or joined up with the “other party” as there are a lot of people who need others who think like them.

    What will happen to this rightward trend? that depends on the Republicans. If they completely implode under Trump, we might see the Democrats becoming the new GOP and another party forming to the left of them. If they pull back from the abyss, then they will push the Dems back towards the left. Both ways will be painful, just one will be quick and the other will be done on the installment plan

    • Your thoughts are similar to my own. These patterns often go in cycles. We’ve just been in a period of rightward drift. But it will eventually go too far. And then their probably (and hopefully) will be a backlash forcing it left again.

      A new repeating of the cycle will reformulate the entire political spectrum. It’s not simply left vs right. We might be facing an even larger change in ideological framing, maybe at the level of a paradigm shift. It’s hard to know what that might mean.

      That is where it could get interesting. What Trump, via Bannon’s rhetoric, did was make campaign promises that were economically to the left of Clinton. Being informed of history, Bannon understood the power of populism combined with progressivism. With Bannon whispering in his ear, Trump promised to boost the economy, rebuild the infrastructure, and bring jobs back to America. As pale of an imitation as it was, Trump was trying to channel FDR’s ghost.

      The political order has been flipped on its head. It doesn’t matter that Trump didn’t mean what he said. The point is that many Americans voted for him because of what he said. And even more Americans would have voted for Sanders going even further with such economic promises.

      A third party that becomes a serious challenger might come from almost any direction.

    • I’m not sure he sold out. Even before he was elected, he didn’t exactly have a strong political record of left-liberal progressivism and social democratic positions. His politics have always been very much in line with the party eliite in the Democratic establishment. He is simply staying true to who he always. It’s just that many people were fooled because they paid more attention to his words than his deeds. But even in his words, he never made any promises similar to Sanders. His campaign speeches were hyperbolic demagoguery.

    • What it’s getting is more blatant. The plutocrats are no longer pretending to be anything else. They’ve come to believe they are untouchable. Years of protest movements have been silenced. Candidates challenging the status quo have been eliminated. And no one with wealth and power has been prosecuted for anything done wrong. This has given them a sense of total control. But this won’t last forever.

    • That gives them 5 years of supplies to survive inside the bunker. The English Civil War lasted 9 years, American Revolution War 8 years, French Revolution 10 years, Haitian Revolution 13 years, Vietnam War 8 years, and Afghanistan War 16 years now.

      Even if they could survive for decades in bunkers, what good would it do them? What would the ruling elite do after coming out of their bunkers when a new government has taken power or after the nuclear apocalypse has wiped out civilization?

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