I used to think it was possible — likely, even — that Elizabeth Warren might wrestle the Democratic presidential nomination from Hillary Clinton. My logic (hardly uncommon) was that a lot of liberal voters were going to take a second look at Hillary’s less-than-progressive record on economic issues one of these days, and conclude that they’d rather back a robustly left-wing, banker-hating populist than a former Wal-Mart board member currently making a living giving $20,000-a-pop speeches to Goldman Sachs executives.
The reason I don’t think that anymore, however, is because I’ve realized the modern American left doesn’t actually care about economic issues all that much. Indeed, one of the most interesting ideological shifts over the last decade or so has been the steady eclipse of traditional left-wing economic concerns — inequality, labor rights, progressive taxation, corporate regulation, etc. — by what we now call “social justice” issues — LGBT rights, anti-racism, multiculturalism, feminism, secularism/atheism, drug legalization, and so on.
Hillary, that proud glass-ceiling shattering identity-politics icon, has put a lot of effort into placing this kind of stuff at the centre of her brand. As secretary of state, she made the “promotion of equality for gay people a core value of U.S. foreign policy” and reformed the rules of the State Department bureaucracy to make it one of the country’s most LGBT-friendly employers. Active efforts at outreach towards the African-American community — who deserted her for Barack Obama in 2008 — have helped her regain a nearly 90% approval rating with black voters. She’s endorsed a so-called “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, and viciously denounced voter ID laws. On pot legalization she’s been at worst agnostic, and has certainly left the door open for an Obama-style “evolution,” should the winds begin to decisively blow in that direction.
What all this has to do with Republicans should be clear. As we’ve all discussed ad nauseum, the GOP can only win the presidency in 2016 by doing one of two things: winning more support from minority voters — who are mostly all liberals — or winning over white Democrats — who are entirely all liberals. And if the essence of American liberalism is increasingly “social justice,” then it obviously behooves any would-be Republican presidential candidate to make inroads on that front.
And it’s been happening. Albeit in a bumbling, typically awkward Republican sort of way.
Mike Huckabee, who is fast emerging as the GOP’s 2016 dark horse, has given a few speeches in recent months in which he’s attempted to subvert the narrative of the so-called “Republican War on Women” by claiming that no, it’s the Democrats who are the real anti-feminists.
Most infamously, at a January conference of the Republican National Committee, the former governor denounced Democrats for promoting the idea that American women “are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.” Republicans are waging a “war for women” to protect them from state-dependency, he declared proudly.
It didn’t go over well, for the simple reason that there’s rarely any political benefit to be gained by a Republican saying anything about birth control other than “I’m for it.” Huck’s subsequent efforts at women wooing entailed telling Salon magazine that “equality doesn’t mean sameness.” It was about as well-received.
A different tent-broadening strategy has been pursued by Jeb Bush, who, in the wake of Governor Christie’s subsumption by the overrated “bridgegate” scandal, has emerged as the leading moderate, consensus choice among the Republican Party’s moneyed elite.
Bush’s appeal to the left has mostly entailed tacking a progressive course on Latino issues — which he, as a Spanish-speaking ex-governor of a Latino-heavy state with a Latino immigrant wife — is presumed to be naturally adept at, not unlike his border-state brother. In the past, Bush has loudly asserted the need for his party to “change the tone” on their immigration rhetoric, a tone-change which he himself demonstrated last week when he dubbed illegal immigration an “act of love” undeserving of vindictive criminalization. Sure, it’s a crime in theory, but not like a crime crime, he said. It’s a “different kind of crime.”
Bush’s rhetoric — which no progressive could possibly find fault with — was interesting in that it exposed the strategic paradox of a “more liberal” GOP. In the aftermath of his comments, the right wing of his own party jumped all over him, and Bush has now probably been inescapably tagged as the leading “soft on illegals” candidate in any future Republican primary. Yet Nate Silver doesn’t think that matters much, and notes that Republican voters as a whole are actually much softer on illegals than popular lore would have you believe. It all really comes down to what primary voters think — and they’re not always known for being the most representative slice of the electorate.
Case study three is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who’s gone furthest of all in explicitly trying to rebrand himself as a fresh, 21st century Republican whose independent opinions defy traditional stereotype. Paul seems to believe his famed libertarianism (and rejection of dogmatic GOP partisanship) makes him most suited to bridge America’s left-right divide, though his esoteric take on the philosophy has probably made the quest harder than it should.
Speaking before liberal audiences in places like Berkeley U, Paul’s preferred pitch to non-Republicans is to play up his credentials as a skeptic of the military-industrial complex and surveillance state, blasting the constitutionality of drone strikes and the NSA with language that would sound at home in a Glenn Greenwald column. And it seems to be going over well; at Berkeley his anti-spying tirade — which included name-dropping famed FBI victims MLK and Muhammad Ali as a way of race-shaming America’s first black president — received a standing ovation.
Yet while positioning himself as solidly anti-war isn’t likely to alienate those foreign policy leftists who rose to loud prominance during the Bush years, the question is how many of today’s liberals are willing to place concerns about surveillance and imperialism over identity-politics issues on which Paul’s record is decidedly less progressive.
Unlike many more doctrinaire live-and-let-live libertarians, Paul is not neutral on matters like gay marriage and abortion; he opposes both. And though the son certainly lacks the Confederate apologism baggage of his father — openly bragging before black audiences that his party, not the Democrats, freed the slaves — one of Paul the Younger’s most haunting legacies to date was an unsettlingly ambiguous position on the Civil Rights Act during his 2010 Senate campaign. Libertarianism is a fine something-for-everyone ideology. But you have to be consistent in applying it.
It’s obviously unfair to criticize Republicans for trying and stumbling, as opposed to not trying at all. The fact that all the leading GOP presidential candidates at the moment are at least trying to moderate their party’s tone and brand in the eyes of those voters they need the most is admirable, and indicates the party is indeed more adept at bending and evolving than smug Democrats — with their constant predictions of a party “extinction” are willing to admit.
Yet at the same time, there’s a difference between genuine outreach to minorities and liberals born from genuine empathy and understanding, and merely trying to cleverly repackage a set-in-stone agenda whose fundamentals you have no interest in altering.
No one’s going to out-progressive Hillary, but Republicans have to offer a candidate capable of co-opting at least a portion of her natural base.
Plenty of Democratic voters are open to an alternative, and it doesn’t have to be Elizabeth Warren.