How often have we heard both Democratic and Republican political "experts" reciting the conventional wisdom that during primary contests, candidates of both parties must play to their respective base voters and then shift toward the center during the general election campaign? Does anyone even challenge this edict?
The first problem with this is that it implicitly suggests that all presidential candidates are first and foremost politicians who will cater their policy agenda to whatever extent necessary to win their party's nomination and the general election. Perhaps I'm somewhat Pollyannaish, but I reject the cynical view that all politicians are, in the end, political prostitutes.
I am not saying that candidates shouldn't do their best to package their messages in the most palatable and attractive form to voters; that goes without saying. But what about their substantive message -- what they really stand for?
Well, that depends on what they stand for.
Exit polling consistently shows that nearly twice as many Americans identify themselves as conservative than as liberal. Even without that data, we know that Democrats must be convinced this is true, because most of them run as moderates in national elections.
Even President Obama, who is anything but a moderate, attempts to package his radicalism in conservative language. He doesn't, for example, admit his contempt for the free market; he goes out of his way to redefine capitalism to encompass his socialistic leanings and his fondness for government and business partnerships. And, to shift attention from the unpopularity (and failure) of his ideas, he demonizes people and groups to make it a contest between good and evil (as he defines those) rather than between competing ideas.
Ronald Reagan decisively won his two presidential elections by being himself -- a conservative -- not by pretending to be something he was not. Yes, that was three decades ago, but Republican presidential candidates can still successfully run as mainstream conservatives; they can better afford to be honest about who they are than can Democrats because of Americans' general conservatism.