An hour ago I appeared as part of a panel on “Larry King Live,” discussing the presidential campaign with CNN’s Paul Begala and former Arkansas Senator Tim Hutchinson.
The most striking aspect of the conversation involved the asymmetry in language – there was much talk of the remaining Republican candidates (McCain and Huckabee) trying to claim the mantle of “true conservative,” but no discussion whatever of Hillary and Obama seeking to portray themselves as “true liberals.”
Why are Republicans trying to compete (as we have for months) as to which candidate best qualifies as conservative while Democrats never rush forward to identify themselves as liberal?
There are two explanations for this contrast, and both factors should encourage Republicans about our chances for November success.
First, there’s the obvious fact that “conservative” remains a positive word in America at large while “liberal” still sounds like an insult. In presenting Mitt Romney to CPAC, some of his supporters presented him as “a conservative’s conservative.” Even in the midst of the Democratic primary campaign, with furious competition for the party’s ideologues and activists, has anyone designated Clinton or Obama as “a liberal’s liberal”?
Today, Democrats generally prefer the term “progressive,” because polling shows it produces a more positive public response. But for the most part the candidates on the left try to evade and avoid all ideological labels – preferring to embrace the identity of post-partisan “problem solvers” and “agents of change” without ever specifying whether that change would push the nation to the left or to the right. Obama (like Mike Huckabee, actually) likes to say that he’s not concerned with “left or right, but more with up or down.” His signature phrase is that we “don’t live in red states or blue states, but in the UNITED States of America.”
In other words, Hillary, Obama and most other Democrats understand that there’s no liberal majority in the United States --- just as there’s no conservative majority. The old rule of thirds almost certainly applies: about a third of the voters see themselves as liberal, a third consider their outlook conservative, and a third say they’re “independent,” moderate or just plain confused.
However, among that third in the middle, the word “conservative” still strikes people much more favorably than the word “liberal” --- which is why John McCain isn’t afraid of being branded the conservative in the November race (in fact, he embraces the identity with enthusiasm) but neither Obama nor Clinton wants to claim the title “liberal.”
The other reason there’s more argument over the candidates’ ideological status on the Republican side than on the Democratic side reflects the long-standing “maverick” reputation of John McCain. Though his conservative record on core issues – support for the military, opposition to tax increases, smaller government, pro-life – has been consistent for a quarter century, his critics prefer to focus on his heresies on controversies like campaign finance reform or global warming. McCain’s life-time voting record (according to the American Conservative Union) is 82.3% -- meaning he voted on the liberal side of issues some 17.7% of the time.
Clinton and Obama, on the other hand, have virtually identical and similarly leftist voting records --- with an ACU lifetime rating of 8% for Obama and 9% for Clinton. In other words, rather than voting on the liberal side of issues 17.7% of the time (as did McCain), Senator Clinton supports liberal positions 91% of the time and Obama is a reliable liberal vote 92% of the time. (If nothing else, these numbers ought to rebut the idiotic and ignorant claim that “there’s no difference” between McCain and the top Democrats. They’ve parted company on issues more than 70% of the time).
Yes, McCain’s non-conformist streak may make his conservative critics furious, but it shows him defying his own ideological brethren just enough (less than 20% of the time) to make him credible in the public eye as an independent-minded straight shooter rather than a strident partisan or inflexible ideologue. In an election in which self-described independents will, as usual, determine the final outcome this image represents a decided advantage.
The recent attacks on McCain from the right may therefore actually strengthen him for November – adding to his reputation for courageous straight talk.
Any political consultant will tell you that words like “independent,” “defiant” and, yes, “maverick” produce positive responses from most voters. The word “conservative” also tests notably better than the word “liberal.”
If McCain therefore emerges from the current controversies with the image of an “independent conservative,” he’ll be strongly situated to make a credible run in November—especially if Republicans rightly identify his opponent (whichever opponent it might be) as an “ideological,” “automatic,” “inflexible” and “extreme” liberal.