There's an old political saying that presidential candidates appeal to their parties' wings -- left for Democrats, right for Republicans -- in the race for the nomination and then appeal to the center in the general election campaign. It was put in canonical form by Richard Nixon, one of only two Americans our major parties nominated for national office five times (the other was Franklin Roosevelt).
The dozen or so already announced Democratic candidates seem to be following Nixon's rule, and with more reckless abandon than Nixon ever did. Maybe they figure that whoever gets the Democratic nomination will inevitably beat Donald Trump. After all, no one they ever talk to would vote for him.
But a skewed sample can produce misleading results. If President Trump's job approval hasn't risen above 44 percent level since March 2017, it has not fallen below 40 percent either this year or last. That's about where opinion was when he got elected. And remember that his national rating is depressed by 2-1 disapproval in California, which casts 10 percent of the nation's votes. He'll never win its 55 electoral votes, but in 2016 he carried the other 49 states and Washington, D.C., by 1.4 million votes.
Like his three predecessors at this point in their first terms, he seems vulnerable. But each of them was re-elected.
Despite this, Democratic presidential candidates have been going out on potentially shaky left-wing limbs, including the Green New Deal sketched out by the exuberant freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Endorsers include putatively serious candidates such as Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The idea is to ban net carbon emissions in just 10 years, which evidently means no gasoline-powered cars, no beef from methane-producing cattle and no passenger airplanes. AOC wants a national passenger rail network "so that air travel becomes unnecessary," as well as guaranteed jobs, free college and government-provided health care, all financed, it seems, by printing money.
Obamacare, passed nearly 10 years ago, is no longer enough for Democrats. In his 2016 campaign, Sanders called for "Medicare-for-all," and he and other declared candidates are echoing that this cycle. When asked about the large majority of Americans who are satisfied with their current health insurance, Harris said they shouldn't have to fill out forms anymore to get treatments approved. "Let's eliminate all that," she said, without getting into details. "Let's move on." More than 100 House Democrats are sponsoring a bill to do just that.
Then there is the issue of reparations for descendants of slaves, urged without much visible effect by longtime Rep. John Conyers and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose widely praised best-seller argues that America today is just as racist as ever, and always will be. Polls show this unsurprisingly unpopular, but Harris, Warren and fellow candidate Rep. Julian Castro have signed on for "some form" of reparations.
Support for legal abortion has been a Democratic staple for years. But Democrats have recently moved left to pass laws allowing it up to nine months. They did so successfully in New York and unsuccessfully in Virginia, after Gov. Ralph Northam suggested it would apply after birth.
That's an unpopular position, to say the least. For years, polls have shown majority support for legalizing abortion in the first trimester and prohibiting it in the third. But all six Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate voted against Sen. Ben Sasse's bill to ban ninth-month abortions.
Did this extreme position affect public opinion? A February Marist poll showed equal numbers, 47 percent calling themselves pro-life and pro-choice, a sharp change from January's 55 to 38 percent pro-choice advantage. Maybe this poll is an outlier, but maybe putting the spotlight on ninth-month abortions changed opinion.
An overwhelmingly pro-choice press has long covered for Democrats, refusing to explain that the "health of the mother" exception to abortion bans means (because "health" includes mental health) abortion on demand. Predictably, CNN and MSNBC ignored the Sasse bill vote, and media like Politico provided spectacularly biased accounts.
But liberal media doesn't have a monopoly on megaphones anymore, and Donald Trump has shown himself capable of using invective, ridicule and serious argument to attack extreme positions, as he did Hillary Clinton's on abortion. He has no compunction about raging impolitely against what liberals insist is politically correct.
Democratic presidential candidates, perhaps isolated in liberal cocoons, don't seem to understand their vulnerability on issues like ninth-month abortions and the Green New Deal. They assume their media friends can rescue them. Maybe not.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.