After the Midterms: Why Democrats Move to the Center, and Republicans Don’t

voters lined upIf Republicans succeed in taking over the House and come even close to gaining a majority in the Senate, expect calls for the President to “move to the center.” These will come not only from Republicans but also from conservative Democrats, other prominent Dems who have been defeated, Fox Republican News, mainstream pundits, and White House political advisers.

After the 1994 midterm, when Dems lost the House and Senate, Bill Clinton was told to “move to the center.” He obliged by hiring the pollster Dick Morris, declaring the “era of big government is over,” abandoning much of his original agenda, and making the 1996 general election about nothing more than V-chips in televisions and school uniforms.

It happened in the 1978 midterm when Dems lost ground and Jimmy Carter was instructed to “move to the center.” He obliged by firing his entire cabinet, apologizing for the errors of his ways, and making the 1980 general election about absolutely nothing.

Oddly, though, after Republicans suffer losses in the first midterms they pay no attention to voices telling them to move to the center. If anything, Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes moved further right.

Could it be that Republican presidents understand a few things Democrats don’t? For example:

  • There is no “center” to American politics. The “center” is merely what most people tell pollsters they think or want at any given time. Trying to move to the center by following polls means giving up on leadership because you can’t lead people to where they already are.
  • By the first midterm the public is almost always grouchy because the president wasn’t a messiah and didn’t change the world. No single president has that kind of power. The higher the expectations for change at the start of an administration, the greater the disillusionment.
  • Presidents’ parties always lose the first midterm elections because the President isn’t on the ticket, and the opposing party has had time to regroup and refuel. It’s always easier for the party on the outs to attack — and to mass troops for the assault — than for the party inside to defend.
  • The economy trumps everything else, even though presidents aren’t really responsible for it. So when it’s bad — as it was during the first midterms of Carter, Reagan, and Clinton — voters penalize the president’s party even more than usual. When it’s very bad, the electoral penalty is likely to be that much larger.

Why are Democratic presidents so much more easily intimidated by the “move to the center” rhetoric after midterm losses than Republican presidents?

Because Democrats think in terms of programs, policies, and particular pieces of legislation. It’s easy to reverse course by compromising more and giving up on legislative goals. Bill Clinton never mentioned the words “health care reform” after the 2004 midterms.

Republicans think in terms of simple ideas, themes, and movements. It’s far harder to reverse course on these (look what happened to the first George Bush when he raised taxes), and easier to keep them alive: Republican presidents just continue looking for opportunities to implement them.

Republicans are also more disciplined (ask yourself which party attracts authoritarian personalities and which attracts anti-authoritarians). This makes it easier for them to stay the course. Their base continues to organize and fulminate even after midterm defeats. Democrats, on the other hand, are less organized. Electoral defeats tend to fracture and dissipate whatever organization they have.

Robert ReichRepublicans are cynical about politics from the jump. Political cynicism fuels them. Democrats are idealistic about politics. When they become cynical they tend to drop out.

Message to Obama: Whatever happens November 2, don’t move to the center. Push even harder for what you believe in. Message to Democrats: Whatever happens, keep the courage of your conviction and get even more active.

Robert Reich

Republished with permission.


  1. Elaine says

    Reich – What do you mean the President’s have nothing to do with the economy? The very first thing he did was insist the 787B tarp bill be passed to keep unemployment down. Then he makes his first speech in Europe calling Americans arrogant, dismissive and derisive. I believe the description fits him to a T. No Leaders of the greatest Nation in the World puts it down like that especially on foreign soil. Holder calls us Cowards. Obama keeps spending money and anyone with any common sense knows you cannot spend your way out of debt. He creates all kinds of BS programs instead of cutting back on them. Then he starts going to China, Japan, Russia and all over the world borrowing money until now we can only pay back the interest. He bails out banks and auto makers and all kind of people that should have been allowed to work it out themselves or fail. So now you think this is not his fault. He spends money on Air Force One plane trips just to travel the world for nothing. Even to take Michelle to New York for a play. He has parties with expensive entertainers, lots and lots of booze, expensive dinners but when the Prime Minister from Israel was here that one time he left him sitting telling him he can roam the White House while he goes has dinner with Michelle. Insulting. He has the basketball players, all sports players at the White House entertaining them, especially while the BP Oil Spill was going on, entertaining them was more important. He puts a 30B stimulus out there for small businesses which is some kind of trick. If any small business tries to accept any of that they will be tricked into debt with the government just like the auto makers. He does not like small business or corporations or any kind of business. When he was a Community Organizer he took money from the government to give to the poor. That is why he wants to spread the wealth. He has got us right at 14T in debt. That is 14,000,000,000,000.00 dollars. That is more then any other President from Washington to Bush. And you say it is not his fault. He has taking over everything. It was like Senator Byrd told him you are doing nothing but making power plays. Too bad he wasn’t younger, he would have given him a fight worth watching. There are no more Democrats left. They are all Progressives, Radicals, Socialists, Communists, Marxists, Fascists.
    He claimed this is what he surrounded himself with in college and now all of his czars are the same thing and working behind closed doors doing his dirty deeds. Cass Sunstein, one of his Czars, states that all of us have a little Bart Simpson in us and can be led around. Arne Duncan, his safe education czar, believes children should be taught about same sex partners and is a child molester himself. Obama is not the kind of American he claims to be.

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