On problems ranging from health care to energy, they have retreated to a reflexive denigration of government and praise of unfettered markets aimed squarely at hard-core conservatives. Tellingly, the GOP hopefuls have broken with Bush primarily on the policies comprehensive immigration reform and the Medicare drug benefit that he consciously formulated to expand the party base. "It is a tired party and an uncertain party, and it is trying to reach back to ... the tried and true," frets Peter Wehner, the former Bush White House director of strategic initiatives who is now at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.Every two years the losing party has this exact same conversation: (a) move to the center to appeal more to swing voters, or (b) move left (right) in order to stay true to the party's liberal (conservative) heritage? My sense is that (b) is almost always the choice after the first loss or two, after which (a) finally wins out.
After being routed in 2006, many Republican leaders argued that the party lost voters in the middle because it had not been conservative enough, particularly on spending. That's the view the presidential candidates are now reflecting. Giuliani, even with his recent concessions to party conventions on such issues as taxes and guns, pushed against that consensus by stressing national unity and inclusion in his riveting speech to the social conservatives last weekend. But he is a (qualified) exception in a party that seems committed to betting 2008 on the high-risk proposition that the way to recapture the center is to turn further to the right.
This year, though, we're in a historically odd position. The Republican Party is still in stage (b), but to a smaller extent, the Democrats are back there too. The Democratic Party spent so long in stage (a) during the 90s, moving aggressively to the center after years in the wilderness, and the GOP moved so far to the right under Gingrich and Bush, that Democrats have the luxury of being able to move modestly to the left and yet still be moving relatively closer to the center than the Republican Party. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's like the GOP is moving right from 8 to 9 while the Democratic party is moving left from 6 to 6.5. The lunacy of the conservative base is providing a huge amount of cover for liberals to make some modest progress this year.
Said lunacy, of course, is best demonstrated by the fact that Brownstein correctly identifies Rudy Giuliani as the overall most most moderate major candidate in the Republican field. Rudy Giuliani!