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September 20, 2007

Those Conservative Democrats

Paul Krugman hits on a favored hobbyhorse of mine, the media's tendency to report Republican wins as conservative triumphs while Democratic wins show centrism on the march.

it’s quite strange how the magnitude of the Democratic victory has been downplayed. After the 1994 election, the cover of Time showed a charging elephant, and the headline read “GOP stampede.” Indeed, the GOP had won an impressive victory: in House races, Republicans had a 7 percentage point lead in the two-party vote.

In 2006, Time’s cover was much more subdued; two overlapping circles, and the headline “The center is the new place to be.” You might assume that this was because the Democrats barely eked out a victory. In fact, Democrats had an 8.5 percentage point lead, substantially bigger than the GOP win in 1994.

Of course, there's a formidable corps of media-savvy Democrats whose careers are based off spinning every Democratic victory as an uprising of moderate, swing voters. Mark Penn, the DLC, Third Way, and all the rest are always available for a quote or some post-election insta-analysis. Meanwhile, Grover Norquist will happily expound on the import of the most recent Republican wins. So Republican wins get the Norquist spin, while Democratic wins are interpreted, at least in part, through the lens of professional moderates. This led to the bizarre post-2006 analysis in which Democrats like Heath Shuler, who wanted to repeal NAFTA, were suddenly centrists. It's silly, but it serves various folks agendas, and the rest of the party is so scared of being called liberal that they think it's a good thing to be spun this way.

September 20, 2007 | Permalink


I wonder if it has more to do with the story the media still likes to tell that after several decades of Democratic dominance, Conservatism is the new rebellion. A big Republican win in '94 validated the idea that Democrats were old and moldy and a new, young, vibrant Republican party was winning converts from hipsters tired of the old guard. When the Republicans' fortune reversed, sticking to the fable required that the media told us not that Democrats were making a come-back, but only that the rebellion was losing some steam.

Posted by: Cody | Sep 20, 2007 11:09:05 AM

Ezra Klein probably has a pretty good idea as to what's going on here. A lot of Democrats are driven by a combination of personal self interest and interest in a conservative agenda. The rest are traumatized children. What we have is a lack of real leaders. We have plenty of people in leadership roles, but none of them have proven strong enough for these times and deal with the problems both within the party and without.

Posted by: soullite | Sep 20, 2007 11:09:20 AM

Okay... but. I think one thing worth pointing out is that this kind of frame pisses off Republicans too - Democrats "move to the center" while they "attract conservative fringe." Which is worse? Second, there's really no getting around the fact that Jon Tester, Jim Webb, if not Heath Shuler (though I think he embodies this too) are not liberals, and don't come from normally liberal distrcts, certainly not as I've come to understand the term. I think we should be glad that "broadened our appeal" is the headline from the last election, not "turned out more of the angry left." We're not going to be the majority party by insisting that there's only one way to be a Democrat; and if the GOP wins by insisting there's only one way to be a Republican, that still doesn't make it so for us... but really, I think what we've seen in this last election is that the "there's one way to be a Republican" thing has pretty much hit its wall, and it's all downhill from here. What probably is coming is moves by some moderate, centrist Republicans to, yes, broaden their appeal. And they'll succeed, if we keep insisting on complaining that words like "moderate" and "mainstream" make us feel dirty and cheap. It's really not as bad as all that.

And by the way "centrism on the march" isn't Krugman's point - his point is that the press does to minimize the breadth of the Dem victory, something that I do tend to agree with, but I have to say, I'd rather fly under that radar than offer a big fat target.

Posted by: weboy | Sep 20, 2007 1:00:05 PM

Isn't a more simple explanation that mainstream Democrats appear "centrist" to elite editors and producers while mainstream Republicans strike them as "conservative"?

Posted by: James Joyner | Sep 20, 2007 1:18:46 PM

"Isn't a more simple explanation that mainstream Democrats appear "centrist" to elite editors and producers while mainstream Republicans strike them as "conservative"?"

Watch out, Jim, that sound like a totally unserious Chomskian analysis of media! None of that around here!

Posted by: Bill Simian | Sep 20, 2007 1:50:53 PM

In light of your observations, what then do you make of the Senate votes today to reject an end to the war and censuring Moveon? Progressive power?

Posted by: JackD | Sep 20, 2007 4:05:07 PM

Most of those on the left constantly complain that liberals are actually centrists and those on the right are off on the fringe. Now that the media illustrates that perspective, we see complaints that they haven't talked the election up as a far-leftward lurch.

Posted by: Jim | Sep 20, 2007 6:39:24 PM

Krugman, as is his wont, neglects to point out that the Dem victory, while impressive enough in the House, was by a smidgeon in the Senate, and on the War, with the re-election of Lieberman, in the Senate was not a victory at all.

Krugman should stick to economics, and Frank Rich to Broadway reviews. As someone mentioned, they should put a Ron Brownstein on the OpEd [instead of two second-stringers].

Posted by: daveinboca | Sep 20, 2007 11:48:02 PM

the Dem victory ... was by a smidgeon in the Senate

Actually, the Democrats won every single "toss up" race in the Senate except one -- Tennesee -- and swung a Senate heavily in favor of the Republicans (remember, they had a 54 or 55 seat majority) over to the Democrats.

So while their majority is held by a smidgeon, the magnitude of their victory was actually quite large.

Posted by: Tyro | Sep 21, 2007 9:49:48 AM

Another difference: 1994 was a realignment, with a lot of conservative Democratic districts and states switching to Republicans. 2006 was a shift of the median by several points, moving red states to purple and purple states to blue, but there was nothing really dramatic and unexpected equivalent to Tennessee switching parties for both senators and a governor. Only in New Hampshire, this time.

Posted by: Brittain33 | Sep 21, 2007 1:19:17 PM

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