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Robert Reich begins: "If 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."

Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)
Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)

After the Midterms

By Robert Reich, Robert Reich's Blog

25 October 10

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

f 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 2000 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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Republicans 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 is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written twelve books, including "The Work of Nations," "Locked in the Cabinet," "Supercapitalism" and his latest book, "AFTERSHOCK: The Next Economy and America's Future." His 'Marketplace' commentaries can be found on and iTunes. your social media marketing partner


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+30 # JCM 2010-10-25 18:52
The Real Republican Ideology

Mitch McConnell the Republican senate minority leader said today, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

There’s the real Republican ideology! To hell with the economy, to hell with unemployment, to hell with the deficit, to hell with the middle class, to hell with the country, the most important thing we want is to win!

Are we only pawns to them in their quest for power? Do they care more about politics and winning than restoring our country? Do you really want these unpatriotic bastards back in control?
+3 # Jorge 2010-10-26 00:00
If the Repugs win big in November 2010 and want to stop government in its tracks or promote fascism then it is time finally for the Green Party to come to power. Not for Obummer to move to move to the middle.
-5 # john henry 2010-10-26 15:08
JCM, Right on! Here is a source of great inspiration for the POTUS. Don't budge!
+14 # m5-mike 2010-10-25 22:09
You knew the answer before you asked the question. Of course, the electorate chattel are merely pawns in the Repugnicans quest for power. But the power is not for them to wield, not for Karl Rove, but for their corporate bosses. Always has been so.
+9 # Ed McC 2010-10-25 22:20
I thought he was in the Center already, make that to the Right!
+4 # DofG 2010-10-26 00:24
On the face of it, democrats seem to have a difficult time matching (so to speak) the “axiomaticism” of republican negative rhetoric with the positives of good policies. In other words, e.g. the republicans will talk incessantly about the tri. plus dollar deficit on Obama's watch (which is true!) But democrats don't seem to have the collective ability to articulate the necessity of the deficit, in a time of recession, in a manner that resonates with the public's own day to day experiences. This can be done simply by focusing the public on the idea that the government is in debt because of their own eroding wages, which translates to less revenue etc., all due to republican policies. This is also confirmed by the fact that many people are now compensating their monetary shortfalls with credit card debt. Who in the middle class would argue this truth?

Obama told the democratic caucus that good policy equals good politics. However, that's difficult to do, like Sen. Mary Landrieu, when fear is your counselor. In her case, she is willing to sacrifice the ecosystem (and everyone else)in the name of jobs which depends on that very ecosystem.

Fear is the darkness!
+2 # Hali Fieldman 2010-10-26 11:47
My oversimplified version of the differences Reich speaks of here is that Dems/lefties tend to be capable of nuanced thought; Rs not so much (I did say "oversimplified "). To the extent that is the case, Dems overcomplicate their arguments. Just say "the Bush tax cuts have been in place for nearly ten years; don't you think they ought to have worked [the way Rs claim they do] by now?" The common perception of the mess we're in now is that before Obama, "I had a house/job/healt h insurance (fill in the blank) two years ago; now I don't. Must be the Dems' fault." Asking people to turn against the failed policies of the past doesn't work when actual reasoning is required even to understand what is meant.

I won't even try to apologize for my cynicism.
0 # jlohman 2010-10-26 01:40
And if the R's are going to take over both houses, let's have them do it by throwing all incumbents out. That will send an important message to them all.
+4 # Jim Capatelli 2010-10-26 01:50
Great column. But Reich needs to fix two dates so that he doesn't inadvertently undermine his own credibility: Clinton's party lost seats in 1994, not 2004. And Carter made the 1980 election about nothing, not the 2000 election.

Other than those two minor errors, this was a spot-on column, pinpointing the problem very well.
+7 # Progressive_Patriot 2010-10-26 04:04
What this fails to mention is that mainstream media has pushed the "center" so far to the right that people who are called "centrists, like Joe Lieberman, are flaming right=wingers that are tripping over Republicans in their effort to be more right wing.

If Obama were to "move to the center" he'd be more left wing than he has been, and it would serve the Repbulican'ts right if he did that. If the Repugs win this election, Obama should refuse to sign anything they pass ... meaning that they would need a two-thirds majority in BOTH houses to override his veto.
+5 # Ben 2010-10-26 07:14
I agree, go farther to the left and make the Banana Republicans explain what they intend on doing. Now the President will be seen as the guy defending regular Americans for a change. This midterm will be determined by very small margin races anyway and the GOP will only have hit its peak.
-11 # rock 2010-10-26 08:01
". . . even though Presidents aren't really responsible for it (the economy)." This is about the only sensible think Rob has to say.
I wonder if he is man enough to admit that the only way Clinton and Obama got elected was by tying the Presidents Bush to slowing economies? Shall we talk about cynicism?
+5 # mary c. decker 2010-10-26 08:27
Thanks to Mr. Reich for a column that every Democrat MUST take to heart. In fact, I plan to read it aloud at the Cherokee County (Texas) Democratic Party Club meeting on Thursday night.

Texas Democrats' failure to lay the political groundwork described here makes it much harder to elect the exceptionally well-qualified Bill White Governor-or to elect any of the other well-qualified Democrats running for a variety of offices across this state.

Mary Charlotte Decker
+4 # Dave N 2010-10-26 09:21
Hit this one out of the park. Yes Clinton back off health insurance reform and helped move the center to the right to get something done, anything on the plus side before the next election. President Carter on the other hand did what was right for the nation and accepted a one term office. Let use hope Mr. Obama follows the example of a courageous man and push through his agenda during the lameduck session so they cannot be undone after 2012.
0 # pratibha 2010-10-26 10:14
Right on, Robert Reich!
+1 # fredboy 2010-10-26 11:57
An excellent summary.
Let's remember, as we approach the mid-term elections, that the Republicans have fumed about jobs, housing, and so much more. They wrecked the ship of state from 2000-2008, then handed the banks and Wall Street $700 billion in unmarked bills (that went who knows where), then bitched about bailouts.
So we expect miracles from them. And if they don't produce, we'll run them off like cur dogs in 2012.
+2 # cho 2010-10-26 15:16
according to the republicans, 50% of the people in this country pay no taxes. yet, 50% of the people get entitlements. this argument should be about wages, not taxes. and besides, wouldn't that mean that 50% of the tea-partiers don't pay taxes, and if so, what are they mad about? the republicans get the people to vote against their best interest by getting them mad about things that either don't exist or don't matter. and they do it well! that is what the democrats need to counter, the fearful ignorance of 50% of the people.
+1 # Big Lou 2010-10-26 18:46
What all of you have failed to address is that the Democratic Party is loosing for the simple reason that it has failed to be inclusive with the majority of Hispanics. Here in Miami, Florida well over 220 Democratic members were purged of the local party and the majority were minorities.
+1 # Left-RightCycle 2010-10-27 12:27
I agree with Reich's 3 factors why Dems. have been caving in like cardboard in a hurricane the past 4 decades or so, while Repubs. stand tough (compl. programs vs. simple ideology; fair-weather fans vs. disciplined soldiers; and easily-poofed idealism vs. hardened cynicism).
Well, if all that wasn't enough already to explain why today's Amer. political system is by far the most conserv. 'democracy' in the western world, I have another, 4th factor. In fact, if one looks back any further than the 1970s, it is readily apparent that America's polit. system didn't always have such a 'conservative' reputation.
Perhaps this is because 'the system' moves in long-term cycles, of appr. 100 yrs. or so, give or take a few- 30 for full-blown 'conservatism'; 30 for full-blown 'progressivism' ; with 20 yr intermediate 'ages of transition' between them. After all, 'democratic societies' are not supposed to be able to turn on a dime, like you'd flick a lt. switch. "Manufacturing Consensus" does take a little time.
Here's a skeletal sum:
1984-2015 NeoCon Corp-Imperial
1965-83 Manufactured crises turn right
1930-1964 Prog. Golden Age
1915-29 Manuf. crises turn left
+1 # tanis Fletcher 2010-10-27 13:19
Alll people who will vote Republican this election seem to fail to understand, the money behind the candidates comes only from people who want to cash in soon. People like the collection donors from U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers who will not commit another cent to the poor people who are presently taking their lead after election day. Win or lose, its all a gamble with those guys. You lose.
0 # Charles LoPresti 2010-11-01 20:20
Left-Right Cycle might enjoy another take on cycles of history. Check out "The Fourth Turning" - What the cycles of history tell us about America's next rendezvous with destiny. By Strauss and Howe, Broadway Books, NY, 1997. Strauss and Howe discuss history in terms of 80-year cycles, but it's the same idea. Enjoy, or maybe it will be read and weep ...

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