One of the reasons I dislike the agenda of "progressive Rebublicans" so much is because current Democratic power in Washington is mostly "of the moment." Americans demonstrated Bush-fatigue by the end of 2008. Partly due to the fading urgency of September 11, but also weariness from the costly price of defending against radical Islam, Barack Obama was able to combine demands for change with an undeniable charisma to win the presidency.
Still, what we saw was a classic short-term swing to the party out of power. The Democratic victory fell well short of a long-lasting partisan realignment in the electorate. As I've noted many times here, Republicans may very well be consigned to a couple of electoral cycles in the minority. The party will work on reorganization and rejuvenation, while the Democrats build a record of big government overreach. Thus, to hear people like David Frum, Meghan McCain, Christine Whitman, and now Colin Powell argue that GOP needs to "move to the center" and compromise bedrock conservative principles makes little sense. The chatter among these "establishment" Republicans simply feeds into the Democratic meme that leftist philosophy forms the natural ideological framework for the coming decade of 21st century politics.
Thus I got kick out of Gary Andres' new piece at the Weekly Standard, "The Center-Right Trap: The Limits of Ideology in Politics."
Citing political scientist James Stimson and data from the American National Election Studies, Andres notes that "Republicans did not lose the 2008 election because they were out of step ideologically with average Americans." The argument, based on solid research, which won't make (empirically-minded) folks on the left very happy (like Chris Bowers and David Sirota). The key theme Andres stresses is that most Americans are mostly non-ideological in orientation, and the key goal for each party is to consolidate the hardline activists at the base while expanding appeal to the roughly 20 percent or so of the electorate who make "electoral decisions based on criteria other than just ideology":
So tell that to the next pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, or pro-amnesty Republican who tells you that the GOP is too conservative.
The way to victory for both parties seems pretty clear. It's about winning on the margin and realizing Americans are not homogeneous in the way they conceptualize politics. So the key is to retain and mobilize those who agree and think ideologically, and persuade enough of the rest. But who are those people? Here again Stimson has an interesting take. He calls them the "scorekeepers." He doesn't conjecture about the exact size of the group, but it's probably 20 percent of voters--clearly enough to swing any election. They don't ask if a politician's or party's views are "correct." They ask, "Will they do a good job?"
These are the voters Republicans lost in droves in the last two cycles. Thinking that winning them back means simply "moving to the center" is a prescription for more electoral failure.