The Best Defense Is Being Offensive: The Republican Attack Machine and Moderate Voters

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Dorf on Law post this past Friday, I renewed my occasional discussion of the puzzling relationship between self-described political moderates and the modern Republican Party.  There, building on my most recent Verdict column, I asked whether anyone who thinks of herself as a Republican moderate would ever leave the party, if she has not already done so.  There are plenty of people who have abandoned the Republicans over the years, to become either Democrats or independents, because of the hard right turn that the party has taken in the last three-plus decades.  Even so, there are people who still insist that they are not on board with the extreme conservative views that now define their party, yet who are evidently comfortable enough to stay in the Republican fold.

My conclusion in that post, a conclusion that by its nature must be tentative and subject to revision, is that even the nomination of Donald Trump might not drive those people out of the party.  The party's insiders are easy to explain, because they have too much to lose by walking away from even a fully corrupted party apparatus.  The people with nothing personal to lose are more interesting, however, because they claim to be upset by what they see in the party, but they are not so upset that they are willing to walk away.  It is those people whom I am trying to understand.

One possibility is that such people are a tiny fraction of the electorate who really do not matter as anything other than a curiosity of political anthropology.  If so, then there must be some explanation for the facts that I continually come across such people in my professional and personal lives, and that I read stories about them on a regular basis.  I am not saying that it is impossible that my own observations over-sample an isolated phenomenon.  In fact, that would have to be true for everyone on earth.  Yet personal happenstance would not explain the continued discussion of such people in press accounts of U.S. politics.  Of course, reporters also are often guilty of over-reporting events and memes that are close to home (see, for example, the coverage in The New York Times of Ivy League-related educational issues).

So maybe there just are not that many self-identified Republicans who call themselves moderates, but I happen to have met and read about those few who do exist.  Or maybe the people who call themselves Republican moderates are actually not at all moderate, but they like to think of themselves as non-extreme.  Maybe, in other words, there is nothing to explain.  Nonetheless, readers should consider this series of occasional posts as evidence of my suspicion that there is something interesting going on, even though I cannot rule out these other possibilities categorically.

It has been well documented that Republicans and Democrats are further apart on policy than they have been in decades, which again could mean that there are no true moderates.  It could, however, also mean that true moderates who feel the need to identify with a party are left with two extreme choices.  That latter explanation, however, mistakes a growing distance between the parties (that is, their becoming extremely far apart from each other) for mutual immoderation.  Given that everyone who ever actually describes what a moderate should believe inevitably describes something like Barack Obama's actual policy views, however, it is obvious that a person with genuinely moderate views -- as measured by anything other than the current relative positions of the two parties -- could easily find a comfortable home in the Democratic Party.  (One useful way to think about this is that, as many people have noted, the non-mythical Ronald Reagan would be a pariah in the current Republican Party, whereas the supposedly extreme socialist Bernie Sanders is actually simply advocating an updated version of New Deal liberalism that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would recognize and endorse.)

Which, again, brings me back to asking how people who claim to be politically moderate would stick with the Republican Party today.  In last Friday's post, I noted an exchange of letters published in The New York Times in which a self-identified Republican moderate and various readers discussed her claim that her party could still be called anything but extreme.  What I found most interesting about that writer's response was that she immediately fell back on them-versus-us mythology to demonize the Democrats.  She repeated the standard claim that Democrats are bad for capitalism, which one can believe only by ignoring the evidence, but more tellingly, she went straight to "but Hillary's awful," citing the email thing and Benghazi.

For the longest time, I had thought that the only point of the endless scandal-mongering on the right was to fire up the extreme base.  Anyone who has looked at the facts of the Benghazi story, as told after unending Republican-led witch hunts in both houses of Congress, could only conclude that there is nothing to the claims of evil-doing by the former Secretary of State.  Similarly, nothing has come of repeated attempts by Republicans to turn a long-since-corrected mistake by various IRS employees into a political scandal, yet this has not stopped Republicans from vilifying the tax collectors and slashing the IRS's budget.

Again, however, I had always thought of these overreactions to what ought to be apolitical issues as being little more than a way to keep the true believers in a froth.  What I now see is that these fake scandals also serve a purpose even with the people who would supposedly be least likely to buy into Fox News-style propaganda.  For people on the left end of the Republican spectrum, the scandal-mongering provides an excuse to say, "As bad as my guys are, I hate those other people even more."

Notably, the only person in the presidential race who polls as negatively as Donald Trump is Hillary Clinton.  This is hardly an accident.  Going back to Bill Clinton's presidency, the Republicans have been faced with the question of what to do when your opponents move in your direction.  It used to be PoliSci 101 that the parties would end up mimicking each other, because if Democrats moved to the middle, Republicans could not afford to be seen as extreme.  And Clinton's embrace of what his advisors happily called triangulation was especially challenging to Republicans, because he simply co-opted standard Republican views on economics ("Balance the budget!"), social policy ("End welfare as we know it!"), labor (embracing a decidedly union-bashing element of the party), and on and on.

What is a Republican to do when a Democrat is suddenly agreeing with all of the things that Democrats supposedly would never embrace?  Why, in other words, do Republicans not view Bill Clinton as the most Republican president that the Democrats ever elected?  It was easy to see why the party needed to vilify Clinton, from the standpoint of the true believers.  He was not willing to go along with even more extreme policies, and he reveled in his unparalleled popularity among African Americans.

But the "vast right-wing conspiracy" was not just in the business of whipping up the extreme hatred of the party's base.  It was also succeeding in creating a narrative in which people who view themselves as moderate could continue to self-identify as Republicans by focusing on what they should hate.  And they have been successfully taught that they should hate the Clintons.  For example, whenever a conservative commentator or politician appears on a left-leaning show, such as "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore," viewers can count on hearing something like this: "OK, I concede that Republicans should stop being so crazy about ______, but Hillary Clinton will say and do anything to get elected."

That line is not aimed at base voters.  The idea is to make people who view themselves as part of the reasonable middle feel a visceral antipathy toward the politicians who actually represent their views.  This strategy, moreover, does not require one to think that there are a large number of Republicans who think of themselves as moderates.  Rather, it merely requires that there be some people who might otherwise start to think that the Republicans have gone too far.  "I might have been on board with pro-business tax cuts, but I do not believe in starting life with an unfair advantage, so we should have a robust estate tax."  (Yes, there actually used to be, and still are, conservatives who agree with that statement.)  "I want fair elections, but there's no evidence of in-person voter fraud, so even if voter suppression helps Republicans, I think it's wrong."  "Some reporters seem too liberal to me, but I don't feel comfortable when Republican candidates respond to challenging questions by attacking the press rather than actually answering the questions."

A person, even a non-moderate true-believing conservative, could find herself thinking all of those things and concluding that the party with which she would naturally identify has become too far gone, and that the other party is actually now sitting in the middle of the road.  But yelling "Benghazi!" often enough creates the emotional space necessary to keep those people in the fold.  The politics of personal destruction is not just personal.  It is an apparently effective method of distracting enough people who might otherwise bolt.