Between the loose cannon Donald Trump and the ultraconservative Ted Cruz, Republicans have been doing their best to give away the presidential election. But it’s worse than that: They are doing their best to drive voters into the Democratic fold for years to come.
With their targeting of Muslims, hostility to immigration reform, rejection of climate-change science and opposition to same-sex marriage, the two threaten to sharply narrow the party’s slice of the electorate.
The question is: Will the Democrats accept the favor? Bernie Sanders is not likely to win the nomination, but his robust challenge to Hillary Clinton makes it plain that the Democratic Party has shifted leftward just as Republicans marched the opposite way.
At the outset, Sanders was considered this year’s Dennis Kucinich — a preachy gadfly with no chance of winning. Yet he has come out ahead in 17 state contests, including eight of the past nine. In the process, he has exposed major weaknesses in Clinton’s appeal.
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Though he is the older candidate, his support skews young. Sanders leads among men and whites, but his most notable feat is beating Clinton among Democratic voters younger than 50 by a 2-1 ratio.
He also rouses more fervent ardor than she does. Even if Clinton wins this time, there is a leftward riptide that she will have trouble resisting, on the campaign trail or in office.
Not that she’s trying very hard. Her husband recaptured the White House for the Democrats after three consecutive losses by candidates perceived as too liberal on big issues such as taxes, crime and communism. Bill Clinton was a master of playing to the center.
Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 with a similar approach. Barack Obama followed suit in 2008.
But Hillary Clinton is doing something very different, in an obvious effort to appease the Occupy Wall Street faction. Eight years ago, she strongly identified with her husband’s record. This year, she said the 1994 crime bill he signed was too harsh, rejected a Pacific trade agreement she previously lauded and endorsed a $15 minimum wage enacted in New York.
Maybe she can veer back toward the middle if and when she gets the nomination. But motivating Sanders’ supporters to get to the polls will be crucial, and that need will put strong pressure on Clinton to stay in the left lane.
So it looks as though there will be a gaping hole in the middle of the political spectrum, with centrist voters forced to choose between an increasingly liberal Democratic Party on the one hand and, on the other, Trump or Cruz — who are anathema even to relatively moderate Republicans, much less independents.
Looking at the two likely Republican nominees, centrist Americans ask: “What about us?” So far, the Democratic response is: “What about you?”