Progressives have perfected a lethal poli-sci-sounding complaint about their right-wing opponents: they pander to their base—and, gosh, with a base full of small-minded bigots, it’s little wonder conservative leaders can’t be intelligent about the oh-so-complex challenges facing governments today.
After the Great Depression, conservatives—both the aloof elitists and the faux populists—toiled at marketing-pleasing labels for themselves. Nixon’s “silent majority” and John Diefenbaker’s “un-hyphenated Canadians” were especially successful; conservative politicians stopped being seen as incompetent WASPs.
In this new century, however, conservatives have largely suffered profitably in silence.
Letting their opponents describe their supporters in almost lurid terms has helped keep that base militant. However, it complicates things for conservatives stuck in opposition or, in Stephen Harper’s case, without anywhere near enough votes to win in October.
Representing a militant base doesn’t win the center. Independents in both countries avoid cell groups and movements; they don’t vote for bigger government or for throwing civil servants living just next door out of work. They leave the unpleasant stuff to elected governments.
The qualifier for conservative and progressive politicians who want to win national elections is to serve a broader purpose than redressing the grievances and florid dreams of their most righteous partisans.
The center isn’t smarter than the wings, who care the most. Its hot buttons, however, are different. The center wants presidents and prime ministers who are strong enough to represent them without having to hit the streets and make as much noise as the extremes.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t have an experience problem—or advantage. She’s spent all her quality time, all her life, with smart people, she ran for president before, and thrives in Manhattan. She doesn’t need training wheels and is given no slack for gaffes or innocent mistakes.
Yet she’s already put her savvy and her character in doubt on a test no president has failed since the 1920s: free trade verses protection.
Her decision to oppose last week’s fast-track legislation to allow Barack Obama to complete the negotiation of a free-trade agreement with American allies and market economies next to China kept her “base” content—last week.
But last week’s pander won’t be her last. Her “base” didn’t kill the trade negotiations, negotiations that she helped launch. Instead she’s generated sticky questions about her political judgment, policy smarts and integrity. She has a lot more bowing to do.
Did her endlessly calculating machine figure out what she’ll say when Congress does, in fact, give Obama a second chance and, when he does, in the end, secure the TAPP free-trade agreement?
Will Clinton remain opposed? And if so, has she figured out how to confront China without allies who trust her?
Will she end up pressured to support Obama? If so, what happens to the family conceit of being smarter and tougher than the lame duck family in the White House?
Has she concocted a bold, courageous, original idea to wipe clean the impression today that she can’t stand up to the most reactionary elements of her “base” and Senator Bernie Sanders, an opinionated windbag from Vermont?
Centrists in the US and in Canada don’t see themselves as trade or diplomacy experts but they worry about the global economy and China. And they will likely not vote for leaders who worry more about the sensibilities of their “base.”