I’ve been openly skeptical of the shift to the right that we’ve seen lately by those vying for the Republican nomination for the presidency. Although my skepticism is targeted more at the inevitable swing to the center that their rhetoric will surely take after the primaries (despite the continued influence that the right wing voters courted now will continue to have if one of them is elected president), it’s only fair to address the obvious question: should we be as skeptical of those on the Democratic side? Although we have not seen as stark a shift in the front runners on the Democratic side (with the exception of growing opposition to the war in Iraq, which follows a general national trend), the clear exception is John Edwards.
Nobody can deny that John Edwards has beefed up his progressive credentials considerably over the last couple of years, and he appears much better placed to appeal to Democratic voters next spring. Although Edwards hasn’t made a complete 180, like Mitt Romney has, a comparison between to two seems relevant.
Although once the moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts, Romney took increasingly conservative positions towards the end of his tenure there, and he has been courting right-wing organizations heavily since he set his eye on the presidency. For example:
Romney, who is expected to formally enter the presidential race today [13 February] in Dearborn, Mich., has been particularly aggressive. In October he held a casual gathering at his Boston home for a who’s who of social conservative leaders. Falwell and evangelist Franklin Graham munched on sandwiches and sipped soup alongside former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and pastor Richard Lee of First Redeemer Church in Atlanta.
Romney will also host a private reception for Christian radio and television hosts during the National Religious Broadcasters’ annual meeting next week in Orlando, and he is expected to be the commencement speaker at the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Regent University in May.
As I wrote yesterday, Romney has also made some impressive donations recently to several conservative organizations–many initially skeptical of him–and he has seen his support from these organizations increase in turn.
For his part, Edwards has also vamped up his progressive rhetoric. From today’s Washington Post:
That ambition has pushed Edwards to the left, most significantly on Iraq. Edwards voted for the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war and defended that vote throughout the 2004 campaign. But he later renounced the vote and has repeatedly described it as a mistake. He favors the immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops, would like to see all U.S. forces out over the next 12 to 18 months and says Congress should use its power over the national purse to force the drawdown.
On health care, he has proposed a plan for universal coverage that he says would cost $90 billion to $120 billion a year. He would pay for it by rolling back Bush’s tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. When he describes the details, he says matter-of-factly that it could lead to a government-run, single-payer health-care system, a position no other major candidate has come close to articulating.
Recently, Edwards was the first Democratic candidate to refuse to participate in a debate run by Fox News–a debate that was eventually cancelled. Just as Romney has benefited from his shift, suddenly able to woo conservative voters who were recently openly critical of him, Edwards has benefited as well. He’s doing well in the polls, especially in Iowa, where he has consistently polled at the top of the field. Although he doesn’t have the star power of Clinton or Obama, his fundraising numbers aren’t looking bad either.
With all of this in mind, I think we can point to two major differences here. Firstly, Romney has appealed to his conservative base primarily through conservative rhetoric on issues like abortion and gay marriage. Although Romney has put his money where his mouth is, in a sense, by funding some of these right-wing organizations, Edwards has done one better, by actually getting his hands dirty and getting involved in a variety of progressive causes, most notably the campaign to eliminate poverty. Since February 2005, Edwards has served as director of UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity. During that time, he toured the nation raising awareness about poverty issues.
The second major difference between these two has to do with the organizations they are courting. The Religious Right is fundamentally at odds with scientific progress. A voter who is in favor of scientific progress should be particularly skeptical of someone like Romney, who will only get the nomination by gaining the support of these anti-science forces (not to mention the fact that Romney, in his drive to build his own conservative credentials has taken a firm stance in opposition to embryonic stem cell research). On the other hand, none of the organizations that Edwards is openly courting have demonstrated themselves to be so hostile to science.
Should we then be skeptical if either candidate visibly shifts to the center during the general election? Of course. I, for one, will be disappointed if Edwards shies away from the progressive ideals he has recently been focusing on. Regardless, both candidates, if nominated, would have to appeal to a different demographic than in the primaries so a slightly different focus is to be expected. This will likely be easier for Edwards as the issues he is focusing on right now (poverty, health care, ending the war in Iraq) are arguably mainstream issues, unlike those of the fringe organizations that Romney is courting right now. Either way, the stances these candidates take now will certainly influence the actions taken in a future presidency, and the voter with science in mind should never support someone expressing the openly anti-scientific views of Romney.