Possibly the most commonly heard phrase from the Democrats is about how far the Republicans have moved to the right. They often point out that Ronald Reagan would not be welcome in the party today. Is this correct or even fair? I don't think so.
Before I talk about the Republicans, let's look at the Democrats. They have not stood still. Ralph Nader entered the race in 2000 as a protest to the Clinton years. He insisted that there wasn't a dime's worth of different between the two parties. Despite Nader's pronouncement, Gore ran to the left of Clinton, launching a campaign based on class-warfare.
In 2004 John Edwards and Howard Dean energized the party's left. Kerry got the nomination but Dean chaired the party and made it his goal to move it to the left by recruiting progressive candidates.
In 2008 there was no doubt that the three leaders - Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Edwards - were the most radical candidates since McGovern. Obama had been a communist in college (he says so in Dreams From My Father). Hillary wrote her thesis on the communist community organiser, Sol Alinsky. Edwards continued his own version of class warfare.
With Obama's election along with Democratic majorities in both houses, Progressives vowed that a new age had come.
So, the middle moved substantially to the left between Clinton and Obama regardless of anything the Republicans did.
Then there was George W. Bush. I remember ten years ago progressive blogger Eric Alterman insisting that Bush was far more conservative than they expected - "even worse than Reagan!"
In fact, Bush was nothing of the sort. He was a big-government Republican. Prior to 9/11, his biggest accomplishments were expansions of government - the Medicare Drug Plan and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Both passed with bi-partisan support. Ted Kennedy was a major supporter of NCLB. Other than pushing through some tax cuts, Bush's record was as a strong moderate. The size of government grew instead of shrunk under him.
So, if you define the middle as being between Bush and Obama then, yes, the Republicans have moved to the right. But by this measure, Bill Clinton comes out on the right.
So, what does it mean when Democrats complain about the Republicans moving to the right? They are not complaining about foreign affairs. Obama adopted most of Bush's foreign policy while the Republicans are growing tired of the cost of foreign wars. The Republican challengers sound more like Democrats than Obama when talking about Afghanistan or Libya. The Democrats have also upheld the Patriot Act and other measures they objected to under Bush.
What's left? The size of government and how to reduce debt. The big complaint is that the Republicans are not willing to raise taxes. More specifically, the complaint is that they are not willing to soak the rich.
This is not new. One of the things Reagan is remembered for is flattening the tax rates. Mondale ran on a platform of raising taxes in 1984 and lost. In 1988, George H. W. Bush ran on the platform "Read my lips. No new taxes." He won that election. After breaking that pledge he lost in 1992. Clinton raised taxes and won reelection with a plurality but more than half the country voted against him. The message the Republicans see in all of that is that voters do not want their taxes increased.
Shrinking government, or at least slowing its increase, has also been party mainstream since Reagan. Bush (43) was the exception to that but the Republicans have simply returned to a long-held position. Remember that after the Republicans took Congress in 1994, even Bill Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over".
What has changed is the nature of the nation's problems. The deficit is unsustainable. Programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are growing so fast that they will crowd out all other non-military spending in the foreseeable future. The Republicans are offering solutions to these problems. Rather than engaging with them, the Democrats are ignoring the real problems and accusing the Republicans of wanting to throw seniors over a cliff (literally in one ad).
The truth is that the Republicans have returned to traditional positions but the Democrats have move so far to the left that the Republicans are now incomprehensible to them.