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COMMENTARY

Has America gone from center-right to center libertarian?

November 12, 2012|By James Rainey
  • Confetti fills the air during an election night rally in Chicago, Illinois.
Confetti fills the air during an election night rally in Chicago, Illinois. (Daniel Acker / Bloomberg…)

Many debates have broken out about the meaning of last week’s election, including over whether conservatives should still push their claim that America is a “center-right nation.”

That claim suggests that the conservative message remains the correct one for most Americans and that Mitt Romney failed to articulate it in losing by 3.3 million votes to Barack Obama. Other voices on the right say, however, the Republican Party has failed to capture the center and needs to moderate its views to regain its winning form in national elections.

On one level, this amounts to a semantic piffle. But the argument is not entirely inconsequential because words are important in political messaging and the “center-right” feud relates directly to whether the GOP will reform or offer up more of the same.

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A survey of last Tuesday’s electoral landscape suggests the truth may be somewhere in the middle. The results cut heavily against the notion of a center-right dominance, at least when it comes to social issues.

After 32 straight losses for same-sex wedding laws, four states approved marriage-equality proposals last week. Two other states legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Wisconsin elected the first openly homosexual U.S. senator in history, Tammy Baldwin. An Iowa Supreme Court justice targeted for removal because he voted in 2007 to approve gay marriage, David Wiggins, defeated an effort to oust him. And, crucially, Obama won with 60% of voters telling exit pollsters they supported the president’s call for higher taxes on the rich.

But Americans appear to remain more receptive to conservative viewpoints on spending, debt and the size of government. A bare majority, 51%, of voters last Tuesday told exit pollsters that government should do less, with 43% saying it should do more.

Self-described moderates, though, went for Obama by 56% to 41% for Romney—a fairly clear measure that, for this election anyway, conservative messaging did not support the critical voters in the middle. Also—after considerable carping from the right that polls were “oversampling” Democrats, the exit surveys confirmed almost exactly what pollsters had predicted, that Democrats had about a six-point advantage in voter identification over Republicans.

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Among those blaming the messenger, not the message, was radio titan Rush Limbaugh, who insisted conservatism “did not lose” the election. He joined Karl Rove, the Bush-era political guru, and Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol in renewing the claim that America leans right. “In other words, this was a good Democratic year, but it is still a center-right country,” Kristol wrote. “Conservatives and the Republican Party will have a real chance for a comeback -- unless the skills of the new president turn what was primarily an anti-Bush vote into the basis for a new liberal governing era.”

Among those who seems to believe that something fundamental has shifted in the electorate is Fox News’s Sean Hannity. The broadcaster had already amazed some fans by saying he would soften his hard-line against a “path to citizenship” for some illegal migrants. He said a couple days after the election that it would be “silly” to say that a country that elects Obama is “in important respects, center right.”

Conservative blogger Andrew Hayward wrote that a country that accepted the “socialized medicine” of Obamacare and didn’t object more strenuously to “centralized government” could no longer be characterized as leaning right.

Some of his comrades on the right  raise exit poll data that shows the electorate self identifies as 44% moderate, 34% percent conservative and only 22% liberal.

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But the terms no doubt mean something different to just about everyone who uses them. A more precise verdict would be that the majority of the country remains slightly right of center when it comes to supporting lower spending, decreased debt and smaller government.  But America appears to have shifted left of center in allowing more liberal policies on drugs and the institution of marriage. So, left on social issues and right on economics. If you eliminated the desire to tax the rich, it would sound like we had a center-libertarian nation.

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James.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesrainey

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