During the course of a debate that I think she clearly won, Hillary Clinton was asked some tough questions by moderator Anderson Cooper. Perhaps the toughest was the one in which he listed the many issues on which she had switched positions and almost always doing so to align her views with where she though voters were heading, concluding, “Will you say anything to get elected?” The former First Lady was clearly prepared for the question and gave a practiced and polished reply claiming that while she was “very consistent” in terms of “values and principles” but prepared to “absorb new information.” That, she says explains her flip-flops on the trade deal that she vociferously supported while secretary of state but now opposes as well as other issues on which she has been, to put it charitably, inconsistent. But as veteran media critic Jack Shafer points out on Politico, Cooper might have followed up with one rather critical query to which its doubtful that Hillary had an answer: what new information?
But the real question to be asked about this is whether voters actually care about consistency. I think the answer depends on which party you’re talking about.
On every issue on which she has changed her mind, the only new information that seemed to be on her mind was the fact that public opinion had changed. That was certainly the case with gay marriage that she had adamantly opposed both in the Senate and while running for president. But once the climate had changed on the issue, she changed with it. As for the trade deal, the only new information is the fact that she is now competing against more liberal candidates and can’t afford to be outflanked on environmental issues. On all of the issues on which she flipped, there’s no evidence that the discovery of some smoking gun piece of data has emerged to alter her evaluation. Political expediency is a way of life for most politicians but is, as Shafer says, “her signature move.”
But Hillary’s confident manner in dismissing what Shafer rightly calls her “shape-shifting isn’t just a matter of having a pat answer and sticking to it. She is reasonably sure that Democrats are don’t care about ideological consistency. Or at least was so until Bernie Sanders started making headway against her this past summer.
The dynamic among most Democratic voters in the last 20 years is that they’ve been willing to swallow a great deal in order to win in November. Bill Clinton’s pragmatism and inherent centrist sensibilities turned off a lot of Democrats but they embraced him nonetheless. That’s also what caused Hillary’s backers to jump on Obama’s bandwagon in 2008.
On the Congressional/Senate level, that’s also been generally true. There have been relatively few divisive Democratic primaries that produced the kind of enmity that splits parties as well as nominees that can’t win a general election.
On the other hand, a critical mass of Republicans seem to have a lot more scruples about consistency. That’s what drove Tea Party rebellions across the country in 2010 and 2012 leading to the toppling of some establishment figures while elevating insurgents. In some cases, as in Florida when Marco Rubio forced Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party, this was a good idea. In others, such as when the infamous Christine O’Donnell knocked off Mike Castle in Delaware, losing a winnable Senate seat to the Democrats, it wasn’t so smart.
In 2014, Republicans sought to minimize such rolls of the dice by trying to ensure the nomination of viable candidates. But the same impulse is at play in the contest for Speaker of the House where the Freedom Caucus is seeking to hound any Republican who ever had an open mind about doing something about the status of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country (other, that is, to moot unrealistic and unpalatable notions about deporting them all). The same ideological hard line may be at play in the presidential race as the GOP candidates not named Trump all seem to fear being branded a flip-flopper in the mode of Mitt Romney.
That’s not just because Republicans don’t want to get in the cross hairs of the Tea Party. It’s because Republican voters’ lack of tolerance for candidates who talk about “new information” can lead them to staying home in November. Conservative activists often exaggerate estimates of those on the right who thought there was no difference between President Obama and Romney. But there’s no doubt that there were many who did. Let’s put it this way. The last time Republicans won a presidential election in 2004 it was in no small part due to the willingness of evangelicals and conservatives to turn it out in unusually large numbers. Given the way demographic trends give Democrats an inherent advantage in large turnout general elections, the GOP is going to need every single one of its right-wing voters to be willing to back its presidential nominee next year.
As much as the Sanders insurgency scared the pants off the Clinton camp, they are reasonably certain that few on the left will abandon Hillary if it increases the possibility that a Republican will be elected president. While some may hold their noses when voting for Clinton, Democrats seem to have the capacity to march in lockstep these days if it means keeping their party in power. On the other hand, so great is the disillusionment on the part of many right-wingers with the establishment wing of their party that the chances of conservatives staying home next year will probably be higher than they were in 2012.
Perhaps the main difference between the parties can be summed up this way. Liberal Democrats hate Republicans far more than they do centrist members of their party, at least as long as those centrists are willing to abandon past positions in order to accommodate them. But conservative Republicans really do seem to hate establishment or moderate Republicans as much if not more than the Democrats whose policies they believe are destroying the country. So long as that is the case, expect Hillary to keep finding all the “new information” she needs to keep the left on her side and for Republicans to continue forming circular firing squads even if this is a formula for a Democratic victory in 2016.