Advice from a liberal Democrat: Ideologies don’t advance without strategic retreats

You know your party is in trouble. You can’t get closer than 4 percentage points in 22 states that total 263 Electoral College votes. There are huge demographic chunks of the country that want nothing to do with you. You know you have to change something to climb out of this abyss. But if it means throwing your core beliefs under the bus, then there’s no point remaining in politics. What do you do?

I’m a liberal Democrat, and I’m here to help.

After all, we were in your spot after the thrashing of Michael Dukakis, and look at us now!

Like many a rival with an outstretched hand, I have an ulterior motive, which I’ll get to later. But for now, I’ll just note that I have a track record of talking straight about what works in politics. Back in July, my New York Times op-ed “How Liberals Win” rattled some of my fellow travelers, and delighted some conservatives. In the piece I laid out how major liberal reforms became reality because throughout history Democrats — from Roosevelt to Johnson to Obama — chose to compromise with corporations. Conversely, presidents that sought to confront and conquer corporate power — Jimmy Carter on energy, Bill Clinton on health care — usually got crushed and depleted their political capital.

The underlying truth of that observation has relevance to you today: achieving ideological advancements often requires strategic retreats.

Democrats reluctantly accepted that political necessity in 1992. After two blowout victories by Ronald Reagan, and after watching George H. W. Bush stomp out Dukakis’ 17-point lead by viciously prosecuting his liberal social values, Democrats were scared straight. Certain hard-to-defend liberal positions were overshadowing everything else, preventing Democrats from getting a fair hearing on their complete agenda.

Something had to give. Bill Clinton gave us a shove.

By nominating Clinton in 1992, liberals accepted a leader who forced them to bury some deeply held moral positions: namely, opposition to the death penalty and support of unconditional welfare benefits for the poor. Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it,” and approved the execution of a mentally retarded man during the campaign. (In 2004, a frustrated John Kerry presidential campaign adviser lamented, “Clinton went back and executed that retarded guy. That said, ‘I share your values.'”)

And once Democrats felt some working-class backlash in critical swing states from Clinton’s gun control laws, liberals accepted the additional indignity of Democratic leaders giving up on any expansion of gun regulation.

To this day, Democratic presidential nominees do not dare propose abolishing the death penalty, scrapping time limits on welfare benefits or expanding gun control.

Conservatives might look at these shifts as minor adjustments, obvious deference to political reality or (to the more conspiracy-minded) wholly disingenuous head-fakes. But to liberals, these were and are painful sacrifices.