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

Many liberals view the death penalty the way conservatives view taxpayer-funded abortion: murder with your own money. Many can’t believe we are unable to revisit welfare reform despite its inability to stem the rise in poverty during the Great Recession. And in the immediate aftermaths of the Gabby Giffords mass shooting, the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting and the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting, many were steaming that Democrats refused to launch a fresh debate over gun control.

These are life and death issues, and Democrats stopped taking the moral high ground on them. From that perspective, it is easy to make a slippery slope argument and conclude that these sacrifices are a devil’s bargain, a soulless sellout, a fast track to becoming indistinguishable from the other party.

Yet despite these specific abandonments of principle, Barack Obama stands before you as the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson. He is the first Democratic president to win back-to-back popular vote majorities since Franklin Roosevelt, and only the fourth president to do so in 100 years. And he won on a record of government stimulus, government bailout, government regulation and government mandates, not to mention an embrace of reproductive rights, gay equality and undocumented immigrants.

Lesson: not all slopes are slippery.

Now you are the ones being asked to sacrifice something to show you are not out of step with mainstream America. Opposition to gay marriage. Support for absolute abortion bans. Opposition to free contraception coverage. Opposition to citizenship opportunities for undocumented immigrants. Opposition to any tax increases. Support for privatizing Social Security, Medicare and FEMA. Opposition to acknowledging the climate crisis.

I’m not going to tell which of the positions you now deem to be delicate lambs must be sent off to the slaughterhouse. But I will tell you these two things.

1. You will eventually send some of your delicate lambs to the slaughterhouse. It’s just a question of whether you do it now, or whether you wait until you lose one or two more times.

2. After you do it, you will still be a conservative.

You can still believe abortion is murder and accept free contraception as a way to reduce unwanted pregnancies. You can still believe in low taxes and accept that taxes have to rise under certain circumstances. You can still believe in limited government and accept a federal role in disaster preparation. You can still believe in restrained regulation and accept scientific conclusions that human-made climate change needs to be stopped one way or another.

And you can even accept something you flat don’t agree with, perhaps creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, by understanding that no one ever wins on everything. Giving up one run doesn’t mean you lose the whole ballgame.

It’s up to you to take a cold, hard look at the data and determine what just isn’t going to happen in 21st-century America and what might still have a shot under different political circumstances. Making those judgments doesn’t make you a sell-out, just somebody who wants to achieve as much of your party’s agenda as possible.