The Democrats may be their own worst problem.
The party has considerable advantages according to recent national polls, but, at best, it comes across with a somewhat blurred image and, at worst, as pursing a version of liberalism that has limited appeal.
Yet surveys show that most Americans agree with what is usually considered Democratic policy.
Take campaign finance. Four-fifths of people say they favor new controls over campaign spending. Opposition to limits comes from Republicans who say bankrolling political campaigns is a form of free speech. Democrats have not made this an issue, and may themselves also go for the big money.
Or immigration. Almost 60 percent say that today’s illegal or undocumented aliens should have a path toward citizenship. Republicans are divided on this, but many of them say the borders must first be secured, though they know that is not a practical possibility.
Or same-sex marriage. This is a so-called “wedge” issue, a social issue leading voters to support the GOP’s candidates without much regard to their positions on other issues. But a strong majority of voters nationally support it, though some conservative states strongly oppose.
It seems clear that the GOP hopes to benefit from such wedge issues including abortion and gun control. And their adulation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggests they are trying to make support for Israel also a wedge issue.
Yet surveys show almost equal division of opinion on abortion and gun control with no information yet on Israel.
On the central issue, whether people have a favorable view of Republicans or Democrats, the GOP trails badly. And since the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress this year, opinions about that institution have sunk even below their already low levels.
Despite all of this evidence that should give comfort and political strength to the Democrats, they fail to capitalize on their advantages. In fact, they often give the impression of running scared.
The Republicans say they are the conservative party and most voters are conservative. If the Democrats accept this view, they are tempted to move to the right and actively avoid being labeled liberals.
It’s possible that a conservative-liberal political split does not provide a true picture. Pretty clearly, the conservatives have a coherent set of views and policies, and they freely label as liberals those that oppose them. But are the 57 percent who say they support same-sex marriage all liberals?
We have seen the U.S. Supreme Court being reported by the media as composed of four conservatives, four liberals and one swing voter. But a close look shows there are four, sometimes five, conservatives and four non-conservatives. The media designation of them as “liberals” may please the GOP.
But what about Obamacare? Isn’t the majority disapproval a sign of conservative rejection of a liberal policy?
Perhaps, but it is also a good example of the Democrats’ failure to champion their own causes and allowing themselves to be intimidated into soft-peddling their own policies.
Or the economy? Unemployment is down, and output is growing. While individuals should be earning more (and the top one percent is), the Democrats never fail to admit the situation is good but could be improved. Certainly honest, but not a way to win elections.
The national media has supported the increasingly incorrect notion of a conservative-liberal split, which the right is supposedly winning. “Red states” and “blue states” supposedly have both a political and an ideological meaning.
It’s possible to disagree with the conservative position, making you a non-conservative but not necessarily a liberal. As the surveys show, you may be in the mainstream.
In Maine, the split between conservatives and those who have opposing views is playing out differently. The Democrats may sometimes be drowned out by Gov. LePage, but not to the point of running scared. And the legislative Republicans remain attached to protecting their prerogatives even from a governor of their own party.
The presidential campaign will sharpen the contrast between the conservative and non-conservative views. If they can put one of their candidates in the White House, conservatives could then claim political domination.
Recently, the Washington Post reported that Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, is adopting positions that just a short while ago would have been deemed too liberal. She’s not doing that to squelch more liberal challengers, but because her polling shows most voters are increasingly supporting policies formerly considered liberal.
The Democrats have the opportunity to appeal to the majority, but only if they have the courage of their convictions.