Breaking out of the party box
Voters love unconventional candidates

Peter Holden

Article Highlights

  • Liberals should welcome Republican anti-poverty plans, not try to chase the GOP off the issue

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  • Our leaders’ moral repertory has all the nuance of a one-keyed piano.

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  • With a little work, we can make our politics into a contest between virtuous adversaries.

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For years, conservative politicians have been charged with indifference toward the plight of the poor and vulnerable. Republicans are accused of caring more about hedge fund managers than people who trim hedges, and when pollsters ask questions like “Who cares more about people like you?,” Democrats consistently come out on top. The George Washington University political scientist Danny Hayes has found that Americans, by significant margins, believe that empathy and compassion are traits “owned” by Democrats.

Most Republicans acknowledge this, but many just shrug. Maybe they don’t win on empathy and compassion, they’ll concede, but they have a lock on some other traits. Research by Mr. Hayes shows that most voters instinctively associate morality and strong leadership with the political right.

Based on the premise that political success comes from doubling down on natural strengths, many Republicans conclude that the way to win is to be redder than red: They emphasize strength and moral uprightness and forget about the soft stuff. Similarly, many Democrats fixate on empathy and compassion and neglect the rest.

Americans don't want to choose between leadership and empathy.

This explains our current depressing political stalemate. Congressional ratings are at historic lows — with 15 percent of Americans approving of their performance, members of Congress hold a position in the public esteem that is somewhere between that of Vladimir V. Putin and a case of head lice. This is not based on policy complaints as much as the fact that our leaders’ moral repertory has all the nuance of a one-keyed piano. Americans don’t want to choose between compassion and morality, or between leadership and empathy. We want leaders who have all these traits.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Compassion and strong leadership are not even opposed — yet these days, they can’t seem to be held in the same political mind. What a sad commentary on our times.

But in this dreary stalemate lies a tremendous opportunity. Mr. Hayes’s research shows that Americans love a leader who throws out the usual script and trespasses on traits that traditionally belong to the other side. Combing through decades of data, he finds that on average, if voters rate two candidates as equally strong leaders (meaning the Democrat has erased his party’s usual deficit on this trait), they break roughly 60 percent to 40 percent in favor of the Democrats. Conversely, among voters who rate a Republican candidate and a Democratic one as equally empathetic, the G.O.P. wins with about 65 percent. Voters reward candidates who go after unconventional traits.

This brings us to the high-profile anti-poverty initiatives from trait-trespassing Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Paul D. Ryan. Mr. Ryan’s new anti-poverty plan, for example, features an expansion of the earned-income tax credit for childless workers — an outstanding idea that Democrats have favored for decades. The Washington Post declared the plan “so bipartisan it doesn’t sound like he’s running in 2016,” supposing that Mr. Ryan’s proposal might even jeopardize his chances with the Republican base.

While we wouldn’t want or expect Democrats to rubber-stamp any Republican plan, we might reasonably expect that they would welcome the development, not treat it as a threat. After all, doesn’t this mean there is finally real hope for a bit of bipartisan progress in helping our most vulnerable citizens?

Obviously, I was born yesterday. Mere hours after Mr. Ryan’s speech at the American Enterprise Institute announcing the plan, attacks began. The influential progressive blog Think Progress quickly posted a series of pieces dismissing Mr. Ryan’s plan out of hand. “While Ryan is trying out new rhetoric around the issue of poverty,” they wrote, his plan “is full of the same empty promises he’s been making for years.” Other progressive pundits followed suit, some appearing more eager to silence Mr. Ryan than to build a compromise that would help the poor.

Rather than trying to chase this Republican interloper off their compassion turf, liberals could instead use the same technique and adopt some typically conservative traits. Openly discussing personal morality and extolling strong leadership in foreign affairs would help Democrats appeal to more voters and poach from the Republican base.

Most people have effectively one choice when it comes time to vote.

Scrambling the conventional categories would not merely shift electoral dynamics. It would improve our country. More trait-trespassing politicians would give all citizens the competition of ideas we deserve. Because of the lack of overlapping values between the parties today, most people have effectively one choice when it comes time to vote. Often, we just hold our noses and pull the lever. That makes politics about as edifying as shopping at a Soviet-era supermarket. Wouldn’t we all like some choice?

With a little work, maybe we can make our politics into more of a contest between virtuous adversaries.

For once, voters would be the winners.

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