The conventional wisdom that would not die

The talking heads keep telling us this election was a victory for conservative Democrats. So who -- besides Heath Shuler, of course -- are they?

Alex Koppelman
November 11, 2006 3:38AM (UTC)

On Thursday, the New York Times' David Brooks wrote, in a column titled "The Middle Muscles In," that in Tuesday's elections "voters kicked out Republicans but did not swing to the left. For the most part they exchanged moderate Republicans for conservative Democrats." He's not the only one to make a similar argument -- indeed, the meme that by delivering the Democrats the majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years voters somehow were trying to elect conservatives has been bouncing all over the media, spread mostly by people with an interest in seeing their own views, whether centrist or conservative, confirmed.

In the New York Post today, pollster Craig Charney wrote that "the congressional power shift in the 2006 elections only became possible because of another, less-noticed change: the Democratic Party's shift toward the center."


The National Review's Lawrence Kudlow was already on this Tuesday night, arguing before the final results were even in that "the changeover in the House may well be a conservative victory, not a liberal one."

And today a reporter for England's Guardian newspaper wrote, "The conservative Democrats, or new Democrats as they are sometimes called, were disproportionately represented in the most highly contested races against Republicans, and are likely to form a substantial bloc within the new members."

There's just one problem with all this: It's not true. Never mind the fact that the Democrats' victory will result in leadership posts for some of the most liberal members of the party; when actually broken down quantitatively, the number of liberal and conservative freshmen Democrats elected on Tuesday puts the lie to this running theme.

Media Matters for America, the liberal press watchdog, has already documented the political proclivities of 27 of the new Democrats in Congress; MMA restricted its analysis to those who defeated incumbent Republicans or took over open seats previously held by Republicans. It found: "All 27 candidates support raising the minimum wage. All 27 candidates advocate changing course in Iraq. All 27 candidates oppose efforts to privatize Social Security. Only two of the 27 candidates do not support embryonic stem cell research. Only five of the 27 candidates describe themselves as 'pro-life.'"

An analysis by Salon has found that the other freshmen Democrats predominantly hold liberal views as well; for example, there's Illinois' Phil Hare, who will replace his former boss, liberal Democrat Lane Evans, and ran on a platform of being little different from Evans in policy terms; Keith Ellison, taking over for a retiring Democrat in Minnesota, who will become the first Muslim member of Congress and has been compared to liberal hero Paul Wellstone; and John Sarbanes, who inherits his liberal politics from his father, outgoing Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

In the Senate, Ohio's Sherrod Brown is a devoted liberal, as is Maryland's Ben Cardin; and even the so-called conservative Senate candidates who won Tuesday -- Montana's Jon Tester and Virginia's Jim Webb -- are not nearly so conservative as some have argued, as blogger Atrios pointed out recently.


In all of these arguments one name pops up continuously: Heath Shuler, the former NFL quarterback who ran, and won, as a social conservative. That's because, other than Shuler, there are very few others to whom the proponents of this theory can point. And yet this meme shows no signs of dying: It continues to be pushed by reporters and pundits who, like Brooks, have a vested interest in proving to their readers and employers that their views are shared by America at large. There are some moderate to conservative freshmen, to be sure, but if we had one message for the media this weekend it would be this: Five antiabortion congressmen does not a revolution make.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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