This is the exact opposite of the DLC approach: Instead of emphasizing their similarities to Republicans, the successful centrist candidates glossed over them in favor of showing off their similarities to Democrats... or the Republicans' similarities to criminals and buffoons. In other words, their centrism manifested as a sort of "negative" conservatism: As far as their public utterances were concerned, they weren't for conservative values, they just weren't for their progressive counterparts. So instead of saying, "Don't be afraid, I love guns and hate gay marriage!", they simply didn't make an issue of them. Presumably if anyone asked, they would say where they stood, but it wasn't what they campaigned on. The really encouraging thing is that voters responded to this approach and rejected the Ford approach of packaging themselves as Republican-lite, which puts the lie to the Republican/DLC spin that the election was somehow a grand victory for conservative values.
There was a marvelous moment on NPR right after the election: Melissa Block asking newly elected representative Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a former NFL quarterback, what it meant for him to be a Democrat, given that he opposed abortion, opposed gay marriage, and supported gun ownership. "Well, it's a reflection of my district," Shuler replied.
What makes you a Democrat, Block asked. Shuler replied that it was what his parents and grandparents taught him: "A Democrat helps people that cannot help themselves." What about fiscal responsibility? Earmarks like bridges to nowhere are irresponsible, Shuler replied; instead we should be spending money on education, social security, universal health care, preserving the environment, and renewable energy.
In short, what Shuler really cares about, what he was running on, and what he got elected on were progressive policies — even though he happened to hold some conservative positions that inoculated him in his district against charges of being "too liberal."
Shuler is what I've been referring to as a "biconceptual," someone who has progressive positions in certain areas of life and conservative positions in others. What makes Shuler a Democrat is that he identifies himself politically with the progressive values he ran on, despite having conservative positions he didn't run on.
Bob Casey happens to be a Catholic who opposes abortion rights, but every position he ran on was a progressive position. Jon Tester believes in gun ownership in Montana, but that is not what he ran on. He ran on his progressive beliefs — by the dozen. These candidates ran primarily on their progressive positions. Despite having some conservative positions, they do not run primarily on their conservative positions. It was the progressive values they ran on that have given them their mandate.(...)
Meanwhile, Harold Ford, Jr. lost in Tennessee for many reasons, including a racist ad campaign against him. But among the reasons was the way he campaigned. He ran enthusiastically using conservative code words: personal responsibility, strong moral values, character education, pro-family, a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, eliminate abortions, and so on. In short, he had Heath Shuler's positions, but unlike Shuler, he ran overtly on those positions and made a big deal of it, trying to convince good ole boy Tennesseans that he was one of them. As Shuler understood, if you really have those positions and really are part of your community in that way, you don't have to say so.... What he was running on did not, in toto, fit any consistent moral worldview. He was trying to be too many things to too many people.
In short, the Democratic candidate who campaigned on conservative values lost; those who may have had such values, but campaigned on their progressive values, won.Like Shuler and Casey, swing voters are biconceptuals, with both conservative and progressive worldviews in different areas of life and with both available for politics. How did these biconceptual candidates appeal to biconceptual swing voters? By taking progressive positions, and campaigning vigorously on them. How did this work? They activated the progressive values in the brains of swing voters.
Of course, I would much rather have Democratic candidates who were in favor of choice and gay marriage. But if they're in a red state or district and feel that those views would be electoral poison, then better to just keep quiet about them rather than publicly reinforce the Republican platform. This also cuts to the heart of why Democrats like Lieberman are so offensive to progressives even while agreeing with us on many issues: Their mix of policy views may be comparable to that of many other Democrats, but they repeatedly show off their conservative views, thus giving the Republicans phony "bipartisan" cover and undercutting their own party.
In today's world, for better or worse, words speak louder than actions.