America's big shift right
Why the country's conservative drift, on a wide range of issues, has accelerated.
For a generation, he has been considered a model of conservatism in Washington – at moments, perhaps, the model. Over the course of his 34-year career, US Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah has clashed with Big Labor. He has championed right-wing judicial nominees. He has consistently opposed federal gun control measures and backed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He has sponsored or cosponsored a balanced budget amendment – which would require Congress to spend no more than it collects in revenues – no fewer than 17 times. In 2010, the American Conservative Union gave him a perfect 100 ranking.Skip to next paragraph
Yet today Mr. Hatch faces formidable opposition – for not being conservative enough. Activists on the right are attacking him for his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the financial-market bailout initiative, and his willingness to work with Democrats like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. They complain that he has voted to raise the debt ceiling 16 times. It's looking increasingly as if Hatch will face a Republican primary challenger next year – and could very well lose.
In some respects, this is simply a case of a senator who's spent more than three decades in Washington butting up against a public mood that is intensely antiestablishment and – particularly on the right – opposed to compromise. Like most longtime public servants, Hatch has cast a number of difficult votes over the years, and he has at times reached across the aisle in order to get things done.
But Hatch's troubles also say something about the way in which the nation's political needle has been moving. Over the past four decades – and more sharply over just the past few years – the geopolitical center of America has shifted rightward. It hasn't happened on all fronts – certainly, there are some areas where the country has clearly moved to the left, such as views on gay rights. But on a host of other issues, from guns to the role of government, the center of debate has edged closer to the conservative position, while activists on the right have moved even further out on the political spectrum.
The move has been most pronounced on fiscal matters. In Washington today, when it comes to the size of government, the debate isn't over whether to cut spending, but by how much. It's not over how much to raise taxes to help alleviate a fiscal shortfall, but whether any kind of tax increase – even on the wealthiest few – is valid.
"I don't remember, ever, in my 45 years in this business, the debate in Washington being [almost solely], 'What are we going to cut?' " says Sal Russo, a top strategist for the Tea Party Express and a longtime Republican consultant who worked as an aide to Gov. Ronald Reagan and advised Hatch's 2000 presidential bid. "Washington is different than anything I've seen in 45 years."