Defying your base is always risky. It can either bring you down — or it can make you look stronger.
Right now, politicians in both parties are trying to pull it off. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) – a likely contender for the 2016 Republican nomination – is preparing to challenge conservatives on immigration reform. President Barack Obama is defying liberals on entitlement reform. What are they thinking?
Your base is people who are with you when you’re wrong. Sooner or later, every politician gets in trouble. He needs people to stick up for him — people who say, “He was there for us and we’ll be there for him.” President Ronald Reagan’s base, for example, stuck with him during the Iran-contra scandal. So did President Bill Clinton’s base during impeachment.
President George H. W. Bush lost his base when he abandoned his “No new taxes” pledge in 1990. President George W. Bush tried, and failed, to bring conservatives along on immigration reform in 2007. Clinton defied liberals on the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and on welfare reform in 1996 – and got away with it. Clinton, of course, had a special talent for political high-wire acts.
How can you defy your base and not turn into a double-crosser? You need four things to bring it off.