IN a recent Washington Post column, Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal argued the United States electorate has become left-leaning, citing things such as changing attitudes about marijuana.
“It is more than an interesting observation that America now leans left,” Rosenthal thundered. “This should be a guiding light for politicians. With the knowledge that most Americans are, in fact, behind them, Democrats no longer need to fear running on their beliefs.”
Apparently, Democrats who actually have to run for statewide office don't share Rosenthal's certainty, particularly on marijuana. In Colorado, where voters have legalized adult recreational use of marijuana, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is openly hostile to that effort.
In an interview with The Durango Herald editorial board, Hickenlooper bluntly declared: “I hate Colorado having to be the experiment.” He argued, “We should not try to get people to do more of what is not a healthy thing,” and promised the state would “regulate the living daylights out of it.”
Those aren't the words of a man who believes marijuana legalization is a sign of ascending liberalism and an assurance of long-term Democratic Party triumph; they're the words of a man who worries his state is becoming a national punch line.
Rosenthal may be correct in noting changing public attitudes about marijuana. That isn't the same thing as broad endorsement of marijuana use. Many citizens question the severity of legal punishments facing marijuana users, not the wisdom of avoiding marijuana in the first place.
Most citizens are unlikely to suddenly embrace marijuana smoking even as popular opinion continues to harden against tobacco smoking. According to Gallup polling, 45 percent of Americans said they had smoked tobacco cigarettes in the previous week in June 1954. By July 2013, just 19 percent gave that answer.
As Hickenlooper notes, Colorado has become an experiment, one that officeholders in other states will closely monitor. While money previously spent incarcerating those involved in marijuana trafficking may be freed for other uses, there may be an offsetting increase in other problems, such as higher rates of impaired drivers on state roads. The state's image, and appeal to new businesses, could take a hit. Colorado has now become attractive to people who embrace legal marijuana, generating tourism. That creates a corresponding problem: Colorado is now attracting the type of people who embrace legal marijuana.
Other states may eventually take a more lenient approach to marijuana use. But that's not necessarily a sign of liberalism's ascendancy. In Oklahoma, Republican lawmakers were the major drivers behind the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which emphasized treatment over incarceration for many lower-tier nonviolent drug offenders.
Regardless of changes in social attitudes, the challenge for conservatives remains the same: to competently advocate for their policy solutions, demonstrating that those proposals will reap better societal results than liberal alternatives, therefore winning voter support.
Even as he claims liberal ascendancy, Rosenthal argues Democrats should now seek to increase the minimum wage, raise taxes, increase spending and institute paid sick leave. In short, he calls for pushing the same policies Democrats have touted for decades — policies with a long-established track record of failure.
If Republicans can't outdo those recycled Democratic talking points, they'll probably lose elections. But those defeats will be the result of conservative apathy, not changing social attitudes.