A Dose of Moderation Would Help Democrats
They can appeal to moderate voters without betraying progressive values.
A number of Democratic presidential candidates are pushing for increasingly progressive ideas, like a Green New Deal. Are there risks in this move to the left? Pete Marovich for The New York Times
By David Leonhardt | The New York Times
The energy in the 2020 Democratic campaign has been coming from the left. Candidates are pushing Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a wealth tax and other ideas that are more progressive than anything a recent Democratic nominee has favored.
Much of this shift — which has been focused on economic policy — is smart. Republicans may cry socialism, and affluent centrists may not love it. But the American public leans decidedly left on economics. A clear majority favors higher taxes on the rich, a higher minimum wage and expanded government health insurance. After four decades of slow-growing living standards, people want change.
And yet there are also risks in the Democrats’ move to the left — risks that the sillier criticisms of the party’s new progressivism sometimes obscure.
So far, the 2020 candidates have mostly been competing with one another to see who can come off as the most boldly and purely liberal. Bernie Sanders talks about completing his revolution. Kamala Harris has spoken about the joy that marijuana brings. Sanders, Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand have all talked about eliminating private health insurance. And so on.
Ideological purity doesn’t tend to play well in general elections, however. Every modern president has found ways to appeal to Americans’ fondness for consensus — even if that fondness is based partly on a naïve view of politics and even if the candidates’ appeals have sometimes been more stylistic than substantive.
Donald Trump campaigned as a defender of Medicare and Social Security. Barack Obama became a national figure by reaching out to both red and blue America. George W. Bush was a “compassionate conservative.” Bill Clinton followed a “third way.” Ronald Reagan put a sunny face on his conservatism.
As frustrated as many Americans have become, most still don’t see themselves as radicals. About 35 percent call themselves moderate, compared with only 26 percent who say liberal, according to Gallup. Another 35 percent say conservative. Even among Democrats, only about half use the liberal label, with other half choosing moderate or conservative.
Perhaps most fascinating, Gallup found late last year that most Democratic voters — by a margin of 54 percent to 41 percent — would rather their party move to the center than to the left. (Most Republicans, by contrast, want their party to continue moving right.) In another recent poll, by Monmouth, most Democratic voters said they would prefer a nominee likely to win the general election to one who shared their views on most issues.
All of which suggests that the 2020 Democratic field would benefit from more candidates who made an effort to appeal to both the left and the center.
Such a candidate might end up winning the nomination and crushing Trump. Or he or she could sharpen the eventual nominee, by getting that nominee to reach beyond the party’s liberal base.
I expect that the campaign’s next phase will feature several candidates who try to do so. Obama, for example, has advised potential candidates that he “sees a relatively open space for a more moderate Democrat,” as The Times reported. Two Obama favorites who could have filled the role — Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor, and Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor — aren’t running.
Joe Biden remains the most obvious possibility. Even without having entered the race, he continues to lead just about every poll of Democratic voters. Beto O’Rourke will probably run too, and he’s shown an intriguing appeal across the left and center. Democrats typically lose Texas by between 10 and 30 percentage points. O’Rourke lost his Senate race by fewer than three points, and his coattails helped elect some House Democrats.
Amy Klobuchar is making a similar play. Her kickoff speech name-checked John F. Kennedy, Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Walt Whitman. Similarly, John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor, described himself last week in Iowa as “a doer,” in contrast to the “dreamers and debaters” from Congress. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio senator, also has the potential to win self-identified moderates.
Brown is a good case study, because he shows that appealing to the middle doesn’t mean abandoning progressive principles — as, say, Howard Schultz, the Starbucks billionaire and potential independent candidate, would. (Remember: The political center isn’t where most billionaires think it is.) Brown is a proud populist, a defender of unions and a critic of “corporate freeloaders.” But he also avoids casting himself as an out-of-the-mainstream lefty. He isn’t in favor of banning private health insurance. Since Obama’s 2012 re-election, Brown is the only Democrat to have won a statewide race in Ohio.
As Geoff Garin, the Democratic pollster, said to me, voters don’t conduct fine-grained analyses of a candidate’s ideology: “They live in a world of character and personality and values.” Candidates can have an ambitious progressive agenda while also reaching out to swing voters.
It’s still very early in the 2020 campaign, and all of the Democratic candidates have the ability to follow this path. Sanders can do so by emphasizing working-class issues that matter to voters across the ideological spectrum. Elizabeth Warren can talk passionately about family values — the real thing, not the fake version. Harris can present herself as an advocate for crime victims, whether the crimes were white-collar or violent.
I understand why the Democrats have been focusing their attention on the left. It has a newfound — and welcome — energy. But the best strategy for beating Trump in 2020 doesn’t involve only the left. And beating Trump is terribly important.