The Argument For a Centrist Democrat In 2020
While much of the attention in the race for the Democratic nomination to date has been on the left, there is a path forward for a more centrist candidate.
While much of the attention in the Democratic race for President so far has been focused on candidates who are openly appealing to the party’s progressive wing, The New York Times notes that there could be a path forward for a more centrist candidate
Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks chief executive contemplating an independent run for president, stated it as a plain matter of fact: For someone with his views — a distinctly white-collar blend of conservative fiscal instincts and liberal social values — there is no suitable political party.
That would come as news to the eight or nine Democrats who may seek their party’s presidential nomination on versions of that very platform.
They call themselves moderates and problem-solvers, consensus-builders and pragmatists. Monochrome and male, they do not embody social change or hold out the promise of making history. Among them are former mayors, like Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans; current and former governors, including John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia; Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado; and smattering of House members. Atop the pack is a former vice president: Joseph R. Biden Jr.
If they run, these Democrats would test whether there is a large audience of primary voters open to promises of incremental change and political compromise, or whether the ascendant liberal wing is now fully dominant, defining the party’s agenda around transformational goals like enacting single-payer health care and breaking up big banks.
In most cases, these Democrats are framing their moderate instincts in terms of political process — stressing their willingness to cooperate with Republicans — or fiscal and economic concerns, including sensitivity to private business and government debt. They largely agree with more liberal Democrats on issues like guns, abortion and gay rights, which once divided the party.
Mr. Bloomberg offered an uncommonly tart rendition of this cohort’s worldview in New Hampshire on Tuesday, warning that a “Medicare for all” health care policy would “bankrupt” the country. He also dismissed a proposal by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, to impose an annual wealth tax on enormous personal fortunes, as “probably unconstitutional.” Ms. Warren engaged the fight, branding Mr. Bloomberg on Twitter as a billionaire who wants to “keep a rigged system in place.”
If Mr. Bloomberg’s views grate on many Democrats, allies see it as a distinctive trait in a diffuse primary. Howard Wolfson, an adviser to the former mayor, said the current Democratic field seemed to invite a competitor closer to the center.
“We believe that there is a clear and sufficiently wide lane for a pragmatic candidate, and that the progressive lane is really crowded,” Mr. Wolfson said. “The pragmatic lane is relatively free.”
Polls suggest that somewhere between a third and half of Democratic voters see themselves as moderates, though the label is vague enough to cast doubt on the group’s cohesion.
That bloc, these candidates and their advisers acknowledge, could lose influence if a herd of self-styled pragmatists end up stampeding into the Democratic contest, atomizing the center even as progressive competitors carve up the left. It is also highly uncertain that Democrats, who celebrated the election of many women and candidates of color in 2018, would turn quickly in 2020 to nominating a white man with narrower governing ambitions.
In the early primary states, much of the action so far has focused on proudly liberal, potentially history-making candidates, including Ms. Warren and Senators Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
But former Gov. John Lynch of New Hampshire, a centrist Democrat, said he saw a clear opening for a candidacy pitched at the middle, one that is attentive to matters like climate change but also sensitive to deficits and debt. Mr. Lynch named Mr. Biden and Mr. Bloomberg as the two most compelling possibilities.
“I’d like to see somebody come in and make the case for electing a more moderate candidate,” Mr. Lynch said, “and I believe that if the Democrats want to beat President Trump, their best bet is electing somebody in the middle.”
Mr. Lynch cautioned that the chances for an avowed moderate would fade if too many people compete for the label: “If there are a couple of moderates, then they are going to take share away from each other.”
The road to the Democratic nomination would likely be fraught for any moderate, especially one who would not break a historic barrier by virtue of identity, as Barack Obama did in 2008. To some Democrats, a more centrist message might too closely echo Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2016 campaign, which left many in the party determined to focus on mobilizing the left over pursuing the middle. And the most vocal Democratic factions have shown little interest so far in settling for something other than a liberal champion, on issues from taxation and business regulation to criminal justice and gender equality.
Polls of Democratic voters offer mixed signals about how liberal they want their nominee to be. There is no question the party has moved leftward: the Gallup Poll found this month that for the first time in decades, a majority of Democrats describe themselves as liberal, while just 34 percent now call themselves moderate. And taxing the rich is broadly popular, with a sizable majority of Americans believing wealthy people and corporations pay too little to the government.
“People have grown more liberal and more willing to call themselves liberal,” said Lydia Saad, a senior editor at Gallup, cautioning that ideology did not necessarily predict voting behavior: “The public is very fungible in terms of who they will accept as a leader, based on things that seem to go beyond ideology.”
Arkadi Gerney, a Democratic strategist who runs the Hub Project, a liberal advocacy group that has focused heavily on taxes, said that intensive issue polling had consistently found powerful support for raising taxes on the wealthy, not just among Democrats but also among working-class white voters in Mr. Trump’s base.
“The thing that was consistently the most popular in those experiments was: raise taxes on the rich,” Mr. Gerney said. “It is tapping into anger that a lot of people have.”
Yet there are also signs of hesitation among some Democrats about shifting left. A January study by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of Democrats want the party to become more moderate, compared with 40 percent who want it to grow more liberal. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that while single-payer health care is hugely popular among Democrats, half of the party’s voters want House Democrats to prioritize improving the Affordable Care Act over passing Medicare for All legislation.
All of this comes at a time when most of the attention regarding the 2020 campaign to date has been given to candidates who are clearly seeking to gain the support of the progressive wing of the party. This includes candidate who have already declared their candidacy such as Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, and Kamala Harris, as well as potential candidates such as Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and, of course, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. As I’ve said before, all of these candidates will be competing for essentially the same segment of the Democratic Party as the race goes on. Some of them will be more successful than others, and more than a few of them likely won’t make it much further than the Iowa Caucuses and, maybe, the New Hampshire Primary. For those that are left, though, there will be a pitched battle for this “progressive” vote, which at least theoretically leaves an open path of sorts for candidates that aren’t quite so far left politically as the race heads deeper into the primary season.
This progressive cohort, though, only represents one part of the Democratic Party as a whole and not necessarily representative of voters that might be inclined to vote against President Trump. The other part of the Democratic Party coalition, and perhaps the largest one when you actually look at the numbers, is the one that voted for Obama in the primaries in 2008 and 2012 and for Clinton in 2016. Unlike the progressives, these voters aren’t hard-left, don’t necessarily support ideas like Medicare for All, “free” college, and other policy ideas that have become a common part of progressive Democratic policy positions in the years since the 2016 Clinton-Sanders race. Additionally, this “center-left” cohort includes those white, working-class voters in places like the Midwest that voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 only to turn around and vote for Trump in 2016. As I’ve said before, the Democrats need a candidate who can speak to these voters as easily as they can speak to more liberal voters on the East and West Coasts. Perhaps one of the “progressive” candidates can meet that criterion, but the more likely thing is that this would be an opening for candidates such as Joe Biden or even Mike Bloomberg, both of whom seem to be leaning toward the idea of a campaign that doesn’t just speak to the progressives in the party and, in some cases, pushes back against them when necessary.