Rethinking America

Must US Democrats Be Moderates?

Are Democrats really not allowed to have a progressive candidate for president?

Credit: Jason and Bonnie Grower Shutterstock.com and Ninian Reid www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • We should be careful of analogies between UK and US politics. And Democrats should look at their own recent history before buying into the theory that only moderates can win.
  • The error of comparing UK politics to US politics is the ideological agenda of what constitutes the “left” in the US is located in Britain’s political center.
  • In 1980, the moderate (Democrat) Carter lost his re-election to the radical (Republican) Reagan. And in 2016, the moderate Clinton lost to the smash-the-china radical Trump.
  • Both Clinton and Obama ran populist campaigns substantially to the left of how they governed. Two years into their first terms, voters gave the Republicans control of Congress.
  • Every one of the current dozen or so major Democratic candidates -- including Warren and Sanders -- is by any measure more centrist than the radical Trump.
  • Most Democrats think that defeating the unhinged fascist and his Congressional minions in the White House is more important than their own programmatic differences.

The rout of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the recent British general election quickly fed into the assertion of conventional wisdom among U.S. pundits: Democrats can only win next year’s U.S. election with a candidate who campaigns from the “center.”

Pushing the Democrats to timidity

“An Ominous Portent for the Democrats,” one New York Times columnist wrote. Another claimed that Labour’s defeat forecast “the Coming Trump Victory in 2020.” Not surprisingly, Donald Trump himself crowed that Boris Johnson’s election was “a harbinger of what’s to come in our country.”

Whatever the exact cause of Johnson’s victory in Britain (was it mostly Brexit? Corbyn? Labour’s program?), applying it to U.S. politics has some obvious difficulties. For starters, there is nothing in the United States equivalent to the Brexit crisis. Or Jeremy Corbyn. Or the Labour left’s socialism.

But the key error of applying presumed lessons from the UK to U.S. politics is this: The ideological agenda of what constitutes the “left” in the United States of America — for health care, education and other critical issues — is located in Britain’s political center.

Moreover, most Democrats think that defeating the unhinged fascist and his Congressional minions in the White House is more important than their own programmatic differences.

By a margin of 56 to 33, they have told pollsters that they would prefer the strongest candidate against Trump even if they disagreed with him or her on the issues.

Radicals? Realists? Half-Republicans?

The battle for the Democratic Party nomination is widely described as a contest between the Party’s heart and its head. On the one side are the impatient “radicals” of the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders wing of the party. They press for a dramatic reversal in the long-term conservative drift in American public policies.

On the other side are the supposedly more practical “realists” of the Bill Clinton/Barack Obama wing. They insist that progressive goals can only be reached in small, cautious steps.

The “realist” view has been repeated so often in the media that it is a widely accepted truism. It explains the current strength in the polls of Joe Biden, who was Barack Obama’s vice president.

A late November 2019 survey found that just 15% of Democrats thought Biden had the best ideas, but by a wide margin — 46% to 10% each for Sanders and Warren — they thought he was most likely to beat Trump.

The other leading moderate, Pete Buttigieg, is the mayor of a smallish city who, if nominated, could not even deliver his home state. Faith in the appeal of centrism also just convinced multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg to jump into the already overcrowded race for the Democratic nomination.

But how certain should Democrats be that the path of a victory of their party’s candidate next November goes through the Party’s center?

Moderates claim that the election of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama proves their case. Yet, both Clinton and Obama actually ran populist campaigns substantially to the left of how they governed. And, curiously enough, two years into both of their first terms, voters gave the Republicans control of Congress.

Should only Republicans be radicals?

Moreover, in 1980, the moderate (Democrat) Jimmy Carter lost his re-election to the radical (Republican) Ronald Reagan. And once again in 1984, Walter Mondale’s moderate balance-the-budget centrism lost to Reagan’s supply-side radicalism.

In 1988, the moderate Michael Dukakis lost to George Bush I. In 2000 and 2004, the moderates Al Gore and John Kerry lost to George Bush II. And in 2016, the moderate Hillary Clinton lost to the radical, self-obsessed, smash-the-china radical Donald Trump.

We will never know if more assertive progressive Democrats could have won any of these elections. But certainly, there is evidence that in 2016 Bernie Sanders’ bread-and-butter populism could have beaten Trump in the crucial “battleground” states of the industrial Midwest which the relentlessly centrist Clinton lost.

The argument that only a candidate considered moderate within the Democratic Party can beat Trump in 2020 weakens further when you consider this key point: Every one of the current dozen or so major Democratic candidates — including Warren and Sanders — is by any measure more centrist than the radical Trump.

Trump is known around the globe for his daily urge to express his contempt for the U.S. constitution, the middle class, social norms and even rationality itself.

Centrist Democrats’ doctrine: Self-defeating?

Centrist Democrats’ doctrine, embraced by the Biden camp, holds that liberal goals can only be reached in incremental steps – and, more amazing yet, in collaboration with conservatives. The reverse obviously does not apply.

But the evidence gets even more interesting: Remember how a theatrically compassionate Bill Clinton told the struggling American workers in 1992 “I feel your pain.” Once elected, Clinton pursued an economic policy defined by financiers traveling through the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington.

The Clinton years were marred by tight budgets for social needs and the de-regulation of Wall Street that ended in the financial bust of 2008-9, as well as trade deals that exported jobs from the industrial states of the Midwest (and helped get Trump elected in 2016).

Timid Mr. Obama

Obama followed the same script. He regularly lectured his Party’s left (mind you, what goes for “left” in the United States) against being too ambitious.

For example, like Clinton, Obama understood intellectually that providing all Americans with health care would best be done under a Canadian-style single-payer system where health insurance is provided by the government.

But like Clinton, he refused to support it, insisting that “change happens in steps.” So he based his “Obamacare” on ideas taken a from a conservative Republicans think tank, allowed the private insurance and pharmaceutical companies to keep raising prices of premiums and drugs.

At the end of his term Barack Obama observed that “more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.” It should not have been a surprise.

Misreading their own voters

Nor should it have been a surprise that by 2016 enough voters were so frustrated with the Democrat Centrists’ weak policies that they provided the margin of victory to the bizarre Donald Trump, in the hope that he would bring some meaningful change.

The moderates still don’t get it. Biden regularly denounces Warren and Sanders for wanting to move too fast on health care and tax reform. Hillary insists that after four years of Trump, Americans want to return to “boring normal times.” But for many voters those times were a lot better for Hillary than they were for them.

Today, what is “ominous” for Democrats is not the British election. It is the fact that Trump — although behind in the national polls — is running roughly even against potential Democrats in key battleground states, where the race for state-based electoral votes will be decided.

Conclusion

None of this means that what goes for a “left/progressive” politician in the United States is automatically the best bet to win this coming November.

No one who experienced the shock of the 2016 election should be confident of predicting the outcome in 2020.

But it does mean that we should be careful of glib analogies between British and American politics. And that Democrats should take a hard look at their own recent history before automatically buying into the theory that only moderates can win.

As recent presidential history suggests, the middle of the road is not always the safest place to drive.

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About Jeff Faux

Jeff Faux was the founder, and is now Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute.

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