The Democratic Party Is the Party of Moderates

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Former New York City mayor and ideological moderate Michael Bloomberg last week said he didn’t enter the Democratic presidential primary because “I was [not] willing to change all my views and go on what CNN called an ‘apology tour.’” His fellow billionaire and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has left the Democratic Party to explore an independent presidential bid because it has moved too “far left” by calling for “the government to take over health care … the government to give free college to everybody, and the government to give everyone a job. … We can’t afford it.”

Some observers wonder if candidates running on records of pragmatism and compromise — such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Gov. John Hickenlooper and (assuming he enters) former Vice President Joe Biden — are on a fool’s errand. But the assumption that the Democratic Party has completely swung to the far left is complicated by reality.

For example, the enormous media attention given to the House’s newest left-wing firebrand has obscured the fact that most of the new class of House Democrats are low-key pragmatists who did not embrace single-payer health insurance, let alone a socialistic Green New Deal approach to climate change.

And a forthcoming poll from the Wason Center for Public Policy further calls into question how far left the Democratic Party is drifting. (The poll is not released yet, but I got a sneak peek from Wason Center Assistant Director Rachel Bitecofer, who co-authored the poll analysis.)

The numbers show that, contrary to claims that the political center of America is shrinking, slightly more than half of American voters self-identify as “moderate.” Now, the moderate middle is not monolithic; the group is almost evenly divided between those who lean liberal and those who lean conservative. Moreover, there’s no cleanly defined set of consensus issue positions for these folks; as Bitecofer elaborated to me in an email exchange, “the ‘center’ has been more conservative in principle (limited government, etc) but more liberal in terms of policy [such as] background checks for guns, comprehensive immigration reform, and more health care reform not less.” Still, the numbers suggest we as a nation are not fully retreating into warring far-left and far-right camps.

Moderates may be split ideologically, but politically, more see themselves as Democrats than Republicans. A majority of Democrats are self-identified moderates, including a small slice of conservative-leaning moderates. Whereas the GOP is dominated by “conservatives,” with moderates composing only about one-third of the party. And while independents are mostly moderate, the Wason Center survey found that only one out of every 10 voters are “pure independents” and don’t lean toward one party or the other.

In other words, the political home where most moderates presently feel most comfortable is the Democratic Party.

That doesn’t mean that the present Democratic Party big tent is an oasis of ideological tranquility and harmony. In recent years, the party’s left flank has moved farther to the left, and elements of the left are openly combative with the party’s more moderate establishment. For a Democrat to reject maximalist positions pushed by the activist left (single-payer health insurance, Green New Deal) in favor of arguably more pragmatic approaches (build on the Affordable Care Act, pair a carbon tax with offsetting tax cuts) is to invite questions from the left about your progressive bona fides. But just because the populist/socialist left is increasingly vocal inside the Democratic Party is not sufficient reason to conclude that it represents the ideological heart of the party.

Nor does the large presence of self-described moderates in the Democratic Party guarantee that the party will nominate a moderate for president. The center of gravity of the party is already farther to the left than it was a decade ago, and —    depending on the quality of the presidential candidates and the potency of their arguments — it could nominate a candidate who will continue moving the party leftward.

But if you are of a moderate sensibility, you should be aware that most people like you are Democrats. You are better off staking your turf in the Democratic Party than ceding it.

For moderates, asserting their presence in the Democratic Party comes with twin challenges, however. First, it will involve getting tangled in intra-party ideological battles that will constantly make you feel uncomfortable in your own political home. Second, you can win those battles and lose the war. If one ideological faction outmuscles the other for dominance, enough members of the losing faction could essentially leave the party, letting Trump win re-election with a popular vote plurality or (once again) a minority.

The Wason Center poll ran general election trial heats, one with Donald Trump against an unnamed Democrat, and a three-way race including an unnamed independent. Trump loses badly in the two-way matchup but clings to a slight lead in the three-way. Significant segments of both moderates and liberals jump to the third-party option, with right-leaning moderates most inclined. As Bitecofer elaborated to me, “Democratic and Independent moderates are susceptible to defecting from the Democrat to someone like Schultz, and it only takes a third party candidate siphoning off 1 or 2% of the vote to have a decisive effect in a key swing state.”

But she also argues that defections from the left played the biggest role in dooming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid: “While it’s true that some white working-class voters voted for Obama and then Trump, many of these voters also voted for Bush, and moved away from the Republicans temporarily because of the economic crash. … A much more important factor driving Clinton’s loss was defection from progressives, particularly white, male, college-educated progressives who were disgruntled after Bernie Sanders’ loss and lackluster turnout from black voters.”

So, if the 2020 Democratic primary is a bruising affair, no matter which ideological faction comes out on top, there will be a risk for debilitating disunity. A populist-socialist nominee could drive moderates to Schultz, if he runs. A moderate pragmatist could fail to lock down the left and cause a repeat of 2016.

To oust Trump, moderates not only need to maintain their large presence in the Democratic Party, but also get along with their populist-socialist brethren. And vice-versa. All of the factions need to engage in a good-faith debate over the direction of the Democratic Party, without turning the debate into a zero-sum quest for power. If they can walk that line, maybe, just maybe, the center will hold in 2020.

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.