Growing Up Center-Left
Join us November 1 for Centrist School Office Hours with culture-setter Debbie Cox Bultan, DLC alum & co-founder of NewDEAL Leaders
Discussions about empowering moderates immediately provoke two negative reactions: no one is excited about the word “moderate”, and doubts abound as to whether the political center can ever muster excitement or community.
Join us tomorrow November 1st at 12pm ET with NewDEAL founder Debbie Cox Bultan, whose community-building prowess has been proving the latter critique wrong for two decades.
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We previously explored the Far Left community, and how that has driven an entrepreneurial ecosystem that punches above its weight. One of those markers is “Culture that is rich in social capital – collaboration, cooperation, trust, reciprocity, and a focus on the common good – makes the ecosystem come alive”.
To experience a NewDEAL event is to feel a community come alive. We asked Debbie to share more about her journey to centrist political entrepreneur - and advice for the path ahead - in advance of tomorrow’s Zoom, below. First 30 minutes will be recorded, last 15 minutes off-the-record - so join us tomorrow at 12pm!
Four Lessons for Centrists
By Debbie Cox Bultan
I grew up in the center-left movement. I arrived for a temporary job at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) when I was 24 and stayed for nearly 15 years, serving as National Political Director and Chief of Staff. Later, in 2010, I helped launch the NewDEAL (Developing Exceptional American Leaders), where I still serve as founding CEO, identifying and elevating pro-growth progressive state and local leaders and ideas.
Over the past three decades, it has been a privilege to work alongside rising elected officials, policy experts, strategists and others, and to help build a unique and thriving community united in our pragmatic, results-oriented approach to governing.
All during that time, as control of the White House and Congress changed hands, as current events at home and around the world impacted the political landscape, and as the GOP’s center of gravity has lurched dangerously right under the influence of Donald Trump, a few beliefs learned early and shaped throughout my career have remained my north star:
1. Ideas Matter. At its core, politics is a battle of who has the best ideas. Elections are a means to an end, when we decide who gets to govern. Who gets to put their ideas into action.
When I was starting out, Democrats had been on a presidential losing streak, with twelve years of a Republican in the White House. The party brand was broken, failing to appeal to a majority of Americans. President Clinton’s victory changed that. With the help of the DLC, he developed a winning agenda that was rooted in core Democratic values that most Americans share: opportunity, responsibility and community.
With an electorate roughly split one third each between Democrats, Republicans and Independents, the math is straightforward. The party that captures the majority of the center will win. That means putting forth ideas, grounded in the values we share as Democrats, that have broad appeal.
Today, with extremism on the rise on the right, it will be critical to remind voters that Democrats are the true defenders of freedom -- the party that is defending fundamental rights while promoting economic opportunity, strengthening our communities, protecting our democracy and standing for community over chaos.
It’s worth noting that then-Governor Clinton found many of the specific ideas for his agenda as he traveled around the country as Chair of the DLC – ideas like national service, community policing, and welfare reform; today, the NewDEAL is finding and uplifting state and local ideas that are working.
Americans will always vote for something rather than against it, and with so much at stake in the upcoming election, Democrats can and must deliver a common-sense agenda with broad appeal.
2. Compromise is not a dirty word. When I started in politics, there was a campaign season, and then we’d get back to the business of governing. Democrats and Republicans would routinely get together to do hard things for the American people.
Contrast that with the most recent circus in the House GOP, where Speaker McCarthy was taken out for the sin of working with Democrats to keep the government functioning. This shift has not only been excruciating to watch, but is anathema to how government is supposed to work. Finding common ground and compromise is a necessity for a functioning democracy.
We have to be open to good ideas from wherever they come, and be working toward finding common ground and making incremental progress. Last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act enacting many common-sense gun reforms, for example, should be celebrated as a success, even as work continues on further action, rather than decried for not going far enough.
Relatedly, not everyone who disagrees with us is an enemy. People have different life experiences and different backgrounds. We should be listening to those who have legitimate questions or concerns and engaging on those questions rather than writing them off or simply repeating our same points more loudly.
3. Focus on the world as it is and will be, not as it was. We live in a time of tremendous, almost unimaginable change, and a leader’s job is to help prepare people for that change, not to deny it’s happening, nor tell people that they can protect them from the inevitable.
When I was starting out in politics, much of the national conversation, particularly within the Democratic Party, was focused on globalization and what we could do to stop it. But the truth was that technology and other factors meant that globalization was inevitable. The important questions instead included what can we do to help people prepare for the inevitable disruptions that were going to happen as a result of globalization? How can we modernize the social safety net? Are there opportunities that will come as a result of globalization and how do we take advantage of them?
Today, the scope and pace of change continues to accelerate, with new challenges and new opportunities, and we must be focused on addressing them head on, not burying our heads in the sand. Climate change is not some abstract, far-off idea; we see it every day across the country in severe weather events. We need to be asking about, and solving for, increasing resiliency, lowering carbon emissions, protecting the most vulnerable and transitioning to a clean energy economy. AI is already having profound impacts; rather than react from a knee-jerk position of fear of change, how can we build reasonable and important guardrails and prepare workers, but also harness new opportunities and efficiencies to make government work even better?
These changes demand thoughtful leaders who can tell the truth and look for solutions; not people who will give false promises and stoke fear.
4. Those of us who believe in government have a special responsibility to make it work well, and communicate when it does. Democrats have long been seen as the party of “government,” and for decades that has been a political liability. In the early 1990s, President Clinton famously took that issue head on by declaring the “era of big government is over”.
That declaration was important at the time, but by continuing to push off government, I worry we have contributed to the notion that government is the problem, or even the enemy. That pervasive public sentiment has helped lead to where we are now, with a large faction in the Republican party literally working to tear government down from the inside; a lack of civic participation and low voter turnout; and a crisis of democracy.
As a proud and passionate centrist, I do not believe government can solve every problem. But particularly in a society as big and complex as ours, government plays a critical role in spurring public investment, providing a social safety net for our most vulnerable, and helping create conditions where businesses, families and individuals can thrive. Government should be setting goals and helping to reduce barriers, providing incentives and flexibility for those goals to be met, including by the private, philanthropic and non-profit sectors.
To help restore faith in government, Democrats in particular must be willing to measure results, be clear-eyed about what is and what is not working, and be willing to pursue reform, even to programs we championed.
Equally as important, we have to tout successes. The Biden-Harris Administration and Congressional Democrats have made historic investments in America in the past two years. For example, the American Rescue Plan, which passed with no support from Republicans, helped stave off a second COVID recession, and allowed states and localities to save small business, help renters, expand child care and much more. The NewDEAL is tracking those investments, and we should be relentless in talking about how those investments have made a huge impact in the lives of everyday Americans.
At a critical time for our country, I will be holding on to those lessons and leaning into a pragmatic, results-oriented approach to governing, championing a common-sense agenda that is grounded in the values that most Americans share and delivers for the American people.
Join us tomorrow November 1st at 12pm ET with NewDEAL founder Debbie Cox Bultan
Thanks for reading Welcome Stack! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.