How Democrats Learned to Start Worrying and Love the Middle
The Eighties were a hard time for fashion, music, and Democrats
Over three elections in the 1980s, Democrats won 173 electoral votes, nearly 100 short of winning the presidency.
They did not average 173 electoral votes during The Greed Decade; that was the total. Republicans won the electoral college 1,440 to 173 across the Eighties, cruising to the White House in 1980 (49 electoral votes for Democrats), 1984 (13, thanks Massachusetts), and 1988 (111).
If electoral college votes were miles on I-95, liberalism drove from Boston to New Haven, while Reaganism rolled all the way down to Miami.
The last decade has seen far more partisan balance: from 2014 to 2023, presidential elections decided by fewer than 100,000 votes with House, Senate, and gubernatorial contests almost exactly even.
But despite that parity, trends show Democrats must now relearn the lessons they took out of the Eighties. Since 2016, the share of every demographic saying “Republicans care about people like me” has gone up. Black, Hispanic. Rich, poor. The share of every demographic saying “Democrats care about people like me” has declined – except among the highly educated.
In this and the next issue of Centrist School, we crash-course the modern history of the Center Left, starting from the last time voters forced Democrats to heed the electorate.
Then, as now, the party was tugged away from the mainstream and in danger of losing its national viability. We’ll explore the lessons from that time, why Democrats collectively un-learned them, and how we can come back.
Bill Clinton and the origins of the entrepreneurial Center Left
Clinton’s 1992 victory was the culmination of a half-decade of work shepherding an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as Aesop noted. And centrist Democrats had the necessary motivation to try new things in the late 1980s. And plenty of inventions followed.
From the electoral wilderness of the 1980s, the Center Left began inculcating organizations that would forge the way back to the White House: the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and affiliates helped socialize policy innovations and build a community of partisan centrists – “New Democrats.” They held luncheons, developed policies, hosted forums and created a social and political network of centrist politicians, culminating in the generation of leaders helmed by the young Arkansas governor. Embracing the center, Clinton resuscitated the party, which captured the White House in 1992 for the first time since 1976.
Clinton’s patented triangulation on budgets, crime and immigration allowed him to win re-election and leave office relatively popular. Bubba, for all his flaws, recognized reality; he knew where the votes were.
Obama the Popularist & Biden the Normal: 21st century lacked Center Left necessity
During the George W. Bush years, liberal Democrats for the most part did not organize around pulling the party left ideologically. Instead, the Democrats popular among the Netroots and online bloggers were so-called fighting Democrats (as Matt Yglesias recently recalled), using hardball to deny Bush wins. Youngsters coming of political age during the Trump resistance might be forgiven their surprise learning that a hero of the Netroots was former Reagan Navy Secretary and moderate Democrat Jim Webb. But while the Netroots were progressive, they were also pragmatic fighters, understanding the need to appeal to the median voter to win. They prized candidates like Webb who would make Republicans look hypocritical, rather than candidates designed to “mobilize” the base.
Both Obama and Biden eschewed the need for explicitly Center Left factions, though for divergent reasons.
Obama could eschew an ideological lane because of quirky dynamics: the DLC’s dominant success had rendered the party mainstream, his primary opponent was literally the DLC’s First Lady, and Obama possessed remarkable leadership talents and historic qualities.
Obama leaned into this middle ground. He did not seek to be a “movement progressive.” He meticulously avoided stoking the nation’s ever-simmering racial passions, was slow to embrace gay rights, and rejected a command-and-control response to health care and the financial crisis, earning praise from the DLC. Nevertheless, Obama was a hero to progressives because of what he stood for: an opponent of the Iraq War (from the relative safety of the Illinois state Senate), and someone whose blitzkrieg U.S. Senate career suggested a liberal policymaking bent.
Obama managed a deeply moderate party with a large Senate majority created by DLC style moderation and ideological diversity. These senators identified as pro-life, pro-gun, pro-business, pro-military and pro-fiscal responsibility. It’s worth recalling how truly moderate-to-conservative the members of the Obama-era supermajority were: Pro-lifers like Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Fossil fuel enthusiasts like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Fiscal hawks like Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
In 2020, Biden’s primary opponents handed him a similar lane. Obama’s Vice President never needed to spend time constructing a faction because Democratic voters, with a little prodding from graybeards, were far more sober than the new iteration of netroots on Twitter and the political class that overestimated the country’s leftward lurch. Voters recognized that many in the field had lost their political faculties, and saw what many professional politicians did not: the danger lurking across the aisle. The entire party operative sector had followed – or led – the Democratic candidates into a fever dream premised on Q scores and the terror of being the last lemming off the loony left cliff.
Meaning that all Biden had to do was remain in touch with the median voter, rather than create or reconstruct a faction.
Sandwiched between the 44th and 46th presidents, of course, was that danger, democracy’s existential threat. And his presidency was enabled by the decision by Clinton to chase Sanders voters, contorting herself during the primary into a procrustean progressive mold and playing directly into the Sandinistas’ playbook painting her as calculating, transactional. By 2016, the centrists were no longer the insurgency. In many ways, Hillary was the Sanders campaign. The Far Left did what necessity spurs: they got inventive as outsiders, and ended their quarter century of being sidelined within the Party.
And they got the best tool for growth: a weakened centrist losing to a populist authoritarian. In November, that mold proved irredeemable.
What’s Left of the Center
Paradoxically, there is today what could be seen as a federal Center Left, but not a national Center Left – that is, the intellectual residue of the New Democrats survives, even as it has not forcefully responded at the local and state level to the rise of leftist entrepreneurial energy. The DLC dissolved in 2011, although its heirs – Third Way, PPI – continue to wield influence and generate policy advances.
But there are no state-level counterparts – no Gary Hart Institute churning out Pentagon reform proposals in Denver or Blanche Lincoln Institute issuing rural policy white papers in Little Rock. The New New Left is largely cloistered in Washington.
At the same time, thanks to the repellent nature of both parties’ bases, the anti-partisan center has grown in strength and numbers. A Gallup poll taken in August 2023 found that 47 percent of voters identify as independents, nearly twice the number of those who identify as either Republican or Democrat, respectively. Those self-identifying indies cleave almost perfectly down the middle between the two parties.
That juicy middle, swelling in number and increasingly appalled by the ideological lunacies of the fringes in both parties, is undeniable ballot-box gold for whichever party locates the courage to recognize it.