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Moderates Are Back on the Front Page
The history of the modern center-left shows what a successful intervention can do to transform the party.
A story titled “The Vanishing Moderate Democrat” graced the cover of New York Times Magazine over the July 4th weekend. The story’s subtitle said even more: “Their positions are popular. So why are they going extinct?”
The Economist’s front page this week had a similar theme (The Democrats need to wake up and stop pandering to their extremes) and subtitle (“For the good of America, the governing party urgently needs to take on its own activists”).
Two heavyweights sounding the alarm for a renewed focus on moderate Democrats should be enough to get people’s attention.
Structural forces pose challenges for center-left factions: Moderates face the outsized power of organized far-left groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution, partisan gerrymandering and geographic ideological sorting reducing swing districts, and the media’s insatiable appetite for conflict between the fringes.
Without an intervention, these dynamics allow Democrats to be defined by an unpopular activist wing. Stories such as these often focus on the last time this kind of intervention was successful — way back in the late 1980s. The lack of a recurrence may best be explained as a result of historical quirks over a half-century of presidents:
1980s: The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) launches to bring the party back into the mainstream and break its painful presidential losing streak.
1990s: The DLC’s thesis and political apparatus triumph, as Bill Clinton and the New Democrats twice conquer not only the far-left but the GOP.
2000s: Barack Obama transcends internecine fights and wins - but without having to build the infrastructure necessary to win intraparty battles.
2020: Joe Biden wins by projecting a moderate image that contrasts with the rest of the Democratic primary field in DLC-ish style — but without elevating the infrastructure or demonstrating the interest to continue to fight (and win) the intraparty battle that secured him the nomination.
Over 45 years, Democrats won five presidential elections with three pragmatic, mainstream candidates who beat primary challengers from the left and subsequently won the middle to capture the White House. But only once over the course of those five decades did the situation demand a surge of new energy and talent aimed at building and defining a robust center-left faction within the Democratic Party.
The need for another intervention is now front-page news.
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Taking the Presidential View
To understand the evolution of the modern center-left over the past five decades, there are a few good reasons to focus on presidents (and presidential primaries):
Primary Struggle: The presidential primary process can allow for a lengthy, public scrum across ideology, interest groups, and candidate types that ends with one clear winner.
Brand Definer: The president is the de-facto party leader and is best-positioned to define the party’s message and brand.
Proof of Concept: The most recent case of a well-organized center-left faction, the DLC, was founded to address the trifecta of presidential losses in the 1980s (despite Democrats holding the House during the decade).
Explanatory Power: Ordinary people understand the presidency better than any other facet of government, making it a simple yet powerful tool for explaining the ebbs and flows of American politics.
Sometimes things have to get really bad before they can get better.
The DLC emerged at rock bottom for Democrats and the White House. In The New Democrats and the Return to Power, DLC architect Al From recalls how bleak things were:
“The Democrats spent the 1980s wandering in the political wilderness… In 1980 incumbent President Jimmy Carter lost 44 states to Ronald Reagan. But it was in 1984 that the party truly reached its nadir. On November 6, 1984, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale lost 49 states, the second 49-state shellacking in four elections. Only by winning the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia and his home state of Minnesota by a mere 3,761 votes did Mondale avoid losing every state. Four years later, when Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was routed by Vice President George H.W. Bush, it marked the fifth Democratic defeat in six presidential cycles, a losing streak interrupted only by Jimmy Carter’s narrow victory in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.”
In their famous postmortem on this period (“The Politics of Evasion”) political scientists Elaine Kamarck and Bill Galston diagnosed the problem: “Too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security.”
They advised engaging in constructive — and public — battle with the far-left:
“Only conflict and controversy over basic economic, social and defense issues are likely to attract the attention needed to convince the public that the party still has something to offer the great middle of the American electorate.”
With Bill Clinton and the New Democrats as their stewards, the DLC took up the mantle in the intra-party fight and won on a message of safety, economic mobility, and opportunity. They demonstrated what happens when you constructively — and loudly — take on and beat the far-left: you subsequently beat Republicans.
When Barack Obama took up the mantle in 2008, he papered over the conflict between the center-left and the far-left. All wings of the party tried to claim him as their own.
In some respects, Obama won the center with substance (like no healthcare mandate) and the left with style (or, as people would now describe it, “vibes”) and his Iraq stance. He won the primary by beating a Clinton and the general by being a Clintonite. Regardless of how he did it, the important takeaway for the center-left’s evolution is his ability to keep the intra-party tension largely peaceful.
Obama's ability to play above the factional fray meant the battle between far-left and center-left was neither well-defined nor fought out in the open. After two successive Democratic losses to George W. Bush, Obama won the presidency without having to build — or benefit from — a renewed centrist infrastructure focused on winning the middle.
But one side was preparing a new arsenal to win intra-party fights, and it was not the center-left. By the end of Obama’s first term, the DLC had closed down (to feel just how long ago that was, check out the design of their website).
2016 and 2018
Bernie Sanders might have lost to Hillary Clinton, but his campaign galvanized an entrepreneurial far-left ecosystem. This development not only reignited intra-party divisions, but was misinterpreted by politicos as a broader movement left among voters that remained unresolved until Democratic primary voters had their say in 2020. (For a compelling theory on how it was Bernie’s cultural moderation that drove his overperformance, check out this recent Matt Yglesias piece.)
Trump’s subsequent win unleashed unprecedented energy, which bolstered the only faction ready to handle an influx of highly engaged (and often highly educated) new activists. As a result, Far-left groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution harnessed Trump’s shock-to-the-system victory to knock off unprepared Democratic incumbents.
While the far-left focused on taking out centrist Democrats, the pragmatic center-left focused on winning and protecting democracy (often, it should be noted, with significant support from individuals and organizations to the ideological left of these moderate candidates). Instead of engaging in internecine warfare and fortifying the center-left faction against the far-left’s onslaught, the pragmatists responded by trying to beat Republicans.
In the end, Pragmatic, mainstream Democrats reached out to swing voters, flipped 41 swing seats, and delivered a House majority in 2018 — but disproportionate attention was paid to the far-left knocking off four Democratic incumbents in deep-blue districts.
2020: Voters Take the Wheel
By the time the 2020 primaries came around, a misreading of 2016 and 2018 by the chattering class gave rise to a prevalent — and incorrect — narrative of far-left dominance. But voters demanded electable moderation (first evident in surges for Klobuchar and Buttigieg) and eventually settled on Joe Biden as the closest thing available. Democratic primary voters — especially Black voters in South Carolina — retook the wheel from disproportionately white, elite activist fringes and drove the party and the narrative back to reality.
But since Biden won the primary, the consensus is that his campaign and administration has been pulled away from the middle. What happened to the middle-of-the-road Biden who triumphed in the Democratic primaries and beat Donald Trump?
As Biden’s presidential campaign manager — who architected the survive-until-South Carolina strategy that led to the nomination — said in an interview last week, “there are some people within the administration who would benefit from acquainting themselves with Biden’s ideology and policy.”
Biden won as a moderate. But Biden did not explicitly win as the product of a moderate movement. He was simply the closest thing to the middle.
His current staff, on the other hand, are far from the median voter. Matt Yglesias sized up the problem in Bloomberg last fall:
“President Biden doesn’t have some of the advantages Primary Candidate Biden had. There is no campaign to dramatize his differences with the left, and his administration is largely staffed in the middle layers by younger, more liberal people who didn’t support him until he locked up the nomination.”
The contrast is gone. Candidate Joe Biden proclaimed “I beat the socialist. That’s how I got elected.” President Joe Biden? Well, here’s what The Economist had to say: “All too often, Mr Biden seems to distinguish himself from his party’s worst ideas in muted tones and delicate asides.”
Some of the top magazines in the world are now focusing our collective attention on the need for an intervention — less mute button, more volume up. Back to the Brits once more: “It is not enough for Democrats to bemoan Republican disinformation. They need to counter the idea that they themselves are in thrall to their own extremes.”
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
The DLC was born of necessity after three presidential drubbings for Democrats. One way to think about its closing is that it achieved the ultimate victory by fulfilling its main purpose: maybe the electoral incompetence of the left was dead and buried, rendering a coherent center-left faction no longer necessary.
As Matt Yglesias recently broke down, the DLC got several significant things wrong — and many more things right. One unmentioned benefit: when you build a vibrant ecosystem, there is ample talent, energy, and cohesion to adapt to new challenges. While the DLC entity itself disappeared, a DLC Diaspora carried the mission forward: the leadership of Third Way, the continuation of the Progressive Policy Institute, and NewDEAL Leaders. A new iteration of centrist Democratic organizations emerged to face a new set of political and policy problems. Those outfits have continued making the reality-based case for seizing the opportunities and avoiding the risks facing Democrats across politics, policy, and candidate leadership.
Kamarck and Galston recently released an update to their 1980s post-mortem, in which their call for constructive contrast with the far-left was revived. This time around, there seems to be even more obvious targets, too.
Is it a coincidence that The Economist cover page comes just months after the magazine acquired the former editor of the New York Times who was run out of town for publishing an op-ed from a Republican Senator?
The center-left faces many structural deficits in the battle for a party that can win a majority and protect democracy. But when an intervention is warranted — when the backlash is strong enough and the stakes high enough — the moderates have a helluva track record.