Centrists are having a moment. After the initial months of the primary race were dominated by the proposals of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and other transformative policies, a concerted pushback seems to be having an effect. Joe Biden maintains a solid national lead over Sanders, Pete Buttigieg has risen at Warren’s expense after abruptly shifting his campaign into the center lane, and Michael Bloomberg has entered the race with a massive TV ad campaign pitching the billionaire as the ultimate can-do pragmatist.
Unfortunately, the goal in primary season is to accumulate votes, not candidates, and the entrance of Bloomberg, as well as Deval Patrick, into a field already crowded with other moderates is a sign of the continuing angst among party donors and insiders that they have yet to find a white knight (emphasis on white) who can rally voters away from dangerous left populism.
They have good reason to be nervous. Biden’s popularity is an emperor’s new clothes situation that can end the moment it becomes apparent that nobody actually favors him but were only trying to get behind the candidate they thought other people wanted. Buttigieg’s main accomplishments are being the mayor of a small city whose Black residents don’t like him and work for a global consulting firm that he says he can’t discuss due to non-disclosure agreements. (I can’t imagine Trump having anything to say about that.) And nobody should expect the uncharismatic and unpopular Bloomberg to do any better.
So expect complaints to continue about their lack of a dream moderate candidate, in part because those gripes are a useful distraction from the underlying problem that their primary message for the past four decades is out of step with these newly radical times.
Over the long rightward shift in American politics that started in the 1970s, Democrats’ presidential candidates were generally chosen on the basis of “electability,” which was code for moderate business-friendly politics that would attract wealthy donors and hopefully peel swing voters away from Republicans.
Electability still matters — Democratic voters consistently tell pollsters that their top priority is to find a candidate who will defeat Donald Trump — but the experience of 2016 has challenged the association of electability with centrist in two dramatic ways.
From one end of the spectrum, Bernie Sanders’ stunning success as an insurgent primary candidate unearthed the broad desire for wealth redistribution and social democracy among Democratic voters — sentiments that have continued to make themselves felt through the widespread support for policies like the Green New Deal and the election of young socialist women of color into Congress.
From the other end, Trump’s polarizing presidency has so successfully cleaved the populace into two camps that traditional assumptions about who can win elections in either party are now questionable at best. Most polls show that Biden, Warren and Sanders have similar numbers in head-to-head polls against Trump, which gives the lie to the notion that Buttigieg, Biden, and Amy Klobuchar are pushing moderation only because that’s the best way to win the election. They’re pushing back on Medicare and free public college for all not because those ideas can’t win but because they can.
Because of the radicalizing left-wing climate inside the Democratic Party, Biden and Buttigieg have put forward education, health care and climate change proposals that are more progressive than typical centrist candidates — which they use to fend off criticism from the left. But their core messaging is about discrediting the more radical proposals of their rivals with right-wing talking points about the working class paying for rich kids to go to college and people losing their health coverage through a single payer system.
The electability argument is an attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy — it’s not that you don’t think radical policies can win it’s that you don’t want them to win and you argue they can’t win to make it less likely they will.
This strategy isn’t great for generating popular enthusiasm for moderates. While Sanders and Warren push for easy-to-understand and comprehensive social welfare programs that already exist in many countries, the so-called pragmatists counter with byzantine, means-tested contraptions with enough loopholes to create a dozen new corporate law firms. While the left pitches a vision of a better society for all, Buttigieg and Klobuchar tout themselves as uniquely positioned to appeal to a narrow slice of suburban swing voters.
Add to all this the fact that centrist logic seems to disfavor possibly more dynamic candidates like Kamala Harris and Corey Booker in hopes of winning the tiny racist swing voter bloc, and it’s no surprise that moderates are having a hard time finding a candidate to feel inspired about.
But to win the Democratic nomination you don’t have to be popular (see: Clinton, Hillary) if you can succeed in discrediting your opponents (see: Trump, Donald). Given that polling shows that attacks within the Democratic Party on Medicare for All might be succeeding in chipping away at the policy’s majority support, the centrist strategy might be working after all.
Then there are the ways in which moderates benefit from the structure of the Democratic Party, and its place within an asymmetric two-party system that features only parties of the right and center.
For as much enthusiasm as there is among the base for Sanders and Warren, Democratic voters tell pollsters that they’ll vote for any eventual nominee. Among the interesting findings from the recent Blue Wall Voices Project is that a whopping 92 percent of Democratic voters in the Midwest support a Green New Deal, but only 12 percent say they won’t vote for a nominee who opposes it. For Medicare for All the corresponding numbers are 62 percent and 5 percent.
This desire to support anyone who opposes Trump is natural, but it contrasts with Wall Street party donors who are warning that they’ll back the Republican if Warren ends up winning (and presumably push for military intervention if Sanders is the nominee). This is the double standard at the heart of a party that shames its left for not sufficiently condemning Ralph Nader and Jill Stein for treason while prizing donors and swing voters who are willing to support the most bigoted and reactionary president in modern history.
None of this means that it’s impossible for Sanders or Warren to win the nomination. But it does mean that if they do, the fight with centrists over Medicare for All, free college and a Green New Deal will only have begun.
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