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Radical Centrists Will Decide the Democratic Primary

As a scrum of candidates battles for the leftist vote, a dark horse could win the nomination simply by standing out from the crowd.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Around this time four years ago, before the presidential primaries had begun, the most plausible Republican candidates seemed to be reading from more or less the same script. There were differences, to be sure, between Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush, but for the most part, they offered a mixture of social conservatism, budgetary austerity, and neoconservative foreign policy. Even as the field dwindled, Cruz, Rubio, and the supposedly moderate John Kasich—the last mainstream candidates left standing—all supported slashing Social Security and Medicare to make room for large income tax reductions. They were cut from recognizable GOP cloth, if tailored to slightly different tastes.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, was different, and not just in the color of his hair and the length of his ties. While all the other Republicans were converging around the policy positions of Paul Ryan, Trump identified a section of potential GOP voters who were being overlooked. It was to them that he directed his startlingly new positions on trade, immigration, foreign policy, and entitlements; for them that he promised to protect Medicare and Social Security; and for them, that he proposed a noninterventionist, what’s-in-it-for-us foreign policy, and pledged to end free trade agreements. 

The majority of GOP voters—as much as 60 percent—didn’t particularly like these positions. (And GOP funders, especially those in the Koch network, saw his policy positions as an outright repudiation of their core ideological commitments.) The ordinary Republican candidates—the 16 not named Donald Trump—knew as much. But in fighting for the “normal” 60 percent of the Republican electorate, they ensured their own defeat. In Illinois, the three conventional Republicans (Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich) took 59 percent of the vote, but because it was split three ways, not one was able to top Trump’s 39 percent. The same thing happened in North Carolina, where voters gave the orthodox candidates 58 percent, and Trump took the state with 40. The strategy may not have been intentional, but it turned out to be foolproof: Carve out a distinct political ideology that appeals to a solid minority of primary voters, and let the rest of the candidates vie for, and consequently split, the rest of the vote. 

More than a dozen candidates may run for the Democratic nomination in 2020: governors from the Plains states, senators from the coasts, billionaire entrepreneurs. But the most serious so far—Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders—run the risk of falling into the same trap as the main Republicans did in 2015. All of them—even the previously ideologically flexible Cory Booker—are competing for the same section of the primary electorate, one that wants to trade in centrist triangulation for social democratic economics. Given the repeated failures of deregulation, fiscal conservatism, and crony capitalism, this is an understandable instinct. Any one of these candidates could win the nomination if he or she were the only one in the mix. But there are (at least) four or five of them, all clustered around the same positions; come next summer, they will be fighting for the same voters, and as a result, they could all lose. It’s the same bad math that afflicted Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio four years ago, only now it’s on the other side.

recent survey by More in Common, a bipartisan think tank, identified a section of voters it called “progressive activists.” These people account for a disproportionate percentage of voters in Democratic primaries. But they are, More in Common found, just 8 percent of the American electorate as a whole. In other words, many more potential primary voters may be out there who would be open to a different kind of ideological mix than the one offered by the major Democratic candidates. And because no one is fighting for (and splitting) their share of the vote, they could end up deciding the Democratic primary. 

In 1995, the writer Michael Lind argued that the center in American politics was divided between a “moderate middle” of people who are fiscally conservative but socially liberal (they’d probably vote for Michael Bloomberg) and what Lind called a “radical center” of people who are economically more left-wing—angry about the powerful moneyed interests who, they believe, have rigged the economy in their favor—but more traditional on questions of social order and skeptical of the nation’s governing elites. New America’s Lee Drutman recently found that these kinds of voters make up 29 percent of the entire American electorate. They are, essentially, the people politicians fight over in the battleground states in the general election every four years. But they are also important in the nominating contests. If a Democratic candidate could convince a sizable portion to participate in the primary, she might win the nomination. 

Candidates like Booker or Warren seem to think that these kinds of voters will simply go along with an appeal designed for “progressive activists.” But it won’t work if a single candidate can offer radical centrists a package designed for them.

Say a candidate does something different: attacks the wealthy and the upward redistribution that keeps them rich, but eschews the consensus the main Democratic front-runners are pursuing, with their proposals for job guarantees, single-payer health care, and mandatory worker representation on cor­porate boards. 

Instead, that candidate suggests policies that strip away the subsidies that pad the incomes extracted by the finance and asset management industries, from low capital requirements to massive tax handouts for IRAs and 401(k)s. She might work to prevent large firms from shaking down states and localities, be it through sports franchises or Amazon’s ugly HQ2 lottery. Or she might attack the ways in which the wealthy have used zoning laws to make New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., the equivalent of gated cities. Or she could break with the emerging orthodoxy on how to control the cost of medical care and propose driving down the pay of doctors by loosening licensing requirements and stripping the American Medical Association of its power over prices in Medicare. She could, in short, attack economic inequality at its source, but in a way that doesn’t read quite as tribally left as the proposals of Warren, Booker, and Harris.

The radical center wants a party that supports existing social insurance programs and offers up ideas for even more, such as vastly increased child and earned income tax credits or universal catastrophic health insurance. These policies would substantially redistribute income, which the radical center would like to see, without raising worries about what the government can actually pull off.

While economics is central to the appeal that such a Democratic candidate might deploy against the rest of the field, he or she will also need to find a way to cut into the social order issues—especially crime and immigration—that Trump deployed with such force in 2016. The trick is to do so in a way that treats the concerns of less traditionally liberal voters seriously without sticking a finger in the eye of core Democratic constituencies. On immigration, this means putting the focus of enforcement on employers by promising to uphold the nation’s labor laws vigorously, rather than offering the Trump­ian package of deportation and a border wall. Where criminal justice is concerned, a mayor or governor with a solid record on crime could argue for funding better-trained police forces and  introducing a significantly upgraded parole and probation system as an alternative to mass incarceration. Such a candidate could emphasize that minority voters consistently want greater safety, as well as a more equitable criminal justice system, and offer to give them both.

The majority of Democratic voters may not prefer this mix—but a single candidate offering it might get enough votes to win the primary. If a Democrat is going to do what Trump did to the Republicans—compete for overlooked voters—it will be because she offered something very different from the other candidates and joined parts of the electorate in a way that no one has tried before. This political combination does that, and it has enough economic-­populist spirit to grab at least some people on the left, especially if a candidate puts these issues in the language of genuine anger at irresponsible elites.

Such a candidate may not exist. But the potential Democratic contenders, like Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar, who have not yet fully attached themselves to the left’s agenda, could incorporate at least parts of this appeal. And there may be an opening for a purer version of this ideologically unorthodox Democrat, especially someone like outgoing Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper or former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has not yet developed a clear political brand. An unknown may have no chance competing against a single familiar politician, such as Booker, Warren, or Harris. But in a traffic jam of such candidates, a candidate like this might be able to squeeze through to victory. It worked for Trump, and there’s a chance it could work again.