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The Enduring Timidity of the Democratic Party

Once again, moderates are trying to scare voters away from left-wing politics.


The Democrats are about to blow it.

That’s the emerging consensus of the party’s moderates, anyway. Every week brings a new Politico story in which Democrats grouse about the party’s resurgent left wing, warning that its pie-in-the-sky proposals and heterodox rhetoric threaten to squander the party’s hard-earned electoral momentum under President Trump.

“As we run up to this presidential [election], we need to show that Democrats, as a whole, are not socialists,” said California Representative Katie Hill, who flipped a longtime Republican district last year. Another first-term representative from California, Harley Rouda said that “while Steve King’s views don’t represent the entire Republican Party, those on the far left of the Democratic Party do not represent the mainstream caucus.” Stuart E. Eizenstat, an adviser in the Carter administration, wrote in Politico Magazine that he’s twice “watched pressure from the party’s liberal wing tear the party apart and bring down a Democratic presidential candidate,” adding, “Today, I fear it could all be happening again.”

This is an age-old wail. For decades, Democrats have been telling themselves that there exists a liberal cliff: Move too far to the left and they’ll fall off it, handing the country to an increasingly draconian Republican Party and dooming the Democrats to years in the political wilderness. Thus, when out of power, they inevitably tack toward the center when out of power, ever fearful of being labeled tax-and-spend liberals or, god forbid, socialists.

The Democratic Party of the past half-century has been defined largely by this timidity. Now here comes a crop of fearless left-wing politicians, from first-term congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar to septuagenarian Senator Bernie Sanders, whose fearless policies are generating much of the excitement among the rank-and-file. For the party to turn its back on them, out of certainty that history will repeat itself—now that would be blowing it.

The Democrats’ centrist Cassandras invariably point to four presidential elections—two losses and two victories—to buttress their argument.

In 1968, intraparty fighting over the Vietnam War, and lingering anger over the party’s embrace of civil rights, allegedly cost Democrats the White House. In this telling, the left wing’s refusal to embrace Vice President Hubert Humphrey because of the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policy played into Richard Nixon’s hands, leading to Tricky Dick’s criminal presidency and five more years of war. In 1980, Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge of Jimmy Carter over universal health care may have mortally wounded Carter, leading to twelve years of deregulation, callousness, and misery.  

Bill Clinton retook the White House for Democrats—and held it for two terms—while pushing decidedly centrist policies: deregulation, welfare reform, crime bills, and above all, triangulation, a political approach purporting to merge the best of Republican and Democratic approaches to governance. After another spell in the wilderness thanks to the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision, Democrats retook power in the late 2000s thanks to moderate candidates.

“I think there’s tremendous agreement and awareness that getting the majority and running over the left cliff is what our Republican opponents would dearly love,” Ellen Tauscher, at the time the chairman of the conservative New Democrat coalition, told The New York Times in 2006 about the party’s midterm strategy. “And that is a compunction that we’ve got to fight.” Two years later, Barack Obama won the White House, thanks in part to backing from political moderates, who supported him in large numbers. Though Obama campaigned to the left of Bill Clinton, he governed largely as a moderate, especially on the economy, national security, and health care.

All of this leads many to conclude that a simple calculus governs political power in America: When Democrats move to the center, they win; when they move to the left, Republicans do. So it’s no wonder that, given all the talk of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, some Democrats are once again pleading for moderation.  

Perhaps thinking of his own battle with Ted Kennedy, Carter has counseled Democrats to focus on independents rather than progressives. “Independents need to know they can invest their vote in the Democratic Party,” Carter told an audience at his presidential library in September, going on to caution that consequences would follow were they to “move to a very liberal program, like universal health care.” Although the party picked up 40 seats in a landslide midterm election, the amount of attention given to new progressive policies, like Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, Sanders’s Medicare for All, and Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax and anti-trust plans, continues to make Democrats apprehensive.

“We’re caught in a lose-lose because the activists are completely paying attention to Alexandria. And so if we aren’t supporting it, then we’re seen as bad Democrats,” Hill, the Democratic congresswoman from California, told Politico. “But if we do support it, then that’s going to be damaging to our campaigns.” 

What’s the solution to this bind? Delaware Senator Chris Coons told The New York Times it was to be “hopeful, optimistic, positive.” Third-term Pennsylvania Congressman Brendan Boyle said “there’s still lots of folks on our side who are O.K. with compromise,” pointing to the many center-left Democrats who won seats in the midterm elections. Above all, the answer appears to be to keep quiet about specifics, as Beto O’Rourke has done, distancing oneself from universalist programs like Medicare for All and instead speaking in vague generalities about access and affordability. A fear of appearing too liberal has led these and other Democrats to be wary of standing for anything.

But the Democratic Party is moving left, whether they like it or not. Forty-six percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters now identify as “liberal,” up from just 28 percent a decade ago. At the same time, the percentage of people identifying as “moderates” has fallen from 44 to 37. When Obama was elected, one could accurately describe the Democratic base as being moderate, but that’s no longer true anymore. As The Atlantic’s David Graham wrote last year, registered Democrats have become more liberal on immigration, economics, and race over the same period. Increasing taxes on the rich, Medicare for All, and a jobs guarantee all poll well today.

Democrats did not gain their current momentum by being timid, but by relentlessly criticizing the president and advancing bold new ideas. Trump is the most consistently unpopular president in recent American history, and is underwater in the polls in key primary states. His approval rating may worsen yet after special counsel Robert Mueller releases his report and House Democrats’ investigations begin to bear fruit.

It’s true that the sky is falling—just not on the Democrats.