The Memo: The center strikes back

The political center is striking back — at least for now.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has become the most influential member of the Senate, occupying a perch from which he is able to mute his own party’s most ambitious goals.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), an avatar of Clinton-era centrism, easily defeated a challenge from the left earlier this month to secure the party nomination as he seeks to get his old job back.

New York City Democrats will go to the polls Tuesday with relative moderates holding the advantage over more progressive figures, according to polls.

The situation in Republican circles is very different, with former President Trump casting a long shadow over the party and his internal critics on the ropes. 

Still, it is notable that Republicans in both New Jersey and Virginia have recently chosen gubernatorial nominees who were not the most pro-Trump options available.

Given the deep polarization that is shaping American politics, this unexpected resilience in the center ground begs the question of what’s going on.

For Republicans, it seems pretty simple. Trump-like candidates just aren’t a good fit for statewide contests in Democratic-leaning territory. 

Trump lost New Jersey by 16 points in November. Virginia, a firmly Republican state from the 1960s until former President Obama carried it in 2008, went to President Biden by 10 points.

In those circumstances, it’s no surprise that GOP voters chose Jack Ciattarelli and Glenn Youngkin, respectively, as their nominees for governor. In Virginia, it’s also notable that McAuliffe’s campaign is trying to tie Youngkin as closely as possible to Trump.

In a statement emailed to The Hill, McAuliffe said he had “worked with reasonable Republicans” during his previous term as the commonwealth’s governor.

“But Trump-endorsed extremist Glenn Youngkin is not a reasonable Republican,” he added. “He has embraced Trump’s conspiracy theory about election integrity and said Trump represents so much of why he is running. I’ve created record economic growth after defeating extremists before, and I promise Virginians I’ll do it again.”

Within the Democratic Party, meanwhile, progressives have been in the ascendant in the party since at least the 2016 election cycle. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) entered the race for the presidential nomination against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a huge long shot — and ended up running Clinton extremely close.

Since then, upset victories by the left over incumbent members of Congress — none more memorable than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) vanquishing of then-Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y) — have caused political sensations. 

This, in turn, has translated into an intense media focus on the progressive lawmakers known as “the squad.”

At the same time, progressives had to make their peace with Biden winning the Democratic presidential nomination last year, as his cautious, steady approach defeated not just Sanders but also Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

The left was pleasantly surprised by Biden’s early performance in office, including executive actions on issues such as climate change and immigration, as well as the March passage of his huge COVID-19 relief bill.

But that satisfaction has seeped away as the quest for a huge infrastructure package has gotten bogged down. On voting rights, many left-leaning activists saw the quest to pass the expansive For the People Act as an existential battle. But — mainly thanks to Manchin’s opposition — it is a battle they are losing.

“We are angry and disappointed,” Ellen Sciales, the communications director of the progressive climate group Sunrise Movement, told this column.

“Time and again, Biden has failed, in that he continues to fail to meet the scale, scope and speed necessary” to meet the intertwined challenges of climate change and the economy, she said.

The Sunrise Movement is planning a protest, set for June 28, to make its dissent plain. 

Sciales emphasized how frustrating it is for the predominantly young activists in her organization to be neglected by the president while “he has been meeting with Republican senators who have not even acknowledged him as the legitimate president.”

But moderates on the center left of the party have a ready retort. It amounts to the following: Biden won the 2020 nomination, and the left lost; centrists such as McAuliffe are winning while the left loses; and the political dangers for Biden lie in going too far left, where he could lose the support of swing voters and energize grassroots Republicans, rather than in not going left enough.

Some in the center plainly feel that the left gets more media attention than it merits.

“We have to remember that Joe Biden, the moderate Democrat, beat every other comer in 2020, and where we won in 2018, most of the winning candidates were on the moderate side of the party,” said Simon Rosenberg, the president and founder of the centrist New Democrat Network.

“I don’t think there is really significant evidence yet that the party has moved dramatically left. Where is the evidence of that?” he added.

Other Democrats who are skeptical of the left put it even more sharply.

“I think the far left lives in a delusional reality, believing the country shares their views and opinions on everything. And it’s just not the political reality,” said one experienced Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to talk candidly about party tensions.

To go down a more progressive route — on spending, climate change, immigration or police reform — would risk a sizable electoral backlash, this strategist said.

Progressives “look at the country and they want it to be a certain way, but they ignore where the country actually is. They are determined to pull the country in that direction but, in those circumstances, the voters are going to push back,” the strategist added.

This appears to be what is happening in New York City. 

The front-runner for the Democratic nomination for mayor, Eric Adams, is a former police captain who is openly derisory of the “Defund the Police” movement. That position — and the salience of policing as an issue as crime rates rise — has helped Adams to a significant lead over the leading left-wing candidate, Maya Wiley. The other two candidates in the top four, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and businessman Andrew Yang, are also in the moderate mold.

The fact that this scenario is unfolding in a progressive redoubt such as New York fuels the centrist case. Yes, organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America might have gained ground, but the general public simply isn’t all that amenable to radicalism, the centrists argue. They also note that, even as Biden beat Trump decisively in November, Democrats hardly won a sweeping mandate in Congress.

Progressives insist it is important not to make too much of one or two races, including those in New York or Virginia. They point to recent victories by candidates from their side of the party — Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.) are the two names most often mentioned.

Some also take a longer view.

“If you go back to the Bill Clinton era, there is just no question that progressives are much more powerful and influential now than in the 1990s,” said Jonathan Tasini, a left-wing strategist and activist. “You can see that in the party agenda but also in the people who hold office — and not just in Congress but as mayors and on city councils.”

Tasini argued that the left’s problem was not a lack of popularity for its agenda but rather a tendency to lack rigor in analyzing where it could actually win and with whom.

“Some of my best progressive friends, people I admire, want to have victory before they have power,” he said.

While there were structural barriers weighing on the left, such as the current campaign finance system, “we do not do a good job about being strategic about which candidates we run for office,” he added.

Those debates will run for a long time.

But one thing seems certain: The establishment, camped out on the center ground, isn’t surrendering anytime soon.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Andrew Yang Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Centrism Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Joe Crowley Joe Manchin the squad

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