Centrists are warning progressives to back off with their favored rhetoric as the Democratic Party enters a challenging midterm year where it is in deep danger of losing the House and Senate majorities.
None other than the party's 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonA year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low The Memo: 2024 chatter reveals Democratic nervousness Second gentleman Emhoff acts as public link to White House MORE, has said liberals risk costing their party precious political power by pandering to voters in areas that are already Democratic, with little to no risk of swaying the control of Washington.
“I think that it is a time for some careful thinking about what wins elections, and not just in deep-blue districts where a Democrat and a liberal Democrat, or so-called progressive Democrat, is going to win,” Clinton told NBC News in a recent interview, effectively throwing a grenade into the longest running intraparty debate in recent cycles.
Progressives are pushing back, arguing the party would be better off aggressively pursuing liberal policies and telling everyone why they’re doing it. They say Democrats face more danger by watering down their verbiage because voters will have even less of a reason to turn out and that the stronger the message, the more it will resonate.
“Winning elections is not about looking good. It’s about being good,” Rep. Cori BushCori BushThe Memo: Biden's overpromising problem Centrist Democrats urge progressives to tamp down rhetoric Photos of the Year MORE (D-Mo.) told The Hill on Tuesday.
“If Democrats brought home expansive climate action, a federal minimum wage of at least $15, paid leave, police reform, and ‘Medicare for All,’ we would win in a landslide,” she said. “The problem is that these are not getting done, year after year, even while basic necessities like housing and health care keep getting more and more expensive.”
“The path forward is to actually enact policies that address the pain people are feeling across the country, not pretend that pain doesn't exist,” Bush said.
Centrists agree on that broader point: that politicians have left behind many of the country’s most vulnerable populations for decades and that something needs to get done to win in November.
But they disagree on the tactics, with some saying their extensive wish lists ignore certain electoral realities of a country that sent a moderate microcosm of Washington’s establishment to the White House just over a year ago.
They believe that by brushing that aside, the party could forfeit seats in swing districts with populations that simply aren't as liberal as some major metropolitan areas where several House progressives have risen to fame.
Moderates point to the painful loss of the Virginia governor’s mansion as the biggest wake-up call that a blue seat could easily bleed red without message discipline. Some suggest things could have gone even worse had a more progressive nominee than Terry McAuliffeTerry McAuliffeYoungkin inaugurated as first GOP Virginia governor in over a decade Centrist Democrats urge progressives to tamp down rhetoric Pandemic pushes teachers unions to center stage ahead of midterms MORE, a close Clinton ally, campaigned against GOP nominee Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinWhy our parties can't govern Some in GOP begin testing party's lockstep loyalty to Trump Youngkin signs executive orders banning critical race theory, lifting mask mandate in Virginia public schools MORE.
Where there was one loss, these centrists contend, there are other tenuous areas where the party could hand Republicans control on a much larger scale and with longer-lasting ramifications for Biden and the next presidential election.
“There are 5 Senate races and about 40 House races where if the electorate moves as much as it did in VA and NJ, they go Republican. So yes, we are deeply concerned that this could happen again,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way.
“It’s imperative that Democrats in swing districts and states are defined the way Joe BidenJoe BidenCarville advises Democrats to 'quit being a whiny party' Wendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Sullivan: 'It's too soon to tell' if Texas synagogue hostage situation part of broader extremist threat MORE was in 2020 — mainstream, pragmatic and focused on issues that resonate,” he said.
These contentious debates have long dogged the party with no clear end in sight.
In 2016, before Clinton lost the general election to former President TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE, she prevailed over her more liberal primary rival, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats call on Biden to step up virus response We are America's independent contractors, and we are terrified Overnight Health Care — Biden's Supreme Court setback MORE (I-Vt.), who has been hellbent on moving Democrats to the left with him over the past six years.
Clinton, meanwhile, has done the opposite by remaining loyal to the orthodoxy that propelled both her and her husband, former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonA year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low Second gentleman Emhoff acts as public link to White House To progressive Democrats: Follow the lesson of Maine state Sen. Chloe Maxmin MORE, since the '90s.
And while she has been on a tour de force of sorts that includes a “MasterClass” on resilience and a host of televised interviews, she’s hardly alone in expressing reservations.
When Sanders lost again to a more ideologically moderate counterpart — his longtime Senate friend Joe Biden — many in the establishment wing questioned the longevity of a grassroots movement that keeps suffering high–profile bruises, despite having some success over the war of ideas.
Sanders, one of Capitol Hill’s most ardent critics of centrism, is still happy to vigorously engage in that conversation.
“I think the Democratic Party has to address the long-simmering debate, which is: Which side are you on?” Sanders said in an interview with The Guardian this week. “Are we prepared to stand with working families and take on powerful corporate interests?”
Many activists and strategists who were inspired by Sanders’s bids find themselves again on his side less than a year out from Election Day.
Unlike 2016 and 2020, however, when Sanders was mostly alone amid less progressive contenders, he now enjoys a strong and well-organized cadre of allies in the House’s Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), who like Bush see a winning strategy tied to policies that inherently involve more government.
In the height of negotiations over the infrastructure bill, for example, CPC leadership claimed credit for helping to pass that legislation while assisting in advancing Biden’s much larger Build Back Better social spending plan as far as it got.
While the package is still on ice after Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinDemocrats make voting rights push ahead of Senate consideration Sunday shows - Voting rights legislation dominates Kaine says core of spending bill will pass but most of it is 'dead' MORE (D-W.Va.) said he planned to vote against it, Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalSanders, 50 Democrats unveil bill to send N95 masks to all Americans Centrist Democrats urge progressives to tamp down rhetoric Democrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit MORE (D-Wash.), the CPC chairwoman, told reporters in a briefing that she had no regrets about how her caucus negotiated the deal. Many activists who had been working closely with the progressive lawmakers backed her stance, redirecting the public debate back to Manchin as the biggest obstructionist.
“When conservative Democrats have repeatedly ripped apart the president’s agenda while progressives fight to save it, it’s frankly bizarre to watch the media conversation focus on the risks of ‘going too far left,’” said Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of the left-wing group Indivisible.
“How can these conservative Democrats claim to be pragmatic while torpedoing proposals that enjoy the support of huge majorities of Americans?” Greenberg said. “Calls to avoid going ‘too far left’ only distract from the real problem we face: the risk of failing to deliver on the promises we've made to voters.”
Others on the left say that when centrists relegate transformative policies to merely harsh and divisive slogans, they are creating more problems because voters don’t have a clear sense of where the party stands. That applies to areas like police reform, college affordability and immigration, where Democrats have consistently struggled to get behind one uniform stance.
“As someone that is still undocumented after all these years, who expressly is carved out of any COVID protections and whose people are still being prosecuted today, I feel like my fate is tied to this country,” said Gresia Martinez, a leading immigration advocate and executive director at United We Dream.
“I’m not going to give up and just allow people to use tired talking points,” she said. “Our lives are at stake.”