A new agenda for Democrats starts at the middle ground

Amid record-high inflation, a sinking stock market, a crisis at the southern border and surging crime rates, Americans have grown deeply pessimistic about the country’s trajectory and increasingly wary of the Democratic Party’s ability to effectively lead. 

While Democrats likely won’t be able to completely reverse their bleak political prospects ahead of the midterms, the party can significantly improve its position by adopting a new, more centrist agenda with two broader areas of focus.

First, Democrats need to get tougher on crime and illegal immigration and seize the middle ground on both issues. Republicans have worked — with some success — to tie rising crime rates and the crisis at the southern border to a broader narrative that Democrats are weak, ineffective and support lawless policies.

In order to reframe the issue, Democrats should make a concerted effort to craft, propose and promote centrist solutions to both crises, while also making a good-faith effort to achieve a “grand bargain” with Republicans on each issue.

In doing so, Democrats can help shield vulnerable members of their caucus against G.O.P. attacks that Democrats are too far left, while also showing voters that their party is committed to solving problems in a bipartisan fashion. If Republicans block either effort, Democrats will be able to call Republicans out for their obstructionism and cast the G.O.P. as extreme partisans.

On immigration, Republicans have thus far been successful in tying the migrant crisis at the southern border to Biden’s failed policies. Just one third (33 percent) of Americans — and only  2 in 10 Independents — approve of President Biden’s handling of immigration according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll.

In light of the country’s multi-faceted immigration crisis, Democrats have an opening to propose a practical and politically viable compromise that would secure the southern border and require employers to use the E-Verify system to certify the legal status of new hires, while also codifying protections for Dreamers and creating some sort of pathway to citizenship for those here illegally who play by the rules, obey the law, and pay their taxes.

Democrats should take a similar approach to criminal justice reform, which presents another opportunity for Democrats to counter the G.O.P. narrative tying Democrats to rising crime rates.

The party should pursue a centrist agenda on crime that goes beyond just paying lip service to the need for safer streets and support for law enforcement, but importantly pushes back against the ‘defund the police’ and weak bail reform policies of the progressive left.

This would involve proposing a compromise to make the criminal justice system and policing fairer for Black Americans, who are disproportionately mistreated, while also funding and supporting local law enforcement.

In order to connect with voters in the middle who are concerned both about crime and curbing police misconduct, Democrats can use New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ approach as a viable template.

In addition to crime and immigration, Democrats should refashion their agenda vis-à-vis protecting individual and civil liberties in a way that allows the party to seize the center on hot-button social issues — namely, on abortion rights in light of the Supreme Court’s unpopular decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, as well as LQBTQ rights.

In doing so, Democrats can show Americans that they are attuned to their priorities, while also casting Republicans as extremists who are trying to set the country back decades in terms of individual rights and liberties.

Given the well-founded concerns that the Supreme Court could reconsider its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing gay marriage, Democrats have an opportunity to claim the higher ground on the issue of individual rights and liberties for LGBTQ individuals, which the public broadly supports.

According to recent polling among likely midterm election voters conducted by my firm, Schoen Cooperman Research, a strong majority of voters (69 percent) favor same-sex couples having the legal right to marry. A majority also believes that the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell should remain the law of the land (58 percent), instead of being revisited by the Court (23 percent). 

Further, on the issue of abortion rights, some of the current messaging from the left is out of step with the views of the electorate at large. Thus, Democrats need to find a new way of talking about the issue in light of the fact that most Americans support a legal right to an abortion, but also support limits.

To be sure, most Americans do not identify with either extreme of the abortion issue — just one fifth (19 percent) say abortion should be legal in all cases, and only 8 percent say abortion should be illegal in all cases. Seventy-one percent of Americans do not see the issue as binary and believe there are times when abortion should either be mostly legal with some exceptions (42 percent) or mostly illegal with some exceptions (29 percent), according to a Pew Research poll taken after the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was released. 

Regrettably, President Biden — the leader of the Democratic Party — has consistently governed from the left in an attempt to placate progressives, and his tolerance of protests outside the homes of Supreme Court Justices is no exception.  

Rather than defending extreme positions or actions, President Biden should lead his party in seizing the sensible middle-ground on pivotal issues — immigration and crime, as well as abortion and LGBTQ rights — in order to give Democrats a fighting chance to avoid a potentially historic midterm rout.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” 

Tags Criminal justice reform in the United States Eric Adams Immigration reform Joe Biden Politics of the United States Roe v Wade

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