Pragmatic Democrats find their voice

Pragmatic Democrats find their voice
© Getty Images

Six Democrats running for president – a skeleton crew by campaign 2020 standards – will gather in Des Moines tonight to make closing arguments. It’s the last debate before the February 3 Iowa caucuses, when Democratic voters finally get a chance to cut through the fog of polls and punditry and start picking the party’s nominee. 

The shrunken cast also will feature ideological parity, with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump says impeachment lawyers were 'really good' MORE, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Sanders holds four-point lead on Biden in new California poll MORE (D-Minn.) and former South Bend Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Hillary Clinton tears open wound with her attack on Sanders MORE representing the party’s quiet but large pragmatic wing, and Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump on Clinton's Sanders comments: 'She's the one that people don't like' MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Hillary Clinton tears open wound with her attack on Sanders MORE (D-Mass.) and investor and activist Tom SteyerTom Fahr SteyerSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Sanders holds four-point lead on Biden in new California poll MORE holding down the progressive left. Polls show the moderate and left-leaning candidates drawing support from about 37 percent of Iowa voters. 

Could this signal an important turn in a debate thus far dominated by the passions and preoccupations of left-wing activists? Biden’s staying power, Buttigieg’s impressive leap from nowhere into the top tier and Klobuchar’s growing momentum in Iowa are all signs that mainstream Democrats are finding their voice.

ADVERTISEMENT

That’s crucial, because Democrats need the broadest coalition possible to defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpRouhani says Iran will never seek nuclear weapons Trump downplays seriousness of injuries in Iran attack after US soldiers treated for concussions Trump says Bloomberg is 'wasting his money' on 2020 campaign MORE, and to have a shot at wresting control of the Senate from Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump admin releases trove of documents on Ukrainian military aid The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions What to watch for on Day 2 of Senate impeachment trial MORE (R-Ky.). Knocking the Appalachian Machiavelli off his perch might do even more to resuscitate progressive government than sending Trump back to his glitzy resorts. 

Yet left-wing activists scorn the idea of a big Democratic tent. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHillary Clinton responds to backlash: 'I will do whatever I can to support our nominee' Klobuchar dismisses White House lawyer's jab about Democrats wanting to be in Iowa The Hill's 12:30 Report: Rules fight sets stage for first day of Trump trial MORE (D-N.Y.) recently lamented that she and Biden are in the same political party. Rather than working to create a united front against Trump, she and her followers are fixated on purging Democrats whom they deem insufficiently progressive. This is a sectarian politics of subtraction, and it can only lead to disaster in November.

All indications are that we are headed for another close election decided by razor-thin margins in a handful of contested Rust Belt states. Trump’s approval ratings remain low — but that was true before his 2016 upset too. Impeachment and the Iran war scare seem not to have inflicted deep wounds; indeed, they may have helped him by energizing his supporters. And Trump gets a big boost from the nation’s longest economic expansion, which also undercuts Sanders’ call for an economic “revolution” and Warren’s insistence that only “bold, structural change” can save us from predatory capitalism.

Given what’s at stake – a reelected Trump unbound by the need to ever face voters again, and more tribal paralysis in Washington – Democrats can’t afford to indulge in ideological purity tests or fantasies about transforming America from the top down. It’s time for straight talk with Democratic voters: If you want to dump Trump, your job isn’t to choose your ideological soulmate, it’s to vote for the candidate who has the best chance of beating him in the Electoral College.

Such political realism has been in short supply since the debates got underway last June. The prevailing assumption has been that voters are looking for the most radical degree of political change possible and for candidates who reject not only Trump’s ideas, but also those of previous Democratic presidents.

ADVERTISEMENT

Egged on by the progressive Twitterati, many candidates flaunted their ideological zeal by lambasting Barack Obama’s immigration policies and going back in time to relitigate the 1994 crime bill and even the 1970s busing controversy. They rushed lemming-like to embrace “unapologetically progressive” ideas, notably “Medicare for All”; the Green New Deal; guaranteed government jobs and incomes; a de facto policy of open borders; an end to fossil fuels; the break-up of the nation’s most innovative tech companies; and, reparations for slavery and other past sins. And they promised that all this munificence would be financed painlessly, by taxing the wealthy.

This is an ideological pipe dream, not a plausible governing agenda around which Democrats can build majorities in November. Many of the left’s grandiose ideas aren’t just remote from the everyday concerns of voters, they are unpopular with the very voters Democrats need to win crucial swing states. They give the impression of a party arguing political theology with itself rather than listening to voters.

For example, health care – its rising cost and the fear of losing it – is a top voter concern in 2020 just as it was in 2018. The good news is that voters still trust Democrats far more than Republicans to handle the issue. Yet rather than highlight Republicans’ continuing campaign to kill the Affordable Care Act and thereby strip millions of health coverage, Democrats have been consumed by the ideological sideshow of Medicare for All.

Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRep. Bobby Rush endorses Bloomberg's White House bid Actor Michael Douglas endorses Bloomberg for president Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover-up,' 'national disgrace' MORE (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren jumped on Sen. Sanders’ single payer bandwagon early. Both were forced to back away from the radioactive idea of outlawing peoples’ private health plans, and Harris’s campaign imploded. Warren’s credibility as the campaign’s consummate policy wonk took a hit when she failed to come up with a convincing plan to cover the staggering cost of moving 228 million Americans to the Medicare rolls.

The political opportunity costs of such progressive self-indulgence are steep. Instead of being put on the defensive, Trump and the Republicans are now wielding the cudgel of “socialized medicine” against Democrats in general. The pragmatic candidates should seize the opportunity tonight to remind voters they didn’t succumb to the single payer mania, and to offer realistic ideas for holding down health care costs – the voters’ top concern – without disrupting coverage for the 150 million or so Americans with private plans. For instance, PPI has proposed a price cap on all out-of-network medical services, which we think would quickly morph into a ceiling on all in network prices as well. 

Then there’s the Green New Deal. Its supporters want to abolish fossil fuels and sue oil and gas companies for supplying them to U.S. drivers, businesses and homes. You can imagine how this will go down in Pennsylvania, a state where shale oil and gas production has created lots of good, middle class jobs, and a state that Democrats must win to slam shut Trump’s back door to the Electoral College.

Instead of confronting working Americans with a false choice between their jobs and a healthy climate, pragmatic Democrats should propose new ways to promote jobs and economic growth and environmental responsibility. For example, they should call for a big federal and state push to win the global race to electric cars and trucks. Since the transport sector is now the nation’s leading source of carbon emissions, this would help slow climate change while creating new, high-tech manufacturing jobs and reviving the U.S. auto industry.

The “more progressive than thou” phase of the nomination debate is behind us. In Iowa tomorrow night, the mainstream candidates should seize the opportunity instead to spell out radically pragmatic ideas that can unite the party’s moderate and progressive wings and crystallize the nation’s anti-Trump majority.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).