Where are all the moderates? Biden, Beto, Brown, Bullock, McAuliffe, Inslee. What’s holding them back? Do they think time is on their side? The Democratic field is heavily tilted to the socialist left with Bernie Sanders in the race and still not a Democrat, and Kamala Harris the first to feel the need to reject the democratic socialist label, even though she has signed on to the idea of wiping out the private insurance industry.
“There’s a very important question out there,” says Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. “What share of the Democratic electorate is really hankering for someone of more moderate persuasion?”
Moderates aren’t feeling the love these days. All the energy on the Democratic side is for policies championed by Sanders in 2016—Medicare for All, free college, the Green New Deal—although it’s not clear that grassroots energy will translate to him this time around with so many attractive alternatives.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Bill Weld enters the fray on what is likely a kamikaze mission, given Trump’s high approval among self-declared Republicans. The former Massachusetts governor sees his task as one of persuasion on climate change, rising debt, and overall seriousness in general about governing. History shows that an intra-party challenge weakens the incumbent, with one-termers George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter obvious casualties.
But Bush and Carter faced primary opponents in Pat Buchanan and Ted Kennedy who represented real and strong elements within their respective parties. The question for Weld is whether there’s a constituency in the GOP for someone like him, a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, progressive Republican. I asked Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, and she cites numerous polls that show between 30 and 50 percent of the party interested in an alternative to President Trump. An Iowa poll last month had the number at 63 percent.
He’s still popular with Republicans, she explained, but depending how you ask the question, they’re not all that eager for another four years. She says Weld can lay out a predicate for a future Republican Party. “Is this a cult of personality or has the party changed its core values?” she asks. If Trump fever will pass and a new Republican Party is waiting to be born, Weld can at least begin the birthing process.
Socialist is a negative and even scary word to older people, but for a lot of younger people coming up in an insecure and unforgiving gig economy, it holds an allure. Democrats shouldn’t buy into Trump’s scare rhetoric, says Bernstein: “All we’re talking about here is re-introducing some kinds of tax and safety net policies that have historically defined our social policy.”
He points out that there have been marginal tax rates of 70 and 90 percent in the past under Eisenhower and Kennedy, and government has already gotten in the business of health care, and most people love their Medicare. “Bernie Sanders is raising these ideas, good for him,” says Bernstein.
He sees a continuum with Joe Biden, if he gets in the race, and Amy Klobuchar, who calls herself “proudly pragmatic,” and Sherrod Brown, another pragmatic progressive, at one end and Sanders at the other. The distance is between those who think the country can get to very progressive policies quickly and those who believe it will take more incremental steps.
“If Democrats start arguing the other side is a traitor to the cause,” that would be a disaster, says Bernstein. “There’s a great debate to be had. Let’s see if we can have it.” He frames the argument as Medicare for More versus Medicare for All, with the distance separating the Dems minuscule compared to the distance with Republicans, who basically want government out of health care.
“There’s a lot of gray in what constituents are looking for,” says Matt Bennett with Third Way, a moderate Democratic group, “and the big question will not be what age does my Medicare start, but who can beat Trump?”
Bennett acknowledges the strong showing so far of progressives, and he quotes Karl Rove, the Republican strategist who liked to say, “Let them win the odd year, we’ll win the even.” Translated to the Democrats, that means this year, 2019, is when the activists show their stuff, when big donors are wooed, and candidates vie to break through with exciting messages.
But next year, when the primaries get underway, the voters will have their say. Bennett points out that changes in party rules favor moderates. First, caucuses are dying. They are an easier process for activists to take over, and they favored Sanders in 2016 when there were 14 caucuses. There are five fewer this year.
Also, 17 states have open primaries where Independents and Republicans can vote. Those states include Texas, which has been moved up to Super Tuesday, Virginia, Wisconsin, Washington, Tennessee and Michigan. An additional 14 states are semi-open where independents can vote. They include California, New Hampshire and Ohio.
Charlie Cook with the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan political newsletter, says the two groups most unhappy with the 2016 presidential election were the people who voted for Hillary Clinton and the people who were Democrats who didn’t. They included the “Bernie or Bust” voters who couldn’t abide Clinton and stayed home.
This time around, polls show Democrats want to defeat Trump, and purity of position or cult of personality isn’t the driving factor it was in 2016. “I’ve never seen the Democratic Party in a more pragmatic mood,” Cook said in a speech last month. “They don’t care who gets nominated, they just want to win.”
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who is traditionally quite liberal but has balked at embracing some Sanders-like positions, is in the midst of a “dignity of work” tour of early primary states and appears on the verge of announcing. He could put Ohio in the Democratic column.
Beto O’Rourke gets pegged as a progressive, but he was a member of the New Democrat caucus during his three terms in Congress. Three governors are waiting in the wings, plus Vice President Biden. The moderates are biding their time. They’re plentiful, and they won’t be hurried any more than the voters.