Magic Number

Sorry, Liberals: There Is No Majority Without Moderates

The party has a choice: It can have ideological uniformity or it can have a House majority. It can’t have both.


Yuri Gripas/Reuters

The Democrats’ new slogan is out, and it’s fine: “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, a Better Future.”

Well, you can’t say it isn’t an economic message, which was the big (and legit) beef with Hillary last fall. Chuck Schumer, after taking a surprising little pop at HRC along these lines (and at the party generally), said on This Week on Sunday that Dems will be introducing elements of the agenda as the weeks pass to make sure that by 2018 the voters will know the party has a strong economic agenda.

“Week after week, month after month, we’re going to roll out specific pieces here that are quite different than the Democratic Party you heard in the past,” Schumer said. “We were too cautious. We were too namby-pamby.” He affirmed that measures heretofore seen as scarily liberal are all “on the table,” including a Medicaid buy-in, a Medicare buy-in, Medicare for folks down to age 55, and even single-payer. (The first two are basically ways to give more people access to health care through those two well-established vehicles.)

That’s all good. The party needs boldness. It needs clarity.

But what it needs most is 24 seats in the House.

And this may be why, as Bloomberg reported last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is working with the moderate Blue Dog caucus to recruit candidates in selected districts.

Personally, I’m pretty liberal. If I could wave a wand, boom—single-payer health care, a much higher minimum wage, a massive infrastructure program, a top marginal (and please make sure you understand what marginal means before you call me a communist) tax rate around 50 percent, a much higher payroll tax cap, and more. But there are no wands. It doesn’t matter what I think, and it doesn’t matter what you think, either.

What matters is this reality, which many liberals refuse to accept: To get to 218 House seats, Democrats have to win in 20 to 25 purple districts. And that means electing some moderates.

Let me put it another way: There can be ideological uniformity. Or there can be a House majority. There cannot be both.

This is different from the Republican Party, which is more ideologically uniform than the Democratic Party is. The Republicans can get to 218 with only conservatives. The Democrats can’t get to 218 with only liberals.

Assuming you agree that getting to 218 is better than maintaining ideological purity, then you need to ask, OK, how to get there?

And this leads to another question: What is “moderate” even going to mean in 2018? That is to say, people on the left flank hear that word and think automatically of the dawn of the “New Democrat” age in the 1990s and Wall Street Democrats who back free trade, less government, deficit reduction, and tax cuts.

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But a lot of time has passed and some things have changed. I don’t know that “moderate” needs to mean those things anymore. On trade, I don’t see many Democrats being free traders in 2018. That ship has sailed. And it doesn’t seem like there’s a vast constituency out there for deficit reduction. Twenty and 25 years ago, there were historical reasons why there was pressure on Democrats to adopt those positions. Those reasons and pressures don’t exist so much today.

If anything, there’s pressure on Democrats to be more activist on behalf of middle-class families and all those Trump voters in those shelled-out, opioid-sogged places where most people these days are barely middle class. And that’s great.

But that very general message can be packaged in a variety of ways, and it’s going to have to be, because the kinds of districts Democrats need to win to retake the House are not at all homogenous. And this is where liberals have to just accept that everyplace isn’t Vermont, or for that matter Massachusetts or Maryland.

To wit I introduce to you a report put out last month by Third Way. Now you can stop reading here if you want, because it’s Third Way. But it’s interesting, so read on.

The report breaks 65 battleground districts down into four types: thriving suburban communities; left-behind areas; diverse, fast-growing regions; and finally, a dozen non-conformist districts that don’t fit neatly into the first three categories.

Democrats are going to have run different kinds of candidates and different kinds of races in all these places. In left-behind areas, some Sanders-style populism, as long as it’s combined with a little (hopefully not too excessive) sail-trimming on social issues, could work well. In more affluent suburbs, that won’t play. Those are places where the Democrat should definitely talk more about growth than fairness but can probably get away with somewhat more liberal social positions. In diverse districts, they mostly need good Latino candidates. If the one in Texas needs to be more conservative on some things than the one or two in California, then so be it.

Trying to enforce a national litmus test on candidates from Washington—or God forbid from Williamsburg (hipster, not Colonial)—is ridiculous. And it shows no understanding of American party history. For God’s sake, the Democrats spend decades as the party of black people and at the same time the party of the most venal segregationists who existed. It’s great the segregationists were driven out, but the point is that the party has usually been characterized by disagreements far, far greater than those that exist now. And even that party, morally compromised as it was, managed to pass Social Security, the GI Bill, Medicare, and so on.

If you’re on the center: Don’t think replaying the 1990s can work now. It can’t. And if you’re on the left: Look, you’ve got Chuck Schumer talking single-payer. You’re way ahead of the game. But no one, center or left, is ahead of anything until there are 218 Democrats reporting to work in the House.