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A New Role for Democratic Centrists: Helping the Left Win

Democratic centrists need to surrender the intraparty battle and join with the left to fight the common foe. Photo: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images

Democratic centrists — or you can call them New Democrats or moderates or “pragmatic progressives” or whatever label you choose — have had quite an impressive run in national politics. They have won seven consecutive Democratic presidential nominations (or perhaps eight, depending on how you classify Michael Dukakis), and then went on to win the popular vote in six of those general elections. This stretch of relative success came after Republicans had won five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988.

But after 2016, it became clear that the center-left project exemplified by the Clintons (and also pursued by Obama) had reached a point of diminishing returns. Yes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama held back what at some points seemed to be an irresistible conservative tide led by an increasingly irresponsible and extremist Republican Party. But their positive accomplishments were limited, and were eroded by their Republican successors. Perhaps more importantly, their effort to revive progressivism by marrying it to market mechanisms — in part to secure business and moderate Republican support — never caught the public’s imagination or secured bipartisan support. It instead became a vehicle for deregulation and speculative excesses that helped produce the financial crisis and the Great Recession, a hollowing-out of industries employing the non-college-educated, and the kind of growing income inequality that looked to be waning for a moment in the ’90s. And even when this approach succeeded initially, as with the classic public-private structure of Obamacare, it conspicuously failed to inspire the sort of loyalty commanded by the supposedly archaic and sclerotic public programs of the New Deal and the Great Society.

And then there was 2016 itself, when the political premise of Democratic centrism evaporated in Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss to Donald Trump. All the compromises and temporizing of the Clinton and Obama eras, which deeply dissatisfied more left-bent Democrats, were supposed to “seize the center” and make short work of a bizarre extremist like Trump. Instead, Trump was able to redeploy leftist criticisms of Obama and both Clintons and win Rust Belt states that had not gone Republican in decades.

I say all this unhappily, as a charter New Democrat who fell in love with Bill Clinton in the mid-1980s and with Barack Obama almost instantly. But it’s impossible to honestly deny that the time has come for a change of leadership in the Democratic Party, with the long-suppressed left finally getting a chance to show its political and substantive prescriptions are what the country wants and needs. In both 2016 and in the 2018 midterms, there was no electoral bonus for moderation, and all the enthusiasm came from the left, which is also generating the more interesting and inspiring policy ideas. So it’s the left’s turn to take the wheel.

Does that mean centrists have no role in a recalibrated Democratic Party? Not at all. As former Clinton administration economist Brad DeLong explained in an interview with Vox, they have a new and vital — if subordinate — role. And it’s really all that’s left to them in the Trump era:

Until something non-rubble-ish is built in the Republican center, what might be good incremental policies just cannot be successfully implemented in an America as we know it today. We need Medicare-for-all, funded by a carbon tax, with a whole bunch of UBI rebates for the poor and public investment in green technologies.

That’s the best policy given the political-economic context. If the political-economic context were different — well, I’m fundamentally a neoliberal shill. It is very nice to use market means to social democratic ends when they are more effective, and they often are.

Instead of acting as a bridge to a nonexistent center-right, those on the center-left can more usefully help their progressive allies tailor their policies to avoid substantive and policy pitfalls. These allies have earned the right to primacy, says DeLong:

The world appears to be more like what lefties thought it was than what I thought it was for the last 10 or 15 years …

[W]hile I would like to be part of a political coalition in the cat[bird] seat, able to call for bids from the left and the right about who wants to be part of the governing coalition to actually get things done, that’s simply not possible as of now.

We shouldn’t pretend that it is, or that it’s going to be. We need to find ways to improve left-wing initiatives, rather than demand that they start from our basic position and do minor tweaks to make them more acceptable to their underlying position.

There remain legitimate questions about how you define “the left.” DeLong’s interviewer, Zack Beauchamp, clearly thinks it means democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Perhaps an easier reach for centrists looking for political relevance would be leaders like Elizabeth Warren, who tends to think in terms of fundamental repairs to capitalism that bend the private sector and government to the popular will and the public interest.

In any event, Democratic centrists need to accept that the Donkey’s moving in a new direction now; fighting it by demonizing the left just makes the calamitous prospect of a second Trump term more likely. And perhaps a new synthesis of left and center-left thinking on politics and policy can emerge, once the scourge of today’s Republicanism is overcome. It’s a more productive occupation than endlessly relitigating the 2016 election.

It’s Time for Centrists Like Me to Help, Not Fight, The Left