Once upon a time, I was a very minor star — or perhaps just a satellite — in the vast constellation of Democratic Centrism, as policy director of the now-defunct but once renowned Democratic Leadership Council. I drifted away from that worldview over time, and not that long ago suggested it was time for Democratic progressives to take the wheel and try their luck at holding back an increasingly deranged GOP.
But I’ve kept up some contacts in Centrist-land, and even as I’ve embraced some lefty policy positions and political tactics, I’ve never shared the belief that the kind of people who used to help run the country in the last two Democratic administrations are largely corrupt or toadies to corporate wealth. Some sincerely think on policy or political grounds that democratic socialism won’t feed the people Democrats are supposed to care about, literally or figuratively.
In any event, I’ve been checking in with some of my old comrades the last few days, even since the Iowa caucuses showed (however haltingly and confusedly) Bernie Sanders opening up a wide path to the nomination while consensus “moderate lane” hero Joe Biden looked sad and tired. In a series of strictly off-the-record conversations, I’ve found a pretty solid consensus of perspectives among these thought leaders:
1. They’re terrified by Sanders, and even more terrified by Donald Trump. Least surprisingly, many centrists are absolutely convinced that Sanders will be a disastrous presidential nominee for Democrats — a combination of George McGovern, Howard Dean, and Jeremy Corbyn, and a soft piñata ripe for demolition by Trump. Asking them for empirical evidence of Sanders’s lack of electability is as big a waste of time as asking Bernie Bros for proof he would have won in 2016: It’s self-evident as a matter of their own political DNA. Most of the people I’ve talked to would have to go into therapy if it turned out that all along there has indeed been a hidden majority hungry for a leftist presidency it has always been denied.
Now these same people undoubtedly dislike prospects for a Sanders presidency, but not because they fear his “political revolution.” By and large they are confident that agenda items like Medicare for All or free college or radically progressive tax reform won’t go anywhere in a Sanders administration, in part because the wing of the Democratic Party they represent is going to be strong enough in Congress to guide even a democratic-socialist presidency in a more pragmatic direction. I have no doubt they will sincerely support Bernie 2020 if he does win the nomination. Their hostility to him is almost entirely about electability, because they fear and loathe Trump as much as any other Democrat. In fact, they may despise him even more than progressives insofar as the polarized politics he epitomizes will soon make centrism extinct.
2. They have lost faith in Joe Biden. All of the “pragmatic” Democrats I’ve talked to were either in the Biden camp or were certainly comfortable with him so long as he was the 2020 front-runner. Nobody’s going to war to save him when his long-anticipated vulnerabilities are finally being exposed, just as the contest reaches its critical voting phase. His “lack of energy” in Iowa and in the New Hampshire debate have centrist opinion leaders heading for the exits. Indeed, what I mostly heard was fear that Biden — like, say, Ed Muskie, McGovern’s “Establishment” foil back in 1972 — is a doomed candidate, mostly standing in the way of the emergence of a more viable alternative to Sanders.
What they are envisioning is a steady fade of Biden support in New Hampshire, then Nevada, and finally in South Carolina, his supposed “firewall” state, where he’s already losing altitude. And while Biden has defied early prophecies of his campaign’s demise, now that he’s in a downward spiral with money running out and the indicators all pointing down, I’m hearing no confidence in a revival among those who might be expected to want it the most.
3. They’re willing to give Mayor Pete a look. If Biden’s stock went rapidly down in and immediately after Iowa, Pete Buttigieg’s has gone up. And he’s clearly been angling for the support of centrist voters and elites alike. He’s claimed an impossible-to-verify-or-deny win in Iowa and is expected to finish first or second in New Hampshire. His message of generational change and national unity is like a combo platter of reheated Clinton ’92 and Obama ’08 thematics, instinctively making centrists of the baby-boom and Gen-X cadres salivate.
Some moderate opinion leaders like Buttigieg, and would love it if he upsets Sanders in New Hampshire. But they share the doubts of many political observers across the ideological spectrum that he can be nominated or elected.
Anyone who knows their political history understands that the royal road to Democratic political nominations in living memory has belonged to clearly identified moderates with strong minority (and especially African-American) support. That’s how Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and (arguably) Barack Obama prevailed, and how all but Gore managed to be inaugurated. Buttigieg famously does not have African-American support. Perhaps if he wins New Hampshire and becomes a putative front-runner, he’ll get a second look from black voters in South Carolina and beyond, but it remains a rebuttable presumption that Buttigieg’s path to the nomination ends after New Hampshire. And even the centrist types I talked to are abundantly aware that lefty millennials hate Buttigieg with the heat of a thousand suns, so whatever his other merits, Buttigieg is not going to be some sort of Democratic unity candidate. Indeed, there may not be an available Democratic unity candidate if Biden and Elizabeth Warren — currently struggling to keep her candidacy going — hit the skids. And that leads to the unexpected trajectory of the so-called “moderate lane”:
4. They’re warming up rapidly to Michael Bloomberg. Universally, the “pragmatic progressive” leaders I talked to were thinking positively about the former mayor of New York as a political option. Some were clearly contemplating a scenario in which Sanders smoked the rest of the field in the four early states, leaving Bloomberg as the only alternative. But others didn’t much want to screw around with Biden, Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Warren, or anyone else, since just over the horizon there sat an acceptably centrist candidate with the resources and messaging to vanquish both Sanders and Trump.
Yes, Bloomberg’s ignore-the-early-states strategy has always failed for candidates in the past. But Gore (in 1988) and Rudy Giuliani (in 2008) and others who have tried it didn’t have anything like Bloomberg’s money, or his ability to invest it shrewdly. And as he rapidly rises in national polls (he’s well ahead of Buttigieg in the RealClearPolitics polling averages), it’s becoming apparent that he’s like a sports team that has gotten a “bye” to the late stages of a tournament.
The vast money he’s spending on ads and staff for states that vote on Super Tuesday (and the delegate-rich primaries immediately after that) isn’t just improving his name ID. To the extent that many of these states are “red,” he’s showing a Democratic flag that hasn’t been seen much lately. In combination with his promise to subsidize the entire Democratic ticket, that’s a big deal to downtrodden donkeys.
Unlike Buttigieg, and despite the legacy (for which he has apologized) of “stop and frisk,” Bloomberg has had no trouble harvesting African-American endorsements, and according to a new Quinnipiac national survey, he’s moving up rapidly among black voters generally:
Again, what makes Bloomberg seductive to the people who labored to elect Bill Clinton and Obama is that he looks like he is equally capable of stopping Sanders — perhaps producing a contested convention that will nominate someone even more congenial to centrist Democrats than his own self — and of going mano a mano with Trump if he does win the primaries.
Yes, it’s possible Biden will defy the odds again by rising from the dead; or that Klobuchar will build on a strong debate performance in New Hampshire, shocking the world and giving centrism a new champion; or that Mayor Pete will broaden his coalition beyond its pale Iowa–New Hampshire complexion. It’s even possible Tom Steyer will spend and work himself to a win in South Carolina and get some buzz going. But for now, Sanders is the betting favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Bloomberg should be the betting favorite to become the last candidate standing in his way. Or so say those who have been on the winning side in many nomination contests before.