Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
the national interest

The Democratic Party Needs Better Moderates

The centrists have lots of complaints but no solutions.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

It has become fashionable for progressives to dismiss the importance, or even the existence, of voters who have politically moderate or cross-pressured beliefs. The evidence is fairly clear that adopting unpopular positions has costs for parties and candidates. (The latest evidence is a paper finding that “moderates appear to be central to electoral change and political accountability” and “are more responsive to features of the candidates contesting elections than lever-pulling liberals and conservatives.”)

The trouble is that the Democratic Party’s moderates often grasp the abstract value of moderation but have trouble translating it into practical terms. Jason Zengerle’s feature story on Democratic moderates puts the myopia of the party’s centrist wing on display. It is not a pretty sight.

A valuable critique available to the centrists is that their party has been captured by affluent, college-educated professionals and is steadily losing working-class voters as a result. But the reality is that the centrists are compounding that problem rather than alleviating it.

Here is Zengerle’s thumbnail summary of one moderate, Susan Wild:

Wild, a former lawyer, was eating a lunch of crab asparagus bisque and blackened tuna roll topped with lobster salad at an upscale bistro in Bethlehem’s intermittently gentrifying downtown during Congress’s Easter recess. She continued, “People look at me as a 64-year-old woman who was a lawyer and represented a lot of corporations and hospitals over the years, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure she’s not a socialist.’” (She has since turned 65.) She is unequivocal in her support of abortion rights and gay rights and says concerns that critical race theory is being taught in schools are, in her estimation, “completely cooked up.” But she talks about these culture-war issues only when asked. Instead, she prefers to focus on her support of business.

Wild’s formula is to combine completely orthodox progressive positions on social issues with assurances that she fits right in with the C-suite. This is also the formulation Kyrsten Sinema has adopted. Sinema hangs out with executives, fights hard to protect them from taxes, and says things like, “Never drink cheap wine.”

The context for the drama between the Democratic moderates and their party’s leadership is that the moderates have failed to differentiate themselves from the progressive wing on cultural grounds. (They have focused on their disdain for defunding the police, though their response came after the slogan was already abandoned by virtually the entire progressive wing.) They have likewise failed to formulate a coherent economic agenda that improves either substantively or politically upon the ideas identified with the party. Instead, they have thrown up objections to the administration’s attempt to tax the rich and use the proceeds for programs to benefit the working and middle classes.

Josh Gottheimer, one of Zengerle’s main subjects, presents himself as the antidote to unpopular liberalism. But Gottheimer’s focus has been on restoring the deductibility of state and local taxes — a cause that benefits a slice of his own constituents but has little purchase to the vast majority of the country. Gottheimer’s method was to take Biden’s agenda hostage in an effort to secure leverage for his narrow priority. The problem, of course, is that if everybody did that, the agenda would collapse. So what Gottheimer is offering is not a workable model for his party to follow but a model of the kind of antisocial behavior it has to expunge if it stands any chance of survival.

The centrists, including Gottheimer, have focused their complaints on the fact that the bipartisan infrastructure bill did not pass the House quickly enough. Al From, the once-powerful head of the Democratic Leadership Council, tells Zengerle:

​​“Not pushing the infrastructure bill in the House immediately was the biggest mistake of Biden’s term because it essentially said a couple things,” Al From argues. “One, it said progressives still drive the Democratic Party even though he beat them in the primaries. Second, it said he really doesn’t mean this bipartisan thing, because when push comes to shove, he’s going to let the most partisan people in his party lead his course.”

Bear in mind, the infrastructure bill was signed into law. From is angry about the timing of the vote. It’s simply astonishing to invest so much importance in the infrastructure bill that you believe the timing of its passage is the difference between a successful presidency and a failed one.

Stephanie Murphy, another prominent centrist, complains that the party’s campaign arm is favoring candidates who support the party’s domestic policy agenda. This strikes Murphy as unfair:

Last summer, during the height of the impasse over the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better, Maloney or members of his D.C.C.C. staff reached out to several centrist representatives to warn that the Democrats’ majority would be in jeopardy if they thwarted Biden’s legislative priorities. Some of these centrists, who face tough re-election campaigns, interpreted the outreach as a not-so-veiled threat that their own fund-​raising help from the party would be at risk if they didn’t get in line. “You want your political arm to be focused on politics, not policy,” Murphy told me. “My belief is that the D.C.C.C. has one job and one job alone: to protect incumbents and expand the majority. And becoming an extension of leadership, and working against members that you’re supposed to protect, runs crosswise with your sole mission.”

Murphy’s idea that the campaign arm of a party should not care at all about the success of its legislative agenda seems completely bizarre. Winning elections is a means. Good public policy is the end. Now maybe the party needs to allow its members to disagree with elements of its agenda. But the notion the party’s campaign wing should not care at all about policy fails to understand what parties exist to do in the first place.

To be fair to the Democratic Party’s moderates, complainers like Gottheimer and Murphy get all the attention in the media while moderates with more constructive approaches often fail to attract media attention. That is one of the difficult aspects of moderation: It’s more difficult to redefine the party’s brand as moderate when the press defines moderation as disagreement with the party.

That said, the Democratic Party’s moderates have largely failed to think creatively and rationally about the problems caused by the progressive wing (problems that, in many instances, are very real.) Instead, they have reduced their moderate identity to a collection of petty grievances unworthy of sympathy. The party’s struggles belong to them too.

The Democratic Party Needs Better Moderates