The rise of the moder­ate Demo­crat

The Washington Post - - FRIDAY OPINION - Twit­ter: @Ig­natius­post

For all the thun­der on the Bernie San­ders left, the most in­ter­est­ing trend in the Demo­cratic cam­paign this year may be the reemer­gence of the moder­ate wing of the party, led by charis­matic new voices: for­mer South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete But­tigieg and Min­nesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

In our bar­bell view of pol­i­tics, where all the weight seems to be at the two ends, this re­al­ity may be ob­scured: Far more Amer­i­cans (42 per­cent) de­scribed them­selves as in­de­pen­dents than as Democrats (27 per­cent) or Repub­li­cans (30 per­cent) in the most re­cent Gallup sur­vey of party af­fil­i­a­tion. The per­cent­age of people who see them­selves in this broad mid­dle has rarely been higher.

The Iowa cau­cuses fi­asco robbed But­tigieg of the im­pact of his vic­tory there. But it was a star­tling per­for­mance by a young, rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­enced can­di­date whose strong­est mes­sage has been the im­prac­ti­cal­ity of so­cial pro­grams pro­posed by San­ders and other pro­gres­sives.

While San­ders, the in­de­pen­dent senator from Ver­mont, posted a win Tues­day in New Hamp­shire, the big­ger sto­ries there, ar­guably, were But­tigieg’s strong sec­ond-place show­ing and Klobuchar’s break­out per­for­mance in fin­ish­ing third. The two mod­er­ates to­gether car­ried 44.2 per­cent of the vote, com­pared with San­ders’s 25.8 per­cent. Even if you add Mas­sachusetts Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren’s 9.2 per­cent to San­ders’s to­tal, the bal­ance is to­ward the cen­ter, not the left.

What’s the 2020 story line so far? Here’s a sug­ges­tion: The more voters have looked at pro­gres­sives’ ex­pen­sive pro­grams, the warier they have be­come. War­ren never re­cov­ered from her em­brace of com­pul­sory Medi­care. Voters see for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den as a spent force, but they still want a prag­matic can­di­date who can beat Pres­i­dent Trump. That yearn­ing for a strong moder­ate helped But­tigieg and Klobuchar, but the next ben­e­fi­ciary could be for­mer New York mayor Mike Bloomberg in the March 3 Su­per Tues­day pri­maries.

Here’s an­other theme that’s of­ten over­looked: The 2020 suc­cesses of moder­ate Democrats are a con­tin­u­a­tion of the 2018 midterm elec­tion re­sults. The left wing of the Demo­cratic Party, led by Rep. Alexandria Oca­sio- Cortez (N.Y.), got the at­ten­tion then. But it was the cen­trist can­di­dates who swung Repub­li­can dis­tricts into the Demo­cratic col­umn and thus de­liv­ered the House for Democrats in 2018.

Think of moder­ate voices such as Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michi­gan and Rep. Conor Lamb of Penn­syl­va­nia. These can­di­dates speak the same di­alect as But­tigieg and Klobuchar. They can win in the Rust Belt be­cause that’s where they live, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively.

“Moder­ate” is one of those limp po­lit­i­cal de­scrip­tors, like “cen­trist” or “bipartisan,” that sug­gest a soggy lump in the mid­dle. But the cam­paign pro­pos­als from But­tigieg, Klobuchar and even Bloomberg offer sig­nif­i­cant change — and in achiev­able ways. They get that the sta­tus quo isn’t work­ing for most Amer­i­cans. Their pro­pos­als for deal­ing with cli­mate change, wealth inequality and health care share a com­mon virtue: They could ac­tu­ally be im­ple­mented with­out bust­ing the bud­get or fur­ther po­lar­iz­ing the coun­try.

Trump seems to think he can win re­elec­tion by di­vid­ing the coun­try even more sav­agely. But for a fraz­zled, fa­tigued elec­torate, maybe this is the sea­son for the “fix it” fac­tion that of­fers re­al­is­tic plans for solv­ing prob­lems.

Take the ex­is­ten­tial threat of cli­mate change. On Thurs­day, a broad coali­tion called the Cli­mate Lead­er­ship Council — backed by leading en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and some of the big­gest en­ergy com­pa­nies and util­i­ties — re­leased a plan for a car­bon tax and re­bate that would rad­i­cally cut emis­sions while also leav­ing most people bet­ter off eco­nom­i­cally. To win Repub­li­can and business sup­port, the coali­tion also pro­posed cut­ting reg­u­la­tions that a car­bon tax would make un­nec­es­sary.

Or con­sider the inequality and un­fair­ness that are poi­son­ing Amer­i­can life. That’s San­ders’s trade­mark is­sue, but there is broad agree­ment on the need for change. Prom­i­nent fi­nanciers such as Jamie Dimon of Jpmor­gan Chase and Ray Dalio of Bridge­wa­ter As­so­ciates, along with mem­bers of the Business Round­table, are rec­om­mend­ing fun­da­men­tal changes. Bloomberg, like many bil­lion­aires, rec­og­nizes that we ei­ther re­form our cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy or risk los­ing it.

The Democrats can blow this elec­tion, for sure. Mod­er­ates may have the num­bers in the ag­gre­gate, but ag­gre­gates don’t win elections. San­ders has pas­sion, and un­less Democrats can co­a­lesce around a prag­matic ri­val, the Mil­wau­kee con­ven­tion could be a blood­bath and the Novem­ber elec­tion a blowout for Trump.

Trump tosses new stink bombs ev­ery day. His fans love this car­ni­val of re­sent­ment, but polls have shown since the be­gin­ning of his pres­i­dency that a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans don’t. Trump World is about raw power, to be sure. But there are some in­ter­est­ing, eas­ily over­looked signs early in this 2020 cam­paign that maybe the shouters won’t win.

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