The Real Democratic Debate Should Be Over How to Win Moderates

Weak centrists and strong progressives with limited appeal are raising the question: Can anyone beat Trump?

Photos: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Democrats are panicking.

Less than three months before voters gather in Iowa to choose the party’s 2020 nominee for president, the fear that Democrats are at risk of picking a standard-bearer who cannot beat President Donald Trump is palpable.

In the last two weeks, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has tentatively thrown his hat in the ring. Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has already taken the plunge. Democratic donors are practically apoplectic about the state of the race, particularly after recent polls showed the top Democratic candidates barely edging Trump in key battleground states.

While this kind of hand-wringing is a quadrennial rite of passage for Democrats, the growing concerns should not be dismissed — there are legitimate reasons to be afraid. While the Democratic presidential field is as impressive a group as has ever been assembled in a party primary, the top-tier candidates are all flawed in fundamental ways that risk giving Trump another four years.

Part of the challenge for Democrats is the growing divide between the progressive wing of the party and the quieter, more moderate majority.

Indeed, this is one of the most misunderstood elements of the Democratic primary campaign. Activist liberals, who are ubiquitous on social media, are pushing an aggressive policy agenda on everything from “Medicare for All” to the Green New Deal and student loan forgiveness. They’ve been bolstered by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have both signed off on many of these policies — and criticized their fellow candidates for insufficient fealty to long-standing progressive goals.

The “wokeness” of Twitter Democrats is not reflected among the party’s rank and file.

But these policies don’t have the kind of overwhelming support among Democratic primary voters that many assume — in part because Democratic primary voters would prefer that the party be more moderate and more inclined toward cooperation with Republicans.

In other words, the “wokeness” of Twitter Democrats is not reflected among the party’s rank and file.

In fact, approximately half of all Democrats describe themselves as moderate or conservative — not liberal.

It’s a large part of the reason why polling on the race continues to show former Vice President Joe Biden, and his largely centrist campaign, with the advantage. According to the polling average at RealClearPolitics, Biden has a five-point lead over Warren — at least in national polls.

Yet, at the same time, Biden’s national frontrunner status cannot hide his glaring flaws. He is struggling to raise money and generate enthusiasm. He is trailing South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden’s now almost routine gaffes and malapropisms are distracting from key campaign messages. Even his own staff seems to question whether he can pull it off.

Indeed, there is no better indication of Biden’s weaknesses than Patrick’s — and potentially Bloomberg’s — entry into the race. If he were doing better and appeared to be on a smoother path to the party nomination, there’s practically no chance they’d be setting up trips to New Hampshire and other early primary states.

While there are others in the race who have tried to wrest away the moderate lane from Biden, they too have major flaws. Buttigieg, who has jumped out to surprising leads in the early voting states, has not shown the ability to win over black voters (he’s polling at 0% among them in South Carolina), raising questions about his ability to win a national race. The increased scrutiny of his campaign will almost certainly lead to more questions about his lack of political experience as well. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Michael Bennett, et al. have simply not taken off, and Sen. Kamala Harris’s campaign is in free fall.

The panic among moderates is particularly acute because of the growing fear that Warren or Sanders will win the party’s nod.

Some of the concern over the two most liberal candidates in the race is about policy and ideology. That is certainly true for the Democratic donor class that sees Warren, in particular, as a direct threat to their livelihoods and their millions in wealth.

But the fears are also, if not more, about politics. Warren, who looks to be a better bet to win the nomination than Sanders, is running one of the most unabashedly liberal and populist presidential campaigns that any Democrat has run. Ever.

Her two-cent wealth tax directly takes on the millionaires and billionaires who both she and Sanders like to deride. Her call to break up big tech companies would wreak havoc on some of the most powerful and influential corporations in the United States. But, it is her plan for a single-payer, Medicare for All health care system that is not only her most radical but has set off the most alarm bells among Democrats. Their anxiety is rooted in the notion that her plans risk alienating persuadable, swing voters and could be a tool for Trump and the GOP to keep this small portion of the electorate in the president’s corner.

They’re not wrong. There’s increasingly little question that Medicare for All is a major political loser for Democrats.

Indeed, earlier this week, new research provided compelling evidence of how bad it is.

In an article in Sabato’s Crystal Ball, political scientist Alan Abramowitz looked at how support for Medicare for All affected congressional campaigns and found that “Democratic candidates supporting Medicare for All did substantially worse than those who did not.”

According to his estimates, support for Medicare for All cost Democratic candidates “almost five points of vote margin,” which is a significant number in what could be a close election.

What should perhaps be most concerning for Democrats is that these numbers were born out in districts that were somewhat more Democratic than the districts of those candidates who did not support Medicare for All.

So it’s not just an issue of hardcore Republicans opposing single-payer health coverage — many Democrats are not on board either. It’s part of the reason why Buttigieg and Harris have both backed away from their previous support for Medicare for All, preferring a slower, more politically palatable approach. Even Warren is now calling for a similar strategy.

Nonetheless, Warren’s push for single-payer health care is also arguably hurting her among those who should be most inclined to support her candidacy. According to recent polling by the New York Times, her biggest problem lies not with working-class voters, as one might imagine, but rather among highly-educated voters who consider her positions and views to be too far left. These are precisely the kind of voters who would likely be inclined to vote Trump out of office. Warren’s positioning and policy stances risk making that sell more difficult.

Warren’s ambitious plans for remaking the U.S. economy have propelled her to the top tier of Democratic candidates, but she is at risk of alienating voters who are turned off by precisely those positions. The same can be said of Sanders. To be sure, it’s not just their support for government-run health care — it’s that by calling for such transformative political change, they risk alienating an American electorate that has traditionally been averse to transformative political change.

While it’s certainly the case that both candidates reflect a sizable piece of the Democratic Party, they speak for the louder, more activist one, not the majority — and certainly not a majority of the American people. Indeed, the more Americans hear about Medicare for All, the less supportive they become.

Granted, none of this means that a Warren or Sanders nomination would sink Democrats. It also doesn’t mean that a moderate candidate is a panacea (though there’s plenty of political science research that suggests a candidate who is perceived to be more moderate, whether or not that perception is accurate, tends to do better in a presidential election).

But what it does mean is that Democrats have every reason to be concerned.

Political columnist for the Boston Globe. He is the co-author of “Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters To Americans.”

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