Another way to distill the failure is to say that in the last decade or so the center-left attempted a series of policy compromises — Obamacare instead of single-payer, cap-and-trade instead of a Green New Deal, modest upper-bracket tax increases instead of big attempts to soak the rich — and then discovered that the Republican Party was either still too far away ideologically or too much of an internally divided mess to make a lasting deal on any issue. And meanwhile the compromises were often unpopular with swing voters — as Obamacare was at first, as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax probably would be (just ask Emmanuel Macron) — so there was no obvious political advantage to making them pre-emptively.
.. Both of these accounts fit DeLong’s narrative; both make a case for letting the further-left parts of the Democratic coalition try leadership instead, and seeking compromises between socialists and liberals rather than pining for moderate-Republican partners who don’t appear to be in evidence.
But then consider a third distillation, a third narrative, in which the center-left’s signal political failure was that it never really sought to preserve a cultural centrism, which meant over time that its party’s approach to social issues has been dictated more and more completely by the left. In this story the political success of Bill Clinton reflected not only his compromises with Republicans on taxes and spending, his tacit nods to Reaganomics, but also his ability to infuse a centrist liberalism with reassuring nods to various kinds of moderate cultural conservatism — the school uniform and v-chip business and the rhetoric of “safe, legal and rare” on abortion, the easy Baptist religiosity, the tacitly center-right positions on immigration and crime and same-sex marriage.
And in this part of the Democratic coalition’s story, the center-left’s role has been extraordinarily passive, essentially following the cultural left a tiny bit more slowly rather than trying to devise a more moderate approach. You can find hints of what such a moderate approach might look like in intellectual projects like Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy, or in the probing, evenhanded culture-war reportage of the magazine writer Jesse Singal (whom I hesitate to even praise because it will do him no favors on the internet). But that cultural moderation has no substantial political form, no important champions within the Democratic Party. It has Joe Manchin and Tulsi Gabbard, maybe, but they are eccentric figures; elsewhere among the Democrats there is little interest in considering all the different ways that cultural extremism costs them votes.
Which means that if the center-left abdicates, DeLong-style, on economic policy, the Democratic Party as a whole will have moved to the left on every front, writing off not only the possibility of compromising with Republican politicians (which, for now, might be understandable) but also the possibility of winning over voters who would almost certainly be Democrats if the party still occupied the cultural terrain that it held in 2000 or even as late as 2008.
Sadly the rest of the DeLong thread didn’t take up that possibility. It degenerated, instead, into a howl against Republican fascism and a post-Protestant sermon about how liberal America can build the true and only heaven, the real shining city on the hill.
Which suggests that to reckon with the possibility that making liberalism a pseudo-church might be a problem, not an aspiration, we need a very different center-left from the one surrendering today.
As Democrats move from success in the 2018 midterms to the early stages of picking a 2020 presidential candidate, a narrative is taking root. It holds that the key Democratic voter today is young, liberal and rebellious—in short, a version of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old activist who became the youngest congresswoman ever and who appears to be pushing the party to the left.
There is one problem with this narrative. It largely misses the story of the voters who actually delivered success to Democrats last year—and who may determine the outcome of the next presidential race.The disconnect between perception and reality is important because it affects what Democrats do—now that they have a piece of governing power in Washington with their newfound control of the House, and because it affects the way the party views the nascent effort to choose the next presidential contender. In particular, it affects views of the largest name in the party not yet in the 2020 field: former Vice President Joe Biden.
It’s certainly true that there was a lot of energy among young, liberal Democrats in 2018, and that figures to be true again in the new presidential cycle.
Yet the Democratic electorate in 2018—the one that swung House seats and governor’s offices from Republican to Democratic—was neither as young nor as liberal as popularly imagined. AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 115,000 self-identified 2018 midterm voters, found that just 15% of those who voted Democratic last November were aged 18 through 29. The largest contingent of Democratic voters—36%—actually were ages 45 through 64.
All told, 60% of Democratic voters were aged 45 or older.
In ideological terms, there is no doubt that the party is moving to the left. An increasing share of Democrats are identifying themselves as liberal. Yet that movement also can be overstated. While half of Democratic voters last year identified themselves as liberal, 48% called themselves moderate or conservative. And moderates outnumbered “very liberal” Democratic voters by two to one.
Their switch is why many of those moderate Republicans washed out to sea; their fate was sealed more by moderate women rising up to vote Democratic than because of a left-wing insurrection. Indeed, candidates endorsed by the moderate New Democrat coalition flipped 33 of the 42 House seats that went from Republican to Democrat.
Geographically, the keys to Democrats’ success came not in the party’s coastal enclaves—such as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s district, which was held by Democrats long before she arrived—but rather in the industrial upper Midwest swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. All three states were won by Mr. Trump in 2016, but Democrats won the popular House vote in those states last fall. Democrats also nominated moderates for governor in all three states—and all three won, by a margin of 1.3 million votes.This reality is important for Democrats as candidates begin drifting onto the 2020 presidential battlefield. The prevailing narrative suggests not only that the advantage goes to a fresh face who excites the party’s young progressives—think former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas or Sen. Kamala Harris of California—but that such a choice has the best chance of success against Mr. Trump.
And maybe that’s the case. But consider the alternative, suggested by the reality of the midterm election results: The votes that will spell the difference for Democrats lie not on the left and on the coasts, but in the center and in the industrial Midwest.
That’s where Mr. Biden enters the picture. Perhaps the 76-year-old former vice president is too old. He certainly doesn’t meet the desire for “new blood” in politics cited last week by former President Obama.
On the other hand, if the Democrats’ key votes in 2020 will lie among centrists in the industrial Midwest, the more moderate profile of the favorite son of Scranton, Pa., will be an attractive one. Moreover, if voters generally are looking for somebody who knows how to get things done rather than simply create controversy, the guy who once prevented a government shutdown by cutting a big budget deal with Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell may have some appeal.
It’s too early to know, of course—but there is more than one narrative at work for Democrats.
Which is why John Delaney, who is ending a three-term tenure as a Democratic congressman from Maryland, is seeking his party’s presidential nomination. His quest will test whether Democrats’ detestation of Donald Trump is stronger than their enthusiasm for identity politics: A white, male businessman, Delaney comes to bat with three strikes against him.
Suppose, however, Democrats are more interested in scrubbing the current presidential stain from public life than they are in virtue-signaling and colonizing the far shores of left-wingery.
Delaney illustrates the reason for tolerating what Iowa considers a Mandate of Heaven — its entitlement to begin the nomination process. Iowans are so thin on the ground that relentless retail politicking can give a dark-horse candidate a fighting chance against the ponies who, being senators and hence barely employed, have ample time to flit around the country raising money and their pretty profiles before coming to where the tall corn grows. Delaney, who is not neglecting New Hampshire, has been tilling Iowa’s political soil as an announced candidate for more than 475 days, and long since exceeded 50 percent name recognition among Democratic Iowans. He has visited all 99 counties with more than 440 days remaining before the 2020 caucuses.