However, some perspective is required. This isn’t the first time a party has run to the base in the primary and drifted back to the center. Moreover, if sane and consistent ideology were necessary to win a major-party nomination and the presidency, President Trump never would have gotten elected.
There is a good argument — stronger than it was in 2016 — that presidential politics is an emotion-driven affair that turns not on specific policies but on an emotional connection to voters and a general message (hope and change, MAGA, morning in America). Republicans who claim Ronald Reagan was elected because he was the most ideologically conservative candidate and Democrats who claim Barack Obama got elected because he was the most progressive inflate the segment of the electorate that selects its president by where he falls along the right-left spectrum.
Furthermore, about 90 percent of the Republican Party (a shrunken party, I would estimate) remains in the Trump cult. If the Mueller report didn’t shake the GOP’s faith in Trump, a Democratic nominee’s admirable policy restraint isn’t going to do it. And conversely, if, as I do, you think Trump is a mortal threat to our democracy, you’re going to put up with ideological differences, maybe serious ones, with the Democratic nominee to boot out Trump. If character, decency, literacy, sanity and other fundamental traits of a functional, respectable human being matter most of all to 2020 voters, the infuriated ex-Republicans can see that no serious Democratic contender would be worse than Trump.
And given how loopy Trump is, most Democrats have gotten to Trump’s “right” on national security, executive power, the rule of law and objective truth. Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist and pollster, remarked on “Meet the Press": “There is nothing about who [Trump] is, from a values standpoint and from an action standpoint, that makes middle-of-the-road, moderate voters, base, middle-of-the-road moderate voters comfortable. Look, Democrats won 9 million more votes in 2018 than Republicans. It wasn’t just because they, people fell in love with Democrats.”
It’s critical, however, that Democrats take time to defend and refine their proposals. A case in point: Julián Castro on “Meet the Press” responded to the “open borders” charge:
We have 654 miles of fencing. We have thousands of personnel at the border. We have planes. We have helicopters. We have guns. We have boats. We have security cameras. States like Texas, my home state that I’m in right now, spent an extra 800 million dollars on border security. That’s just a right-wing talking point. What we’re talking about is maintaining a secure border but doing things like that 21st Century Marshall Plan so that we can actually stem the flow of people here because they can find safety and opportunity at home. We’re talking about creating an independent immigration court system with more judges and more support staff so that we can actually get these claims — asylum claims resolved and people are not waiting in the United States in limbo for years and years. So if you’re somebody who’s out there who is concerned about what’s happening, I understand that. I’m saying that there’s a smarter, there’s a more effective way to do this that’s also more humane than what we’re doing today.
If you do what Castro recommends and it works, you don’t have a massive backup of migrants, “dreamers” will be on a path to citizenship and considerable border security will be in place. But then, come to think of it, with a new immigration system that deals with those here illegally, there is no need to raise the red flag by “decriminalizing” illegal crossings.
But what about giving Obamacare/Medicare-for-all to illegal immigrants? Democrats might listen to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) explain that she raised her hand on that question to signal support “for immediate health-care needs, but as far as other benefits I think we need to — that has got to be a part of the discussion of comprehensive immigration reform.”
Taking vague, inflammatory positions that aren’t popular and only give Trump ammunition is asking for trouble. Yes, there is a point at which Democrats might lose voters newly disposed to vote for them, such as white, college-educated women. (Unbelievably, the busing issue is back from the 1970s and would be just the thing to frighten suburban, professional mothers.)
Now, let’s look at 2018 and the winning coalition for Democrats in 2020. Democrats won in 2018 by jacking up turnout for nonwhites, young voters and college-educated, white women (who voted and volunteered for and donated to, among others, more female candidates than ever). Democrats ran on Obamacare primarily and on a call to defend democracy and decency. They spoke about real American values. They didn’t win back the House focusing on immigrant-averse, white, working-class men. With a 2018 coalition, scaled up for a presidential election, Democrats can win in 2020. (If you want to play the electable game, the best choice for Democrats might be a woman.)
Does this mean that Democrats should be ungracious or dismissive of voices — many within their own party — clamoring for prudence? No. In close elections, every possible voter should be cajoled to go to the polls. Does it mean that ideology has no role whatsoever? No. (I’ll stipulate that calling oneself a socialist is a bridge too far. I’ll stipulate that outlawing all private insurance will undermine support among suburban women.)
However, we should keep some perspective as the Democrats go through a long and arduous process: What the Democratic candidate projects as her vision of America and how she connects with voters ultimately will be more critical in the general election than ideology. In any event, returning to the center is a tried-and-true tactic for the general election, and Democrats have plenty of time to refine and defend their positions — which they must do.
Democrats’ goal should be to re-create the Obama coalition with a significant change: It’s much more feasible to keep the college-educated, white women (who’d crawl over broken glass to get rid of Trump and who are more progressive than college-educated, white men) than it is to win back the white, working-class Fox viewer. It’s those women voters (who outnumber white men with no college education), not the sliver of white male NeverTrumpers, whom Democrats must retain; the former are more progressive and more tolerant of ideological differences than the latter. Those critical women voters will allow for some ideological disagreement — up to a point.