The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Moderate Democrats are winning elections. Progressives are winning the war.

Then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in 2018. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)
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If there’s a more “establishment” figure in the Democratic Party than Terry McAuliffe, it’s hard to think who it might be, other than President Biden. Longtime fundraiser, best buddy to Bill and Hillary, the former Virginia governor just won his party’s nomination to get his old job back, beating out multiple candidates of color, some of whom ran as more progressive alternatives to McAuliffe.

He blew them all away, besting his closest opponent by 42 points. At a moment when the party has moved significantly to the left, it keeps electing people who are not the kind of committed progressives some have hoped for.

So how should progressives feel about this pattern? Upset, disappointed, distressed? Are their dreams being dashed as moderates regain control of the party?

The answer to the latter question is no, because it’s an oversimplification to put people like Biden and McAuliffe in a box marked “moderate.” As for how progressives should feel, the answer is: It’s complicated.

But it’s easy to see recent election results as a setback for the left, as The Post describes it:

The candidates speaking out the loudest on issues such as racism, police abuse and health care inequities often find themselves behind in the polls. Winning candidates in many cases, such as McAuliffe, have adopted liberal positions on issues such as the death penalty and marijuana legalization, but even as they express support for the Black Lives Matter movement have stopped short of backing activist calls to “defund the police.”
“Almost everywhere, voters’ preference was: We need to win and there is nothing wrong with the Democrat I am voting for,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said of Tuesday’s result in his state. “They are progressive Democrats, maybe not as far on the spectrum as some would like, but they are perfectly acceptable.”

Nevertheless, it’s not as though policy moderation is reasserting itself within the Democratic Party. Yes, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) is preventing the party from passing much of anything, but he doesn’t represent a faction or a movement; it’s just about him and his delusions of restoring an imagined Senate of the past.

Right now there isn’t really much of a debate going on within the Democratic Party between moderates and progressives, because the moderates are in such retreat. You can find them, and they may have some ideas, but there’s no momentum behind them. The party isn’t carefully deliberating about moderate policy solutions and how to get them enacted, as it was 30 years ago when Bill Clinton and his allies shifted its direction to the center.

Instead, the debate is largely between progressives and what we might call the ideologically fluid: people such as Biden, McAullife, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) — all of whom have liberal impulses but are more concerned with short-term political practicality than any long-term ideological project.

The good news for progressives is that because of their activism and advocacy, they’ve created a context that allows — or forces — the fluid politicians to move left. When McAuliffe wins in November (as he will, barring some campaign catastrophe), he’ll be a far more liberal governor than he was in his first term between 2014 and 2018, just as Biden has been a more liberal president than his career might have suggested.

That’s because the Virginia of today is a very different place than it was just a few years ago. Its electorate continues to move left, and after Democrats took control of both houses of the legislature two years ago, they passed a sweeping progressive agenda. They abolished the death penalty, legalized marijuana, increased the minimum wage, passed police reform laws, passed a state Voting Rights Act, enacted new gun safety laws, made it possible to remove Confederate statues, rolled back abortion restrictions and more.

Virginia has been the single greatest state-level success story for the progressive agenda in America in recent years. And it happened while Ralph Northam — another establishment figure who beat out a more progressive candidate in his primary — has been governor.

Is McAuliffe going to be as aggressive as some of his opponents might have been in going even further in a progressive direction? Probably not. But neither is he going to reverse any of that progress; his actions will be constrained by the context progressives created.

That’s true at the national level as well, if perhaps not quite to the same extent. But it’s not surprising that progressives are disappointed that the politicians they most support — those in the mold of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — are often falling short, especially when they’re running in competitive races. When it comes time to cast their ballots, Democratic voters keep deciding that, although they like progressive ideas, it’s safer to go with candidates with reputations as moderates.

Then things get even more complicated. When those candidates get elected and find that governing is difficult and involves lots of compromises and setbacks, many on the left conclude that their worst fears are coming true: If the party had elected someone with a firmer and more long-standing commitment to a progressive agenda, these problems would be solved.

But in most cases, that just isn’t true. For instance, if Sanders were president right now, what would he be doing about Manchin? Does he have some secret formula, one Biden can’t use, that would persuade Manchin to agree to reform the filibuster and support, for instance, the For the People Act?

No, he doesn’t. During the 2020 campaign, when Sanders was asked that question (yes, we knew even then what a problem Manchin would be), he said he’d go to West Virginia and campaign for progressive goals such as Medicare-for-all, and that pressure would change Manchin’s mind. It was both a ludicrous answer and about the only thing Sanders could come up with — which is why it was a good illustration of how complicated governing can be.

That’s not a reason for progressives to give up — it was their hard work that got us to the point we’re at now, where so much more is possible than just a few years ago. But they shouldn’t take victories at the ballot box from less ideological Democrats as a sign that they’re losing. It just means they have to keep pressure on those ideologically fluid officials, keep making the case for progressive policy solutions, and never stop working.

In the battle over what the Democratic Party will be, progressives are winning. Even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

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