The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is centrism dead?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a campaign rally in Wichita last week.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a campaign rally in Wichita last week. (J. Pat Carter/For The Washington Post)
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Jeff Yarbro is one of only five Democrats in the 33-member Tennessee Senate — a minority so diminished that when he needs someone to second a motion that he makes in committee, he usually has to persuade a Republican to do it.

At a time when most of the energy in the party is coming from the riled-up left, Democrats such as Yarbro worry that their activist base is putting them on a path to extinction in places such as Tennessee and other conservative states where they once were competitive.

“People regard most of what we’re doing in politics today as noisy fights that have very little to do with their lives,” he says, “and Democrats don’t win those fights.”

Is there still a place in the Democratic Party for centrism? Or does that brand of politics seem too tepid against the combative populism that put Donald Trump into the White House?

Yarbro was one of about 250 Democrats who came to Columbus last week to consider those questions, at a conference put together by the center-left think tank Third Way.

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Centrism is often spoken of with scorn among today’s Democrats. Positions once considered radically liberal — among them, single-payer health care, tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage — are now part of the opening bid for some of the most talked-about potential 2020 presidential contenders.

More recently, calls to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency have become a rallying cry for the left, gaining momentum after one proponent, democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, knocked off the fourth-ranking House Democrat in last month’s New York Democratic primary.

And even as the Third Way Democrats were gathering in Columbus, Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were on a campaign swing through Kansas and Missouri, both states that went heavily for Trump.

What excites voters in Queens and the Bronx, however, is not going to resonate in the same way in Iowa or Utah. Where Democrats have their best chances to flip seats from red to blue, they have generally picked moderate nominees who fit the political profile of their districts.

One thing is clear: No one has much of an appetite for a warmed-over version of the brand of middle-path politics that took Bill Clinton to the White House in the early 1990s.

On many issues that mattered then — particularly on questions such as gay rights, stricter gun control and abortion — the battles within the party are long over. Clinton’s trademark small-bore solutions to economic and societal problems seem too incremental for the challenges of this moment.

“Our ideas must be bold, but they must also fit the age we are in. Big isn’t enough. If it’s bold and old, it’s simply old,” Third Way President Jon Cowan said in his opening address. “Let’s be clear: ’80s supply side, ’90s centrism and ’60s socialism will not cut it for the era we live in.”

In interviews conducted with voters in a dozen states, Third Way says it found little concern for income inequality, something Democrats talk about a lot.

Instead, it heard anxiety about what people sense is happening in their own lives — that good jobs are vanishing; that they don’t have the right skills for a digital, globalized economy; that prospects for their children will be worse.

The think tank has put forward its own set of proposals, to deal with what it calls a “crisis of opportunity.” Among them are replacing unemployment insurance with a program that would also fund job-skills development, and vouchers to help people move to places where there are job openings; a minimum wage that would vary by region; and eliminating all tax on the first $15,000 of earned income.

None of these is likely to generate much excitement on the left. Nor are they proposals you will hear much about during this campaign season, given that midterm elections tend to become referendums on the president’s performance.

It is in presidential election years that parties have an opportunity to define themselves. To win the next one, Democrats will have to come up with ideas that speak directly to the concerns of independents and disaffected Democrats who turned to Trump in 2016 — and with a messenger capable of articulating them.

That means there is a healthy argument waiting to be had within the party, and it is a good thing for Democrats that it is already getting underway. Their goal in 2020 should be not just to replace Trump in the White House, but also to give Democrats such as Yarbro more company in the statehouse.

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