Rahm Emanuel is a former mayor of Chicago.
The most hyped theme of the 2020 election cycle is that the Democratic Party has lurched suddenly and dramatically to the left. Not only has the party not lurched, but also the presumption that Democrats are undergoing some sort of ideological transformation may undermine our opportunity to defeat President Trump next year. The central question is how we’re going to help our nominee win states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. To avoid an electoral disaster, we need to burst the misunderstandings around three destructive myths.
First, those of us who practice politics know that sound does not always equal fury. No one denies that the progressives have gotten louder and angrier over the past several years. Even as Democrats have won more votes than Republicans in every presidential election except one since 1992, many on the left feel as though their demands have been deferred, denied or never addressed — not by the two Republican presidents elected since then, but worse, not by the two Democrats, either. Today’s activists are still angry about welfare reform, the bogus case of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Guantanamo Bay and the failure of the public option during debate over the Affordable Care Act, just to name a few.
When people talk about the Democratic “base,” they tend to think of the party’s liberal wing. That’s a mistake. Roughly half of self-identified Democrats describe themselves as “moderate” or “conservative.” Even as “the Squad” grabs the spotlight, moderate Democratic lawmakers such as Conor Lamb (Pa.), Lauren Underwood (Ill.), Mikie Sherrill (N.J.) and Abigail Spanberger (Va.) are primarily responsible for today’s Democratic majority in the House. And that’s key: Our nominee will need the voters in their districts to win a sufficient number of purple states in next year’s election.
Second, some seem to think that the progressives are a new voice in the Democratic coalition. As someone who’s been doing this for a while, let me assure you that some of the people supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign today are cut from the same cloth as those who were heartbroken when Bill Clinton dispatched Jerry Brown during the 1992 primaries. They’re making many of the same arguments Ralph Nader made when he ran against Al Gore in 2000. Some are veterans of the Netroots, a group that emerged during the George W. Bush years.
The left didn’t just get here — it has been around for decades. In fact, it was progressives who controlled the Democratic Party’s agenda for the quarter-century before Clinton’s victory in 1992. That’s one of the reasons we lost every presidential election held between 1968 and 1988 except the post-Watergate win by Jimmy Carter. History has proved there aren’t enough voters on the far left, on their own, to elect and reelect a president or maintain a majority in Congress.
The only two Democratic presidents to win reelection since Franklin D. Roosevelt won the White House by reaching out to the center. Clinton spoke about responsibility and opportunity, arguing that you can’t have something for nothing. Barack Obama aired a commercial featuring a Republican state legislator’s endorsement, making clear he wanted to be a president for all America, not just those who agreed with him on every issue. And our successful efforts to win and maintain the House in 2006, 2008 and 2018 were built on a coalition that includes different sorts of people who have different ideas about the way to drive broad-based security and prosperity. Moderate Democrats may not spend time spewing snark on social media or even sending small donations in response to online solicitations. But you can be sure that they vote in the primaries and will make the difference in the general election.
What remains to be seen is whether today’s far left is more interested in defeating Trump than it is in drumming moderates out of the Democratic Party.
That then points to the third myth: namely that, to win, Democrats need to mirror Trump’s abrasive political style. When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) riles up his supporters by boasting that “there is no middle ground,” he’s promising to be a liberal answer to Trump — to fight fire with fire as Trump’s liberal mini-me. That’s the wrong approach.
With the economy humming, Trump should have an approval rating well above 50 percent, if not higher. But he’s stuck in the 40s because Americans do not like the poison pouring out of his mouth and Twitter feed. Democrats shouldn’t lean into what Trump does poorly. We should offer a contrast — someone competent, balanced, thoughtful and capable of reaching across the aisle.
A quarter-century ago, Clinton pulled the Democratic Party out of obsolescence by arguing that Americans needed to reject the false choices the old leadership in Washington presented them year in and year out. Today, our party needs to reject the false choice between all or nothing. Voters both on the left and in the center need to come out in force for the Democratic nominee if we’re going to win next year.
Whatever disagreements we may have with one another, nothing is worth the cost of extending Trump’s tenure. The far left hasn’t taken control of the Democratic Party. Moderates are just as much an integral part of the party’s “base” as any group of liberals. And the key to winning next year isn’t to out-Trump Trump — it’s to ensure that our nominee offers a contrast of competence and character that inspires voters across the political spectrum to make a change at the top.