The Iowa caucuses fiasco robbed Buttigieg of the impact of his victory there. But it was a startling performance by a young, relatively inexperienced candidate whose strongest message has been the impracticality of social programs proposed by Sanders and other progressives.
While Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, posted a win Tuesday in New Hampshire, the bigger stories there, arguably, were Buttigieg’s strong second-place showing and Klobuchar’s breakout performance in finishing third. The two moderates together carried 44.2 percent of the vote, compared with Sanders’s 25.8 percent. Even if you add Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 9.2 percent to Sanders’s total, the balance is toward the center, not the left.
What’s the 2020 story line so far? Here’s a suggestion: The more voters have looked at progressives’ expensive programs, the warier they have become. Warren never recovered from her embrace of compulsory Medicare. Voters see former vice president Joe Biden as a spent force, but they still want a pragmatic candidate who can beat President Trump. That yearning for a strong moderate helped Buttigieg and Klobuchar, but the next beneficiary could be former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg in the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries.
Here’s another theme that’s often overlooked: The 2020 successes of moderate Democrats are a continuation of the 2018 midterm election results. The left wing of the Democratic Party, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), got the attention then. But it was the centrist candidates who swung Republican districts into the Democratic column and thus delivered the House for Democrats in 2018.
Think of moderate voices such as Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania. These candidates speak the same dialect as Buttigieg and Klobuchar. They can win in the Rust Belt because that’s where they live, literally and figuratively.
“Moderate” is one of those limp political descriptors, like “centrist” or “bipartisan,” that suggest a soggy lump in the middle. But the campaign proposals from Buttigieg, Klobuchar and even Bloomberg offer significant change — and in achievable ways. They get that the status quo isn’t working for most Americans. Their proposals for dealing with climate change, wealth inequality and health care share a common virtue: They could actually be implemented without busting the budget or further polarizing the country.
Trump seems to think he can win reelection by dividing the country even more savagely. But for a frazzled, fatigued electorate, maybe this is the season for the “fix it” faction that offers realistic plans for solving problems.
Take the existential threat of climate change. On Thursday, a broad coalition called the Climate Leadership Council — backed by leading environmentalists and some of the biggest energy companies and utilities — released a plan for a carbon tax and rebate that would radically cut emissions while also leaving most people better off economically. To win Republican and business support, the coalition also proposed cutting regulations that a carbon tax would make unnecessary.
Or consider the inequality and unfairness that are poisoning American life. That’s Sanders’s trademark issue, but there is broad agreement on the need for change. Prominent financiers such as Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, along with members of the Business Roundtable, are recommending fundamental changes. Bloomberg, like many billionaires, recognizes that we either reform our capitalist economy or risk losing it.
The Democrats can blow this election, for sure. Moderates may have the numbers in the aggregate, but aggregates don’t win elections. Sanders has passion, and unless Democrats can coalesce around a pragmatic rival, the Milwaukee convention could be a bloodbath and the November election a blowout for Trump.
Trump tosses new stink bombs every day. His fans love this carnival of resentment, but polls have shown since the beginning of his presidency that a majority of Americans don’t. Trump World is about raw power, to be sure. But there are some interesting, easily overlooked signs early in this 2020 campaign that maybe the shouters won’t win.