WASHINGTON – A group of moderate Democratic lawmakers sounded the alarm Thursday over the party's shift to the left, saying the embrace of ultra-liberal policies could endanger their efforts to capture Congress in the November midterm elections and the White House in 2020.
“The next two years is just a race to offer increasingly unrealistic proposals, to rally just those who are already with us,” Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, told a gathering of like-minded centrists at a strategy session in Washington. But with a far-left agenda, Coons warned, “it’ll be difficult for us to make a credible case that we should be allowed to govern again and easier and easier to mock and marginalize us.”
Coons delivered that rebuke to his party’s left flank at a forum organized by New Democracy, a centrist group whose leaders fear Democrats are hoping to win the Nov. 6 midterm elections “by default,” rather than by trying to put together the broadest possible coalition of voters.
He and several other leading Democrats argued the party’s most promising path to regaining control of Congress and the White House was a centrist, pragmatic pitch to voters fed up with partisan warfare.
“You can’t govern if you can’t win elections … and you can’t win elections if one extreme is responding to the other extreme,” said former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, seen by some as a rising star in the party.
That pitch for moderation comes at a time when the most energy and passion in the Democratic Party is on the far left – and when the leading presidential candidates have endorsed populist proposals such as free college and a guaranteed government job for all.
Coons dismissed those ideas as “wild-eyed” and said they would cement the party’s status in the minority, where it’s only role is resistance to President Trump and congressional Republicans.
A brand issue
Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from southern Illinois who won a district also carried by Trump, said the party must focus “relentlessly on jobs and the economy” and avoid divisive issues.
“We’ve got a brand issue with our party,” she said, noting she is the only member of the House Democratic leadership from a rural, midwestern, pro-Trump district.
“We value diversity of every sort except for the diversity I just mentioned,” Bustos said. “It’s okay to make sure we’re focusing every single day relentlessly on bread and butter issues.”
Bustos said Democrats have a good shot at winning a House majority in November, mostly because of moderate candidates who have the right biography and message to win in swing districts. She pointed to the 15 veterans who are running as Democrats in key House districts, along with a slew of compelling female contenders.
“We’ve got every opportunity to win back the House,” she said. “(But) I don’t want to win back the majority for one cycle,” she added, arguing that’s a danger if Democrats let the political pendulum swing too far left.
Coons was more blunt.
"We’ve heard some predictions of a blue wave… but it’s seems to me there’s far too many in our party who are just sitting on their hands waiting for it to wash over us and restore us to governing majorities," he said, while others "are engaging in a relentless race to the left to make more and more outrageous proposals."
Liberals, led by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described independent socialist and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, have argued that Americans are hungry for a bold progressive agenda, not mealy-mouthed moderation. Sanders, who may run again in 2020, has championed a big government agenda, including Medicare for all and free college.
Other presidential hopefuls on the Democratic side, including California Sen. Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have quickly embraced such ideas. Democratic moderates have been far less vocal or visible, and Thursday’s conference was an effort to rev up that faction of party.
“The center is sexier than you think,” Bustos said, repeating a recent headline on an editorial in the New York Times.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said the political center is in key in districts like his, where the decline of manufacturing has brought economic devastation. He said China was busy planning for an economic transformation while the U.S. is operating in a 24-hour news cycle dominated by political tactics instead of policy goals.
“We’ve got to get out of this who’s right, who’s left who’s center,” said Ryan, who mounted an unsuccessful bid to replace House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in 2016. “We need all hands on deck.”