The DC Centrist Democrat Spin Cycle
The votes aren’t even done being counted yet, but the classic post-election spin cycle from the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party is already in full gear. Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum are still fighting for their lives in razor-thin margin elections, but you can just feel the excitement about their losses from the Third Way types, whose public pronouncements already assume they have lost.
I have seen this kind of post-election spin after every election since 1994: if Democrats have a bad year, it’s because we moved too far left. If we have a good year like this one, it’s because of the noble centrists who prevailed -- and they’ll pick over the bones of any progressive Democrat who didn’t win and point with glee saying, “See! See! They got beat!” It is especially galling given that some of these races aren’t even over. (I guess at least it’s better than actively trying to beat progressive Democrats as Third Way has been known to do over the years, like when they attacked Elizabeth Warren as being anti-business when she was in the heat of a tough 2012 Senate race to defeat popular incumbent Scott Brown.)
There’s a couple of articles out where this spin is in overdrive, here, and here. The official line is that the progressive Democrats who won primaries (defined a certain kind of way that fits the spin) didn’t win a single general election race they were involved in and didn’t turn a single Republican district to Democrat.
These kinds of spin games have to be put to rest. I think it’s important to make the following points about some of the goofy things in these articles:
1. Not all of the progressives on the Wall Street Dems’ list have lost. Gillum, along with centrist white guy Senator Bill Nelson whose number of votes and margin are almost identical, are in the midst of recounts, in case you hadn’t noticed. Two of the closest elections in Florida history, and Florida has had its share of close ones, as you may recall. Not all of the votes are counted in Georgia either, and the race might go to runoff. Not all the votes have been counted in Katie Porter’s race in California, either. Guys (because most of the people putting out this BS are indeed men), please don’t dance on the graves of these outstanding Democrats until their races are over. Progressives aren’t sitting around rooting for Kyrsten Sinema to lose because she’s a moderate.
2. The list of progressives who won primaries is a lot longer than the nine people the corporate Dems are crowing about who lost, and tons of them are winning. Brilliant progressive Xochitl Torres Small won a very Republican Congressional seat in New Mexico after winning the primary; progressive star Colin Allred won a tough primary and went on to defeat incumbent Pete Sessions in Texas; Antonio Delgado won a very tough primary in NY-19, and went on to win in a very tough rural district against incumbent John Faso; Mike Levin became the Democrat in California’s strange jungle primary system, beating several other strong Democrats and then winning in what had been the Republican House district of Darrell Issa for many years. Katie Hill in California ran on a strong progressive agenda to beat incumbent Steve Knight, winning a tough Southern California district. I’ll stop at five examples, but there are a great many more than the carefully handpicked list from the Third Way types. All of these were candidates helped in the primaries by many different progressive groups and activists. They generated enormous enthusiasm among progressive netroots donors across the country, and ran unapologetically on a strong progressive agenda in their campaigns.
3. Most of the candidates who ran in competitive races, and most who won, supported major elements of the progressive populist economic agenda. You can look it up!: most of the congressional candidates who won Republican seats supported some combination of Medicare For All or a major Medicare expansion, an expansion of Social Security benefits, a $15 minimum wage, doing something big about student debt, major new taxes on the wealthy and Wall Street banks, and/or major new initiatives on climate change. Given that the Third Way's historic agenda is cutting Social Security benefits, opposing Medicare For All, lessening regulations on Wall Street, and instituting a minimum wage much lower than $15, the incoming class of Democrats were not what you'd call a bunch of Third Way types.
4. Anyone who thinks that the typical cautious centrist campaigns of the past would have run some of these races is smoking something far more potent than marijuana. Whoever won the Democratic primary to run against Governor Larry Hogan in Maryland was almost certain to lose, as he was one of the most popular governors in the country. In Arizona, Governor Ducey was always heavily favored. In Texas, no Democrat running statewide had come anywhere near as close as Beto in 24 years, almost all losing by double digits. Florida and Georgia have not had Democratic governors in 20 years. All of those losses by progressives that the centrist Democrats are so delighted to cite (and as noted some are yet to be declared losses) were in very tough races, that most politicos considered longshots from the beginning of the cycle.
I would add that no serious political observer can make the case that duller, more centrist, white candidates could have turned out as many African-American, Latinx, or young voters as Gillum, Beto, or Abrams, who lit a fire in those communities. Democrats are not going to win in tough places like these without an incredibly high turnout of our base.
5. The centrist Democratic strategy didn't do so well in those red states. In red state Senate races where centrist Democrats worked hard to distance themselves from progressives and the party, we had a pretty lousy track record. Manchin pulled it off, but he is a pretty unique figure in modern American politics -- and he sure was unique in this election, as he was the only centrist who survived. Donnelly in Indiana, McCaskill in Missouri, and Bredesen in Tennessee all did worse than their margin-of-error polling average throughout the campaign, losing by 7, 6, and 11 points respectively. By my book, that's a lot. Meanwhile, Heitkamp in North Dakota, to whom I do give a lot of credit for bravely and strongly opposing Kavanaugh and for not giving in to the temptation to join Trump's race baiting as Donnelly and McCaskill did, nevertheless did run as a pretty centrist Democrat. She also lost by double digits, although she had not been close in the polls for a while.
Some will argue that Montana Senator Jon Tester, who won, ran as a more conservative Democrat, but I did not see it that way. Tester finds ways to emphasizes his pragmatism in getting bipartisan bills passed that Trump could sign, but he describes himself as a "Montana Democrat," someone who is proud of being a Democrat, but is tied to the culture and independence of Montana. A long-time friend of his who is from Montana told me that he even has been known to describe himself as a progressive in public from time to time. He didn't play any of the signaling games in culture-war politics that Donnelly and McCaskill did, either.
6. Tammy Baldwin and Sherrod Brown. The two Democrats who won from states that Trump won in 2016 that the Third Way types avoid talking about at all costs are Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Their stories in the 2018 cycle are very inconvenient for the ‘Progressives Can't Win’ narrative. They are two of the most progressive and populist people in the U.S. Senate. Both of them were initially very high on the Republican target lists for this cycle. In fact, Tammy Baldwin had more spent against her in 2017 than any other Senate incumbent. But neither of them moved to the center at all or got the least bit mealy-mouthed in voting and speaking out for progressive issues or values. They both were able to establish strong early leads and won going away.
I want to say a special word about Sherrod Brown, who has been one of my favorite senators for as long as he's been here. One of the aforementioned articles talked dismissively about Brown with his populist message only winning by six. The author made it sound like his message didn't work very well, which has to be the single dumbest thing I've read (outside of Trump quotes) since the election. First of all, a margin of six points is a pretty sizable win in any contested state, especially in a red-state like Ohio. Sherrod is the only Ohio Democrat to win a statewide race since 2006. Trump had close to a double-digit win. This year, there was a criminal justice reform ballot measure that Republicans put a lot of money into attacking that was a big drag on the Democrats running. But Sherrod Brown showed how a progressive populist message focused on working people can still win in red America.
The reason all of this is important to lay out is that the DC centrists are working hard to build the case that a progressive candidate and message cannot win the presidential race in 2020. Let me disabuse you of that misguided notion: our best chance by far is for a presidential candidate that is a strong progressive, willing to take on Wall Street, the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, Big Oil, and other big monopolistic corporations who are dominating our economy and threatening the American dream for working families. Sherrod Brown won in Ohio when no other Democrat could; Beto O'Rourke and Stacey Abrams did better than any other statewide candidates have done in a generation; strong progressives won in dozens of tough districts all over the country, and came close in many more; and Andrew Gillum is a hare's breath away from becoming the first Florida governor in a generation.
Have progressive candidates solved all the challenges of the modern era in terms of winning elections? Of course not. But the formula of genuinely reaching out to working folks of all races and religions, getting young people excited about politics again, and telling the story of how Wall Street and big monopolies need to be tamed again is a formula than is going to win us far more elections than the Third Way agenda of cuddling up to the big banks and cutting Social Security benefits. At the end of the day, what Democrats need to do is to reject the false choices that have plagued our party for the last generation: we don't have to choose between white working class and rural voters and firing up our base; we don't have to choose between advocating for fairness and advocating for economic growth. We win with a message that inspires and motivates Democrats and progressive activists and voters, and appeals to those working class and rural folks in the middle at the same damn time.