The Democrats should be listening to Barack Obama.
He is only one of two Democrats to win the presidency in the last 43 years, and the only victor in the 21st century. So he knows what he’s talking about, and he was right on target when he told a party fundraiser last month that Democrats “have to be rooted in reality.”
“This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement,” Obama warned. “They like seeing things improved, but the average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
Obama didn’t mention Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or their purist partisans, but his message was clear: The party’s left wing is not “rooted in reality.” They are deeply misguided in believing that this is a liberal country ready to elect a revolutionary president. There is only one way to beat Donald Trump: with a moderate candidate in the Obama-Bill Clinton mold, and clear-eyed Republicans not mesmerized by the president agree with that analysis.
“Elizabeth Warren is God’s gift to Donald Trump and Republican candidates,” GOP strategist Whit Ayres told New York Times columnist Tom Edsall. “Well-educated suburban voters, especially women, are uncomfortable with President Trump, (but) they are not going to vote for a candidate who wants to take away their private health insurance, decriminalize the border, increase government spending by 50% and ban fracking, especially in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado.”
That wisdom is reinforced by recent experience. Warren and Sanders have stirred great excitement among the liberal coastal elites with revolutionary proposals for Medicare for All and free college tuition, but their enthusiasm is definitely not shared by the heartland voters Ayres describes, who will decide the next election.
Political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University studied the 2018 election results and concluded that Democratic candidates who supported sweeping health care changes “performed worse than those who did not.” His findings, Abramowitz wrote, “indicate that candidates in competitive races who take positions to the left of the median voter could get punished at the polls. Democratic presidential candidates would do well to take heed of these results.”
In a New York Times survey of six swing states, Democrats preferred candidates who promised to “find common ground with Republicans” by almost 2 to 1, as opposed to those who want to “fight for a bold progressive agenda.”
Even more striking: The Times identified about 600 “persuadable” voters in those six states, and they favored a moderate over a liberal candidate by 75% to 19%. After pragmatic Democrats captured governorships in Louisiana and Kentucky last month, Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Joe Biden supporter, told the Times, “the country is not as far left as people have us believe.”
That’s clearly true, but moderate policies are not enough. The Democrats need a nominee who combines pragmatism with magnetism, moderation with magic, and even in such a large field, no one quite fits the winning formula. No one combines ideas that are “rooted in reality” with a narrative that sings and soars with inspiration. Kamala Harris was only the latest contender to fail that test.
Biden occupies the moderate lane, but continues to underwhelm voters on the campaign trail. His “No Malarkey” bus tour through Iowa drew small, tepid crowds, typified by a voter named Travis Halm who told The Des Moines Register in Council Bluffs, “I don’t really sense any energy here right now.”
Dan Balz reports in the Washington Post, “Talk to party strategists in a state like Iowa, and the first thing they say about Biden is that he’s generated little enthusiasm as a candidate.”
The one moderate candidate who does seem to be striking sparks is Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He has taken the lead in both Iowa and New Hampshire, while still running fourth in national polls. John Grennan, the Democratic chair in Iowa’s Poweshiek County, told the Times, “I have to think that some older voters see Pete as the son they’d want to have — very smart, respectful of traditional institutions like the church and the military, and relentlessly cheerful and optimistic about what America can be.”
But is the Democratic Party really ready to nominate a 37-year-old gay man who runs a small city in Indiana? Or, for that matter, Mike Bloomberg, a 77-year-old Jewish billionaire?
Smart Democrats, like Obama, know what a winning candidate looks and sounds like. But they haven’t found anyone who fits that profile. At least not yet.
— Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.