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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Dems Should Embrace the ‘New Centrism’

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

David Leonhardt made a bit of a stir recently with an article arguing that a “new centrism” is rising in Washington. He cites numerous examples of bipartisan cooperation in the last several years:

During the Covid pandemic, Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together to pass emergency responses. Under President Biden, bipartisan majorities have passed major laws on infrastructure and semiconductor chips, as well as laws on veterans’ health, gun violence, the Postal Service, the aviation system, same-sex marriage, anti-Asian hate crimes and the electoral process. On trade, the Biden administration has kept some of the Trump administration’s signature policies and even expanded them.

That does seem impressive. Much of Leonhardt’s essay is devoted to an explanation of how this new centrism has, counterintuitively, arisen in a time of intense polarization. There is much to his explanation but the most fundamental point is this: a relatively laissez-faire economic model, typically shorthanded as “neoliberalism,” which was supported in different ways for decades by both parties, ultimately failed to deliver the steadily rising prosperity most Americans desire. This has led to widespread voter dissatisfaction and an openness to alternatives across the electorate.

Both parties, Leonhardt argues, have been forced to respond to this shifting public mood, albeit in different ways reflecting their differing philosophies and political bases. But the potential for overlap has emerged as both parties chase the median voter. Hence the counterintuitive level of bipartisan cooperation and commonality of goals.

That commonality of goals builds on a shared sense that the shortfall in living standards must be addressed and that America now faces a dangerous new world where the emergence of rivals like China threatens the country on multiple levels. Should Democrats lean into that and seek to, in a sense, “own” this new centrism?

I’d say yes. The new centrism, as it has developed so far, provides clear indicators of the current policy sweet spot among American voters: they want to live better and feel safer and are pragmatically open to policies that could directly address these needs. They do not have an ideological litmus test for these policies, nor a definite view of how large or small government should be. Given the dysfunction and incoherence of today’s Trumpified Republican Party would this not be an opportunity to steal a march on their rivals and (dare I say it?) give the people what they actually want?

Of course, pursuing such a course would not be without its obstacles. As Leonhardt notes:

Americans lean left on economic policy. Polls show that they support restrictions on trade, higher taxes on the wealthy and a strong safety net. Most Americans are not socialists, but they do favor policies to hold down the cost of living and create good-paying jobs….The story is different on social and cultural issues. Americans lean right on many of those issues, polls show (albeit not as far right as the Republican Party has moved on abortion).

If you aim to promote and dominate a new centrism, it makes sense to target that fat center of American public opinion. But progressive Democrats would balk at this second part and would chafe at the limited nature of the first part; support for government action in the areas enumerated does not equate to support for restructuring American capitalism around a rapid clean energy transition. The new center of American politics is oriented instead toward concrete improvements in living standards and the safeguarding of America’s place in the world.

The importance of the latter is should not be underestimated. From the Leonhardt article:

“China is a unifying force, absolutely,” Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, told me. Senator John Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat, compared the rise of artificial intelligence to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, which led to bipartisan legislation on education and scientific research. Anxiety about A.I., Fetterman added, made possible the passage of the semiconductor-chips bill. “We are most able to come together when we acknowledge the risks we have to the American way of life,” Fetterman said. “Whose side are you on—democracy or Putin, Hamas and China?”

That muscular, “whose side are you on?” approach resonates well with the new center but less so with the progressive left in the Democratic Party. They are far more interested in a quixotic quest to rapidly replace fossil fuels with renewables and get everyone to drive an electric car, whether they are interested or not. That’s nuts, both as policy and politics.

More broadly, it seems clear that building out the new center of American politics from the Democratic side depends on weighting down progressive left priorities and weighting up moderate priorities consistent with the views of most voters. It’s frustrating that when the Biden administration takes actions consistent with this approach, they are bizarrely reluctant to talk about them, presumably because they’re afraid to annoy the activist-industrial complex. Here’s a pertinent example from a recent Wall Street Journal article, “While Biden Worries About the Left, the Voters He Needs Are in the Center”:

Under Biden, American energy production has reached historic highs—a popular accomplishment that voters overwhelmingly support. But you would never know it from listening to him. The achievement went unmentioned in the president’s recent State of the Union address and his recent campaign speeches, where he has preferred to talk about climate investments and “environmental justice.” Perhaps as a result, most Americans disapprove of his handling of energy, and many blame him for high gas prices.

The president’s failure to tout this aspect of his record has frustrated moderate allies. Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) recently wrote a Washington Post op-ed sarcastically “congratulating” Biden for his energy record and urging him to tout it more vigorously. “This is the all-of-the-above strategy in action, showing results. But it seems some of the president’s radical advisers in the White House are so worried about angering climate activists that they refuse to speak up about these accomplishments,” Manchin wrote.

This seems like political malpractice, which has only been compounded by the administration’s decision to cave to pressure from climate activists and halt permitting on liquified natural gas (LNG) exports—a decision that makes no policy sense and is guaranteed to alienate working-class voters.

John Fetterman and Bob Casey, Pennsylvania’s two Democratic Senators had some stern words for administration’s peculiar decision:

Pennsylvania is an energy state. As the second largest natural gas-producing state, this industry has created good-paying energy jobs in towns and communities across the Commonwealth and has played a critical role in promoting U.S. energy independence…

While the immediate impacts on Pennsylvania remain to be seen, we have concerns about the long-term impacts that this pause will have on the thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry. If this decision puts Pennsylvania energy jobs at risk, we will push the Biden Administration to reverse this decision.

Fetterman, in particular, has made no attempt to hide his lack of interest in doing the progressive left’s bidding. He has said, “I’m not a progressive,” and “I don’t feel like I’ve left the label; it’s just more that it’s left me.” An amusing anecdote in a recent New York Times article makes it abundantly clear where he’s coming from:

Senator John Fetterman was hard to miss, lumbering down an empty hallway in a Senate office building dressed in his signature baggy gym shorts and a black hoodie. So when Stevie O’Hanlon, an environmentalist and organizer from Chester County, Pa., spotted him recently, she took the opportunity to question her home-state senator about a pipeline in her community.

Mr. Fetterman’s reaction was surprisingly hostile. Raising his phone to capture the confrontation on video, the senator began ridiculing her.

“I didn’t expect this!” Mr. Fetterman said, feigning excitement. “Oh my gosh!”

As Ms. O’Hanlon politely pressed him on what she called his “change of heart” on the issue of the local pipeline, which he had previously opposed, Mr. Fetterman pulled faces of faux concern until he stepped onto an elevator and let the closing door end the interaction.

Ms. O’Hanlon, a co-founder of the progressive Sunrise Movement, was stunned.

A Democratic Party that wants to build out the new center needs a lot more stunning of Sunrise Movement activists and a lot less genuflecting to their concerns. I’ve called this The Way of the Fetterman; it models how Democrats should declare independence from an activist-driven agenda at variance with the emerging center of American politics.

The dividends from embracing that new center could be not just desirable but critical for the Democrats moving forward. The Split Ticket November-April average of cross-tabular results from public polls finds Biden with an average 4 point deficit to Trump among independents, compared to Biden’s 10 point advantage in 2020 (a 14 point pro-Trump swing). And among moderates, Biden is leading Trump by an average of 14 points, way down from his 27 point advantage in the 2020 election (a 13 point pro-Trump swing).

That should make the idea of embracing the new center of American politics pretty darn attractive. In truth, it’s a golden opportunity for a Democratic Party that, right now, needs all the help it can get.

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