Democrats Are Finally Coming To Their Senses
The party is rediscovering the virtues of moderation and compromise.
The Democratic Party, at long last, seems to be coming to its senses. From primary voters to members of Congress to the president, Democrats are choosing moderation and compromise, sidelining the most extreme elements of their coalition in the process. In doing so, they are crafting laws that are strong on the merits, politically tenable, and actually able to pass Congress. Likewise, Democrats are electing candidates who have a real chance of appealing to swing voters in November. And though it’s too early to say if the sensibility will hold, those of us who want a less dogmatic and more pragmatic party in Washington can let out a small cheer—or at least a sigh of relief.
The most quantifiable evidence of the tack towards moderation is coming from primary voters. Of the two dozen or so Democratic congressional primaries that have a) presented a clear choice between a progressive and a moderate candidate, and b) taken place in a district that Democrats have a real chance of winning in the general election, the moderate candidate has won about two-thirds of the time. And while it’s not totally clear if primary voters are choosing these candidates because they like their moderate policies, because they think they’re more electable, or some combination of both, the upshot is a Democratic voter base nominating candidates who are less extreme and less polarizing.
What’s more, even some progressive candidates have worked to distance themselves from toxic left-wing policies and to limit the salience of polarizing culture war issues. The best example of this is John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania Senate, who told reporters that, despite his more ambitious platform, he doesn’t like to label himself as a “progressive” and has resisted certain left-wing priorities including the Green New Deal and a ban on fracking.
A similar embrace of moderation is taking place on Capitol Hill. The pragmatism of Senate Democrats brought several Republicans on board to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to address gun violence and mental health, and the CHIPS and Science Act to resurrect domestic semiconductor manufacturing. In yet another triumph for political realism, Senate Democrats on Sunday passed the (strategically but deceptively named) Inflation Reduction Act—a historic bill that would invest hundreds of billions of dollars to address climate change, reduce the cost of prescription drugs, extend premium subsidies in the Affordable Care Act, and raise taxes on corporations.
It’s worth further examining the IRA to understand why it represents such a success for legislative moderation. The bill, a whittled-down version of Joe Biden’s multi-trillion dollar Build Back Better legislation, hits a sweet spot—ambitious enough to please progressives and address the most pressing issues facing Americans, while not being expansive or polarizing enough to anger middle-of-the-road voters who are worried about inflation and government overspending. Hesitant moderate senators, most notably West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, deserve credit for stopping Biden’s Build Back Better legislation and then coming back to the table on a more restrained bill. But credit is also owed to the more progressive members of Congress—including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal—who are willing to vote for a piece of legislation that, in their minds, amounts to half a loaf.
The White House, too, is shifting towards the center and embracing compromise. President Biden has been willing to champion legislation—like the IRA—that doesn’t go as far as he’d like but still represents a victory for his agenda. Similarly, Biden has refused to declare a national climate emergency or seriously consider expanding the Supreme Court in response to the overruling of Roe v. Wade—both actions that the more extreme segments of the Democratic coalition have urged, but which would be a lamentable expansion of presidential influence and an erosion of the separation of powers. Biden has also used the bully pulpit of the presidency to try and distance himself and the Democratic Party from extremely unpopular activist causes, including defunding the police.
While it’s not entirely clear what prompted this newfound moderation, my bet is on three related factors: inflation, polling, and the midterms. Fairly or not, Americans blame Democrats for the current state of the economy. This has weighed down Biden’s approval ratings and dramatically increased the odds of a Republican wave in November. Democrats have wisely realized that they can’t afford to spend unlimited sums of money or indulge the most radical wings of the party in this environment. And so Democrats at all levels—from voters in primary elections up to Biden in the White House—have moved to a more popular middle ground.
To be sure, Democrats haven’t abandoned all their bad ideas or radical positions. Biden is still considering canceling $10,000 of student debt—a regressive policy that amounts to a wealth transfer from those who didn’t go to college to those who did. Even more frustrating, Democrats have been cynically spending tens of millions of dollars boosting far-right extremist candidates in Republican primaries with the hope that they will be easier to beat in the general election. And perhaps most electorally destructive is some Democrats’ off-putting and sanctimonious messaging on social issues. From insisting on using polarizing and elitist-sounding jargon such as “Latinx” and “BIPOC” to promoting its agenda with an unpopular race-conscious framing, parts of the Democratic Party have stubbornly refused to ditch their positioning on many issues of identity.
These are mistakes that Democrats cannot afford to continue making given the increasing radicalism of the Republican Party and the electoral challenges Democrats face in the coming years. Biden is unpopular and old, there is no clear successor to replace him, and Republicans are likely to take control of at least the House in the upcoming midterms. The best way for Democrats to limit the damage is to double down on a strategy of moderation and compromise that has already begun to pay off in the form of strong midterm candidates, historic legislation, a slight polling bump, and a rise in their chances of holding onto the Senate this November.
Seth Moskowitz is an associate editor at Persuasion.
This article represents the individual views of the author, not those of Persuasion.