Is Big, Bold Centrism Back in Style?

April 5, 2023 by Dan McCue
Is Big, Bold Centrism Back in Style?
U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — To be perfectly honest, 2022 did not seem to be the year of the centrist Democrat, or Republican or anything.

Week after week, it seemed, another moderate raised the white flag, tired — exhausted, really — of being lambasted by members to the right and left of their own parties, and decided to forgo reelection.

“No mas,” too many good people said.

It made one question how anything productive was going to get done anywhere in Washington, let alone on Capitol Hill.

It was bound to be a long, cold winter. And then the midterms happened. And the center held.

Then last month, President Joe Biden proposed a $6.8 trillion budget that sought to increase spending on defense and social programs while simultaneously curbing future budget deficits.

And he followed that centrist turn up by walking away from the progressive wing of his party and rejecting a District of Columbia measure that would have reduced minimum sentences for some violent offenses.

And continued the momentum by signaling a willingness to consider tougher policies at the U.S. border with Mexico to stem a near-record-high tide of illegal immigration.

All around town, it seemed, there were people wiping their eyes with their knuckles in surprised, if heartened, disbelief. Could it be that big, bold centrism is already back in style?

“I think we are seeing a shift back to the center, from President Biden and also the broader Democratic Party,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, a “center-left” think tank here in Washington.

To Erickson and others, like Liam Kerr, co-founder of WelcomePAC and its 501(c)(4) partner, The Welcome Party, which is seeking to strengthen the Democratic Party by engaging independent voters, the big takeaway from the midterms was that what Americans most hungered for was what the middle has to offer: a willingness to work across the aisle and compromise to get real things done.

“When the choice was between a mainstream and an extremist candidate, the mainstream candidate won,” Erickson told The Well News.

“So now, you know, you’re seeing Biden embrace that, whether it’s by talking about deficit reduction for the first time in about a decade, or supporting tough-on-crime and tough-on-immigration narratives,” she said.

Eyeing 2024, other powerful forces within the Democratic Party appear to be heeding the call as well.

“I mean, even [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer, [D-N.Y.], voted to overturn the D.C. crime reform bill, as did a lot of his colleagues,” Erickson said. “And I think what you’re really seeing is people realizing that we need to get ahead of Republican attacks on some of these cultural issues while at the same time, really thinking about reframing our policy prescriptions for the economy.

“Moving forward, I think you’re going to continue to hear a lot more about fiscal responsibility and not just about expanding the social safety net,” she added.

Kerr’s group maintains there’s ample proof in the statistics generated by numerous recent polls and elections to suggest that success lies not on the beach of progressive island, but in something closer to the world we all live in.

A recent white paper the group produced looked at the example of social worker Kara Eastman, who ran twice in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.

For those unfamiliar with the Cornhusker State’s 2nd District, which encompasses the city of Omaha and a more rural military base, it is generally considered a swing district with a slight tilt to the right.

In 2016, Donald Trump won the district by three percentage points. In 2020, Biden won the district by nearly seven points — a roughly 10-point swing.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., won his first term in Congress and was reelected in 2018 and 2020, the latter outcome suggesting a number of voters actually split their ballot, voting for Biden and Bacon.

According to The Welcome Party, Eastman’s critical mistake was campaigning on a hard-left policy agenda (including “Medicare for All” and tuition-free public college) in hopes of turning out the progressive base in the district. 

That strategy worked in the state’s closed Democratic primary, where Eastman knocked off her more moderate, DCCC-backed opponent, but failed in the general election, where she lost to Bacon by two points despite Democrats’ nine-point national advantage in that year’s “blue wave.”

In 2020, the stars seemed to be aligning for Eastman to make a comeback and actually prevail. A month before the election, based on Joe Biden’s strong polling in the district, Roll Call listed Bacon as the 2020 election cycle’s most vulnerable representative.

But according to The Welcome Party, Eastman doubled down on left-wing policy stances while doing little to distance herself from aspects of the Democrats’ national brand (such as the movement to “Defund the Police”) that were likely to be liabilities in a swing district. 

Republican attacks in the days leading up to the election simply linked her to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and she was quickly — and gleefully — branded “Comrade Kara” by her opponent, Bacon.

In the end, Eastman lost in the district that Biden won handily, making her, in the eyes of Kerr’s group, the “most critical underperformer in the 2020 cycle.”

The Welcome Party’s paper goes on to quote Jane Kleeb, the Nebraska Democratic Party chair, as saying, “if you just look at how Biden performed versus [Eastman], [Eastman] did not fit the district. 

“What might a better fit look like for NE-2?” the paper continues. “The most recent Democrat to hold the seat was not only a moderate but had run for other elected offices as both a Republican and independent.

“The takeaway here isn’t complicated: the far-left can knock out incumbents or win open primaries in deep-blue districts, but it has yet to win in the critical swing districts that decide control of Congress. 

“The far-left brand is distinctly unpopular in flippable districts and, despite making for a catchy headline, it is a losing strategy to run a Brooklyn-style campaign in the heartland. Justice Democrats and Our Revolution have flipped zero Republican-held congressional seats — a trend that continued in 2022,” the report concludes.

Erickson said the current perception that centrists are suddenly “back” is something those who proudly wear the brand have long contended with.

“I mean, we didn’t go anywhere,” she laughed. 

“What I like to say to people is that the center-left always has a really good day on Election Day and for a time afterwards, and then people seem to forget that moderates are the majority markers,” Erickson continued.

“That said, I really do think there are factors that bode well for centrists: The better than expected election results last November, the existential threat of another Trump term in the White House, if we mess this up … and a Republican-controlled House whose leaders are out there saying they want more fiscal responsibility, but are not offering any plans to get there.

“And I think that latter factor, especially, really gives moderate Democrats a lane to make a difference in this sort of post-COVID moment,” she said.

Indeed, if there’s a consensus to be found on Capitol Hill and between Capitol Hill and the White House, it lies in the fact that after years of COVID-related emergency spending, it truly is time to get the nation’s fiscal house in order.

“I mean, nobody in America wants us to be outspending our means,” Erickson said. “So we have to refocus. The Republicans are saying that they’re going to do that, but they have no idea what they want to cut or how they want to raise revenue. 

“So this gives Biden an opportunity to say, ‘Yeah, let’s talk about being fiscally responsible. And here’s my plan to actually do it.’

“And I think that boxes [House Speaker] Kevin McCarthy, [R-Calif.], in a little bit because he thought this was going to be his issue, and the president has put forth a better plan to accomplish [his purported goals] than he has,” she said.

The suggestion was enough to remind one of the old Clinton-era term “triangulation.”

For those perhaps too young to remember, former President Bill Clinton created the “triangulation” strategy with consultant Dick Morris after the Contract With America Republicans swept into and took control of Congress.

It worked kind of like this: As a starting point, Clinton would stand firm on partisan Democratic positions — so long as they were popular. 

However, on issues where the Republican positions were more popular, Clinton would take advantage of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s tendency to overreach by making significant concessions — moving from the left — and adopting centrist positions that would have broader support than the original Republican offerings.

In this way, though hamstrung by an unfriendly Republican Congress, Clinton still managed to win politically time and time again.

Erickson chuckled at the reference. Then hedged a little bit.

“Well … I mean … I think yes and no,” she said. “I think in some ways we’re talking about similar policies, but we’re just doing it in a smarter way that appeals to more people.

“So when, for example, we expanded the child tax credit. You know, we did some testing around how you talk about that policy. And a lot of congressional Democrats were talking about it as lifting X million children out of poverty,” she said.

“We tested that, but we also tested framing it as a middle-class tax cut. And the latter was wildly more popular. Because it just makes people sound like it actually applies to them,” Erickson continued. 

“So we went into the congressional Democrats and said, ‘Listen, stop talking about the fact that it lifts X million children out of poverty. If you message it as a middle-class tax cut, it still lifts those children out of poverty. It just has the added benefit of also being popular.’ 

“That’s one of the big things in the Biden budget,” she said. “He’s talking about it in a way that appeals to more people, and makes it sound like we care about the vast majority of Americans and not just the poor, which is not how most Americans characterize themselves.”

As the conversation turned to strategic considerations, it moved on from fiscal matters to the president’s veto of the D.C. crime bill.

“One thing we’ve seen in both mayoral races and in some congressional races is that crime really is a vulnerability for the Democrats. And I think the vulnerability is just starting; we’re at the beginning of the GOP crime attack, not the end,” Erickson said.

“So while I was very surprised to see Biden overturn a home rule, at the same time, I understood that he saw a political vulnerability and did not want to give Republicans more ammunition there,” she said.

Now, however, Erickson believes the White House and Democrats should take their handling of the crime issue a step further.

“I think it’s good that we recognize the vulnerability, but I think we also should figure out how to go on the offense and be the ones who have plans to address crime,” she said. “A big part of the problem is that we had too many Democratic consultants in the past say, ‘We’ll just change the subject.’ ‘Don’t talk about your opponent’s turf.’ ‘If they start talking about  immigration and crime, you start talking about prescription drug pricing.’

“And what we’ve seen is that it doesn’t work,” she said. “You actually have to address people’s concerns about chaos at the border, about fentanyl, about crime and homelessness, and come up with a plan to show a) you understand these are important issues to people, and b) that you want to keep their communities safe. And then you can change the subject to prescription drug pricing.”

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @DanMcCue

  • centrism
  • Joe Biden
  • Lanae Erickson
  • Third Way
  • In The News



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