The Problem with Rationales of Centrist “Electability” in 2020, and How They Came Into Being

The narrative that centrist Democrats can win but progressives cannot seems to be everywhere in 2019. The underlying rationale is that Democrats lost in 2016 because Donald Trump won with white, blue-collar workers in rust-belt states. For Democrats to win in 2020, the party needs to nominate someone who can win those exact voters back — not a progressive who will only isolate those voters.

Let’s unpack this.

First, Trump won the 2016 electoral college because of a confluence of factors. These included his popularity with working-class whites in rustbelt states, but also depressed voter turnout. Notably, voters who came out to support Barack Obama in 2012 but not Hillary Clinton in 2016 didn’t stay home because she was too progressive — she was a centrist’s centrist. In addition, Trump won by only 80,000 votes in three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — states that Hillary Clinton visited far less than Trump. A different campaign-state strategy by a different candidate might yield a very different outcome in these states in the 2020 electoral college.

Second, contrary to the popular refrain that parties win when they nominate moderates and lose when they nominate ideological warriors, in the last 20 years, moderates in both parties have consistently failed to win the presidency when paired with more left- or right-of-center opponents. No center-leaning candidate has won since George W. Bush ran to the center in 2000 as a compassionate conservative (and in that election, Bush’s opponent likewise ran as a moderate). In 2004 Bush ran as a conservative commander-in-chief against moderate “flip-flopper” John Kerry, and Bush won. In 2008, John McCain (despite his notoriously right-wing running mate) embraced his maverick reputation as a Republican who could work with Democrats, and he lost to Obama, a candidate who, at the time, appealed and appeared to voters as a change candidate. In 2012, despite the ascendance of the Tea Party, Republicans nominated the moderate Mitt Romney, who also lost to Obama. And in 2016, a candidate who used racist language, entertained locking up his political opponents, bragged about sexual assault, and promised to throw out free trade won against the most stalwart of moderate Democrats. Not only does the received wisdom that parties win only if they nominate centrist candidates not hold up to historical scrutiny, but the opposite might be true.

So why do Democrats continue to believe that centrists can win and progressive can not?

Probably because of two historical moments that loom large for baby boomers and those who came of political age in their wake: the disastrous outcome of the McGovern campaign in 1972 (McGovern won only one state and the District of Columbia in the electoral college), and Bill Clinton’s two-term presidency in the 1990s — which made Clinton the first Democrat to serve two full terms since Franklin Roosevelt.

In 1972, Senator George McGovern ran for president with a wide-ranging liberal platform — the center of which was his promise to immediately end the war in Vietnam. McGovern’s grassroots campaign galvanized young people, and welcomed women, people of color, and gays and lesbians to an unprecedented extent. The liberal and youthful campaign made McGovern vulnerable to attacks from within his own party and from the right, that he was the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid,” a tagline that hurt McGovern politically even though it hardly represented his views. (McGovern did support amnesty for draft evaders, had a more liberal position on abortion than many of his opponents — though hardly unequivocal — but did not support legalizing acid, or LSD.) As political scientist Bruce Miroff shows in his book on the McGovern campaign, The Liberals’ Moment, several factors outside McGovern’s platform doomed his candidacy. His acceptance speech at the DNC took place at 2:45 am, when most viewers had gone to bed. Moreover, McGovern’s hastily-chosen running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, had an undisclosed history of mental health problems and electric-shock treatments. When Eagleton’s mental health history became public (which was news to the McGovern campaign along with everyone else), the fact that McGovern had selected Eagleton in the first place called into question his judgement. McGovern’s subsequent decision to jettison Eagleton was equally damaging, casting doubt on McGovern’s most lauded trait as a candidate running against Richard Nixon — his morality. As Miroff argues in his book on the ’72 campaign, Democrats’ takeaway since then has been that left-wing candidates cannot win — when, in fact, it was a poorly-run campaign, not left-wing proposals, that exacted fatal blows to McGovern’s candidacy in the crucial months leading up to the ’72 election. As this NYT piece on Miroff notes, additional factors contributed to McGovern’s historic loss, including the decline of organized labor, Nixon’s foreign policy coup in China, and Hubert Humphrey’s decision — after losing to McGovern in the primaries — to attack McGovern as a radical.

George McGovern speaking in 1972.
Leffler, Warren K., photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection. Call number: LC-U9- 26137-21 [P&P] Digital id:ppmsca 19602

Two decades later, in 1994, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic candidate to win the presidency since Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976, ending the three-term Republican run of Reagan-Reagan-Bush. Clinton ran as a centrist — not a liberal — and with the exception of his attempt at universal healthcare, he governed like a moderate Republican, rolling back welfare, signing the 1994 crime bill, and supporting deregulation. Ironically, Clinton had been a McGovernite — he cut his political teeth working for the McGovern campaign — but he, like many others, took from the campaign’s defeat the lesson that unabashedly left-wing candidates cannot win general elections. For those who came of political age in the 1970s or shortly thereafter, the electoral failure of McGovern, coupled with the success of Clinton’s two victories, made the notion that running as a moderate was the only way to win a rule of primary voting.

Bill Clinton and George McGovern in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1972.
Associate Press.

To contextualize this lesson, it is important to understand not only the failures of the McGovern campaign — disorganization, misfortune, and terrible damage control — but also the distinct historical circumstances of Clinton’s successful bids for the White House. Conservatism was as ascendant in the 1980s and 1990s as liberalism had been in the 1960s. Ronald Reagan — an effective speaker and ideological warrior-turned-Teflon president — united the various strands of conservatism that had been growing in strength in the 1970s. In the wake of Reagan — and the political climate he shaped — it was probably true that a Democrat could win the White House only by running to the (then-conservative) center.

But the 1990s were a long time ago, and in the intervening years, American political culture has changed on several fronts, including foreign policy, healthcare, climate change, gay rights, race, and sexual harassment, assault, and propriety. Since the 1990s, Americans have watched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan play out, and voted for candidates — including Donald Trump — who vowed to pursue a foreign policy far different from that of George W. Bush’s neoconservatism. Since the 1990s, universal healthcare has moved closer to the center of political acceptance, and has moved up the list of priorities for Americans. Climate change has become a top priority, especially for young voters. Public opinion on gay marriage and LGBTQ rights more broadly has dramatically evolved. Critiques of policing, the carceral state, and white privilege have become mainstream. Women have shifted the conversation from the 1990s — the scandal of extra-marital affairs — away from woman-blaming and shaming and toward acknowledgement of and action against systemic attacks on women and the powerful men who perpetrated these acts and allowed such cultures to persist.

So why, in light of all these changes in political culture — and why, after moderate after moderate has lost to candidates promising (if not always delivering) change — why do we continue to accept assumptions that moderate Democrats win and progressives cannot?

In 2016, moderates argued that only a centrist Democrat could defeat Trump, and their candidate of choice lost. Progressives should push back against outdated notions of what — in the wake of Trump, who defied virtually all predictions — is “electable” in 2020. And moderates should own their politics. Instead of leaning on an ossified understanding of electability, they should be candid about their more centrist political beliefs so the Democratic Party can have a real debate about its ideas and ideals.

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