July 10, 2018

The Center is Sexier Than You Think

Enough about the Freedom Caucus. Enough about the Democratic Socialists of America. They’re flamboyant players in our political debate, but they’re extremes: More politicians — and most Americans — occupy the expansive territory in between. That’s where the pivotal races in 2018 are being fought. And if Democrats take back the House, it’s where any legislation with a prayer of getting through Congress will be hammered out.

The story of the 2018 midterms isn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th District, Ben Jealous in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maryland and a leftist surge. Or, rather, that’s just one narrative, eclipsed by the less cinematic triumphs of less progressive Democrats. They’re by and large winning the primaries in the swing districts that might actually turn from red to blue. They’re the stars of their party’s mission to erect a barricade against the worst of Donald Trump.

Without doubt, Ocasio-Cortez’s ouster of Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary delivered an important message about entrenched politicians disconnected from their constituents. But when she gets to Congress, she won’t be replacing a Republican. She’ll be a new Democrat (and yes, a new kind of Democrat) in a seat that the party already holds and wasn’t going to lose. And she’ll almost surely be outnumbered by Democratic newcomers who waged more moderate campaigns in areas of the country where that’s the safer tack.

“The real story out of these Democratic primaries isn’t left or right — it’s women,” Dave Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told me. Additionally, he said, he has been struck by the consequential role of candidates’ biographies, sometimes captured in compelling campaign videos, like Ocasio-Cortez’s, that go viral.

When he looks specifically at the Democratic primary victors in swing districts, he doesn’t see many politicians like Ocasio-Cortez. “They’re mainstream Democratic candidates,” he said. “They’re more running against Republicans and against the tax and health care bills than they are running to reshape the Democratic Party.”

That assessment dovetailed with a status report on the midterms that NPR published on its website last week. “In interviews with more than a dozen Democrats running in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, California, Nebraska and Washington State,” it said, “NPR found that pragmatism is winning out over progressivism in the key races that will decide control of Congress.”

An analysis by Third Way, a think tank in Washington that promotes what it defines as a center-left agenda, showed that pragmatic Democrats were holding sway generally. While only a minority of candidates endorsed by progressive groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution had won their primaries, more than three-quarters of those endorsed by the more centrist New Democrat Coalition had.

And most of the winners endorsed by Justice Democrats or Our Revolution prevailed in districts that are considered safely Republican, according to Third Way. They’re probably not bound for Congress.

On the same day that Ocasio-Cortez generated front-page headlines by beating Crowley, much less progressive Democratic newcomers came out on top in crowded primaries in New York districts that are currently represented by Republicans and are high on the party’s red-to-blue wish list. I’m thinking of Max Rose in the 11th and Antonio Delgado in the 19th. Both staked out ground closer to the center than some of their rivals did.

And that doesn’t grab attention. “No one runs to the Mall in Washington with a sign that says, ‘Work Together,’” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a first-term New Jersey Democrat who wrested his seat from a Republican in 2016. “It’s not what’s talked about on cable TV and tweeted about.” But, he added, it’s where the real action is.

“You have to win in Conor Lamb’s district,” he stressed. When Lamb, a Pennsylvania Democrat, triumphed in a special election there last March, snatching a seat that had been in Republican hands, he did so with a moderate aura and an opposition to single-payer health care.

The idea that the Democratic Party’s energy and future are concentrated on the left comes partly from the early jockeying in the 2020 presidential race. Potential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand are wagering that progressives will have a significant say in who gets the Democratic nomination and advancing measures like Medicare for All and the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. But it’s doubtful that either of those reforms would garner majority support in a House controlled by Democrats, a crucial contingent of whom would be more like Lamb than like Ocasio-Cortez.

“That type of agenda doesn’t sit well outside of the districts of the people who are advocating it,” said Representative Tom Reed, a New York Republican who, along with Gottheimer, leads the Problem Solvers Caucus, a House group of 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats who meet weekly to identify areas of bipartisan agreement such as infrastructure investment and improvements to the Affordable Care Act. If the outcome of the midterms is a House with a narrow Democratic or Republican majority — a scenario that currently looks probable — these centrists could wield significant power, and those issues would have more traction than progressives’ favorite causes would.

“Nancy Pelosi and those who have to keep the caucus together are very clear on what they can and can’t do,” Third Way’s Lanae Erickson Hatalsky told me. “They’ll primarily be focused on their oversight role and stopping Trump.” Beyond that, she said, there might be an opportunity to pass bills that protect the so-called Dreamers, mandate more transparency in campaign donations and encourage apprenticeship programs in addition to college.

All of that sounds plenty enticing to me, because it’s better than the present. And stopping Trump? That sounds positively dreamy.