Why even moderate Democrats are moving left and changing what it means to be centrist



Democratic primary winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the darling of progressive U.S. politics, takes questions from constituents in the Parkchester section of The Bronx on August 8, 2018. (G. Ronald Lopez/Zuma Press/TNS)

Betsy Rader’s political agenda includes a check-list of liberal priorities: She unequivocally supports abortion rights, believes in universal health care, talks forcefully about the importance of gay rights, and — per an aide — is “incredibly dismayed” by President Donald Trump’s immigration policy.
So is this House candidate from Ohio considered a progressive Democrat? By her party’s new standards, maybe not anymore.
A wave of liberal candidates running for office since Trump’s election has pushed the Democratic Party to the left, a shift that has changed what it means to be a centrist, or progressive, member of the party.
Gone are the moderate Democrats of yesteryear who opposed abortion rights, talked about border crackdowns or supported a Balanced Budget Amendment. Instead, candidates who believe in a litany of unapologetically progressive positions — especially on social issues — are now the norm, even in battleground districts with a recent history of backing Republicans. (Rader’s district, for example, backed Donald Trump by more than 11 points in 2016.)
Meanwhile, a battery of even more liberal candidates, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York or Katie Porter in California, have pushed the ideological envelope for the party’s progressive wing, even popularizing once-radical positions like single-payer health care or abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
The upheaval has led some Democrats to declare new boundaries between the party’s moderate and liberal wings, fresh lines of demarcation that not only highlight how Democrats have changed but signal where the party’s competing factions will clash in the near future.
“The center of gravity is shifting left,” said Joe Dinkin, national campaigns director for the liberal Working Families Party. “Much of what used to count as progressive has become mainstream in Democratic politics, as a new generation of organizations and leaders are putting forward new policies that meet the needs of the moment.”
The party’s shift carries important political and policy implications, especially as the party tries to gain the 23 House seats necessary to win a majority.
And it highlights how much the Democrats’ strategy has changed since the last time they won a House majority, in 2006, when Rahm Emanuel, then chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recruited a series of pro-2nd Amendment, anti-abortion rights conservative Democrats to run in battleground races.
“The Democratic Party is absolutely moving to the left,” said Jason Altmire, a former centrist Democratic congressman from western Pennsylvania and one of the candidates Emanuel enlisted that year. “And the preponderance of voters who are going to show up in this election are more left-of-center than they were 12 years ago. No question about that.”
Democrats are quick to point out that the party is still running many moderate House candidates this year, including figures like Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, Brendan Kelly in Illinois, or Dan McCready in North Carolina. But even these candidates hold more conventionally liberal views than Altmire, who as a candidate favored some restrictions on abortion and received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.
Nearly every Democrat who even runs for office supports abortion rights, and candidates like McCready talk openly about some restrictions on the sale of firearms.
So what makes a candidate like McCready a moderate? Democratic leaders suggest the most important distinction isn’t necessarily rooted in policy, but in approach to politics.
“The most telling thing is you’re willing to work across the aisle on a regular basis,” said Kurt Schrader, a Democratic congressman from Oregon who heads the political arm of the party’s center-left Blue Dog Caucus. “You’re willing to get to ‘yes.’ ”
Blue Dogs make up the hallmark group of conservative Democrats in the House, advocating for bipartisanship and a more fiscally moderate approach.
Fiscal moderation is still an important element of being a Blue Dog: Schrader said moderate Democrats can separate from their party’s more liberal elements by not treating every business as an “evil corporation.”
But social issues, he added, are not a priority.
“We do not focus on the social issues,” he said. “To the extent that Blue Dogs used to be associated with the good-old-boys club, that’s not true anymore.”
If progressives now must define themselves on fiscal issues, liberal leaders point to one issue in particular as important: single-payer health care.
Granting universal, government-backed health insurance was once a far-flung idea confined to the fringes of the party. But after being championed by Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential run, the issue has been adopted by candidates like Porter and Ocasio-Cortez.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Medicare For All is the major litmus test,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of the progressive group Data for Progress. “It sort of subsumes everything in it — it has that tax angle, it has that universalism angle, it has that direct government assistance angle.”
Progressive candidates in the new Democratic Party, he added, must be comfortable using government to provide direct assistance to people.
“Where’s the difference between progressives and moderates? McElwee said. “Both say government has a role in economy. But a progressive is more likely to say, ‘You know what, we just need to give this to people.'”
Schrader and Altmire both argued that the party’s shift to the left doesn’t necessarily hurt it in elections. On issues like gay rights, for example, the party’s change in policy simply reflects how public sentiment has changed.
“The swing districts you and I saw in 2006 that are as centrist-leaning aren’t as vulnerable to those issues as they were in the past,” Altmire said. “I think the Democratic candidate can get away it if he or she chooses to take a more left-of-center approach on those issues.”