At times in recent months, Speaker Pelosi has shined. Her handling of Trump’s shutdown was beyond skillful. So give credit where credit is due.
But what is she thinking when she insists Democrats must “hold the center”?
In 2020, Democratic candidates will face Donald Trump and a batch of Republican Senate and House candidates pledging to support him. Every contest in 2020 will be a referendum on Trump. As was the 2018 mid-term election. As were the 2017 elections in New Jersey and Virginia.
So I wonder: Where is the so-called center, that section of the electorate that will struggle to decide whether or not to support Trump and his Congressional stooges? How large and how significant will that center be? Will winning the votes of that group be the difference between winning and losing, or only the difference between winning big and winning bigger, or winning small and winning smaller?
The conventional wisdom is that “holding the center” always is crucial to winning. But that conventional wisdom is based on a premise that is not always correct, namely, that the group that is up for grabs — the perceived center — is needed to cobble together a majority. Some portion of that squishy group, the logic goes, must be wooed in order to supplement the group a candidate already has in the bag (and can, you know, take for granted).
Sometimes, however, the group that’s in the bag — at least for a candidate who doesn’t take it for granted — constitutes a majority by itself, with no augmentation from the squishy center. “Center” in this context is a misnomer. It’s really a reference to the voters whose allegiance is up for grabs. It often includes the center of the political spectrum, but not always. In bright blue and bright red Congressional districts, for example, the up for grabs vote almost never occupies the political center. The so-called swing states in presidential elections are those states, perhaps a dozen, where the up for grabs is perceived to include the political center. In the other three dozen or so states, not so much.
Consider what happens when a state shifts from swing state to safe for one side or the other. In those states, the up for grabs vote ceases to occupy the political center. Missouri is an example. It was the bellwether state in presidential elections just a few decades ago. Now, it’s not even in the mix, no matter how the up for grabs vote goes. Claire McCaskill likely won the up for grabs Missouri vote in 2018, probably by an overwhelming margin. Still, she got her clock cleaned on election day.
The composition of the up for grabs vote is by no means static. It can change even in the midst of the election cycle. But there are limits. In a so-called safe election, the up for grabs vote will occupy the political center, giving the underdog a chance, only when the candidate of the favored political party is especially flawed. Think Alabama 2017, or Missouri or Indiana 2012. Conversely, if the candidate of the favored party is not sufficiently flawed, the political center is not up for grabs. Think Texas 2018, where a flawed, but not Roy Moore level flawed, Ted Cruz beat rock-star Beto O’Rourke. If O’Rourke didn’t win more than 90% of the up for grabs vote in 2018 my name’s not Bob Lord. But it didn’t matter. The political center just wasn’t up for grabs.
The up for grabs vote may vary significantly as a percentage of the electorate. One byproduct of political polarization in America is a skinny-ing down of the up for grabs vote.
Securing the allegiance of the up for grabs vote — holding the center, as they say — is not without political cost. Appealing to squishy voters means appearing a bit squishy yourself. Those voters perceived to be in the bag are not entirely in the bag. Which means appealing to the “center” has a cost in base turnout. The psychology of this is maddening to the pragmatic crowd, but it’s also reality.
So what does it mean to believe that “holding the center” is the path to victory in 2020?
It means that the group of voters considering votes for Trump and his Congressional stooges is sufficiently large that it occupies the political center in enough states and Congressional districts that wooing them is the clearest path to victory.
There are many, in addition to Speaker Pelosi, who believe that is the reality in which we live: The Morning Joe crowd, Steny Hoyer, Chuck Schumer, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden to name just a few.
I’m not saying that group is wrong.
But how depressing, how absolutely unhopeful, is it, if they’re correct? It would mean the best possible political mandate the Democratic Party could cobble together in 2020 would be for a vision that appeals to voters who have not yet entirely rejected Donald Trump. Reflect on that a bit. That’s a group who believe separating kids from their parents and locking them in cages isn’t all that bad. It’s a group not all that troubled by the obstruction of justice. It’s a group to whom a President who regularly engages in race-baiting and who encourages violence towards a member of Congress is not disqualifying.
And it would mean that there never ever will be a moment when the Democratic Party can put forth a bold vision for America’s future, a vision that includes confronting climate change, economic injustice, structural racism, mass incarceration, and American imperialism head-on, with the same spirit that we confronted the Great Depression, Nazi Germany, and Jim Crow just a few generations ago. Because if Americans won’t choose that vision over the vision for America embodied in Donald Trump, they’re never going to choose it.
John F. Kennedy famously declared, “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity,”
Kennedy’s words were never truer than they are today. The 2020 election truly presents a crisis for America. The danger associated with Trump’s re-election is both real and unthinkable. In my mind, that would mean game over for America.
But I believe there is a second danger: Stopping Trump and his acolytes in a way that makes insurmountable the enormous challenges we face as a nation, including one challenge, climate change, upon which our success in meeting the survival of mankind hangs in the balance.
In other words, we face the danger of squandering a once in a lifetime opportunity, best articulated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in this short video.
Most humans instinctively are risk averse. Establishment Democratic Party political leaders certainly are. When faced with the double-edged sword of crisis, the risk averse focus on avoiding danger. That’s fine, if passing on the opportunity is an acceptable price to pay.
I just don’t think this is one of those times.
There are leaders — Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, AOC and others — urging us not to be paralyzed by the danger associated with the crisis that is Trump, but to seize the opportunity associated with that crisis, an opportunity that likely never will present itself again in the foreseeable future and an opportunity America, and the planet, can’t afford to let pass.
There are other leaders who are fearful, understandably so, that too bold an agenda will drive voters into the arms of Trump.
Truth is, we all share that fear, at least a little.
But we can’t let ourselves be blinded by it. And to follow leaders who are blinded by fear is to be blinded by fear ourselves.
Damn the danger. Seize opportunity. Win the future.