Op-Ed: For Democrats, being moderate doesn’t mean having to act like wimps

House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., argue during a meeting in the Oval Office in Washington on Dec. 11.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Emboldened by their new majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats are understandably eager to exercise their power.

Some House members believe the way to do that is with an aggressive, sharply partisan agenda aimed at both calling out President Trump for his egregious behavior and demanding immediate action on longshot legislation such as single-payer healthcare.

A new survey commissioned by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and conducted by Expedition Strategies suggests that’s a terrible idea. To win in 2020, Democrats should resist the urge to turn the House into the new headquarters of the anti-Trump resistance or to initiate battles over legislative priorities favored by party liberals that have no hope of passage.


Rather than focus on an anti-Trump resistance, Democrats need to show voters they can accomplish something.

The good news for Democrats is that they enjoy a natural advantage heading into 2020. PPI’s study found that 48% of voters identify as Democrats or as independents who lean Democratic, while 39% said they are Republicans or lean Republican. The remaining 13% are true independents with no allegiance to either party.

Moderates, however, are a large and crucial part of this new Democratic coalition. Our poll found that a plurality of voters — 44% — describe themselves as “moderate,” compared with “24%” who say they are liberal and 32% who identify as “conservative.” A whopping 62% of independents also see themselves as moderates.

These moderates, moreover, were the true kingmakers in the 2018 election. According to an exit poll analysis by Expedition Strategies, liberals made up 46% of the vote for House Democrats in 2018, while moderates made up 43%. The GOP, on the other hand, suffered a mass desertion of moderates. Whereas 34% of Trump’s vote in 2016 came from moderate voters, just 29% of the vote for Republican House members came from moderates — a five-percentage point drop that was enough to shift many districts from red to blue.

Nowhere was this defection more evident than in the House seats picked up by Democrats in districts that had voted for Trump in 2016. There were more than a dozen of them, including Virginia’s 7th District, which had voted for Trump by a margin of 6.5 points, as well as Oklahoma’s 5th and South Carolina’s 1st, both of which Trump took by a double-digit margin over Hillary Clinton.

To maintain their majority, Democrats must pursue the kind of agenda that will win the long-term loyalty of these moderates, independents and Trump-defectors. Centrist support could be jeopardized by a hyperpartisan legislative agenda in Congress or Benghazi-style investigations of Trump aimed at stirring up the party’s liberal base.


Rather than focus on an anti-Trump resistance, Democrats need to show voters they can accomplish something. They should introduce bills on issues voters care about that stand a chance of winning bipartisan support, and demonstrate their commitment to getting the federal government working again. They should work around Trump to earn the long-term trust of voters and build a durable governing majority.

Despite sharp differences on issues such as immigration and healthcare, Republicans and Democrats agree more than disagree on criminal justice reform, infrastructure investment and more training to equip workers for a changing economy. And as the recently passed legislation to combat the opioid crisis has shown, both sides can claim credit for a genuine achievement that could ultimately save thousands of American lives.

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Some left-leaning Democrats will say this approach is too centrist to draw young voters and party progressives to the polls in 2020. But they mistakenly assume that a “bold” agenda must always run hard left, and that fire-breathing populism is the only way a candidate can excite voters, especially younger ones. The idea isn’t to embrace a split-the-difference centrism that excites no one. That doesn’t work, as Democrats learned to their chagrin in 2016. Rather, what we need is Democratic candidates and legislators who embrace “radical pragmatism” — big ideas that are practical and have the potential to become law. We need an approach to governance that is oriented toward results, not ideology.

Americans recognize that progress requires cooperation rather than large megaphones and angry voices. As research by the international group More in Common found, a majority of Americans understand that “compromise is necessary in politics, as in other parts of life.”

Trump feeds on hyperpartisanship, and he knows how to turn it to his benefit. A pragmatic approach to governance and bipartisan progress is the best way to confound him. It is also the best way for Democrats to make crucial headway on the issues that matter while solidifying the support of moderate voters they need to build a durable majority.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute. Anne Kim is vice president of domestic policy at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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