At the outset of the presidential campaign, Democratic Party elders worried about an epidemic sweeping from one primary state to the next: a sudden plague of litmus tests.
At coffee klatches and town halls, activists pushed candidates to embrace progressive positions on a long list of issues: “Medicare for all,” the Green New Deal, abolishing ICE, reparations for African Americans, impeachment now.
Also abolishing the electoral college, free college tuition, ending the filibuster in the Senate, outlawing fracking, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, legalizing marijuana — and more.
The wave of liberal litmus tests reached a peak in July, when most of the candidates in a televised debate said they would abolish private health insurance, decriminalize unauthorized border crossings and guarantee healthcare to undocumented immigrants.
That set off alarms for operatives focused on winning the nomination and the election next year. President Trump already is casting the Democrats’ agenda as socialism run amok. Pushing too far left will only help him make that case.
But in recent weeks, the Democratic tide has shifted. As they’ve barnstormed Iowa and New Hampshire, and spent more time talking with ordinary voters, candidates have begun tacking back toward the center.
The litmus tests are still there — indeed, a new one arose last week — but would-be nominees have found they can safely turn them aside.
Take Medicare for all, Bernie Sanders’ proposal to build a government-run health insurance system and abolish private health insurance in the process.
Initially, candidates felt pressured to sign up. Five of his primary rivals joined Sanders in sponsoring bill in the Senate.
But as details emerged, many voters weren’t happy to learn the plan would bar them from buying private health insurance, even if they wanted it. In an unusual move, Kamala Harris, one of the cosponsors, reversed herself and said she didn’t support that provision.
In last week’s debate, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg all said they opposed Sanders’ plan because it would raise taxes and remove the option of private coverage. None of them got booed.
Or take the once-vexing problem of ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Last year, progressives pressed candidates for a promise to abolish the agency that enforces immigration laws, often with draconian means.
Most candidates responded by redefining the issue. Elizabeth Warren said she’d “replace” ICE. Sanders said he’d “restructure” the agency. Harris said she’d “reexamine” it.
The issue hasn’t been heard from since.
Another way to survive a litmus test is to kill it with kindness. In March, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York unveiled a Green New Deal, a grand plan to meet all the nation’s energy needs with zero-emission sources — and guarantee every American a job, paid vacations and housing in the bargain.
Nearly every Democratic candidate, including Biden, endorsed the concept — or at least adopted the slogan. But few spelled out which parts of the sprawling package of proposals they backed.
Another option: Just say yes. That’s what most candidates did when asked whether the House of Representatives should launch immediate impeachment proceedings against Trump.
With no real disagreement, the issue quickly disappeared from the campaign, even as the House struggles to make headway.
A new litmus test arose in Thursday’s debate in Houston: Beto O’Rourke, seeking to revive his flagging campaign, said he would require owners of assault weapons to give them up in a mandatory buyback.
“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke declared, drawing cheers from the debate audience.
Harris and Cory Booker agreed, but Biden, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg dissented, saying they support a voluntary buyback, not a mandatory program.
This one may stick around for a while: Surveys show most Democratic primary voters like the idea. A Monmouth University poll last week found that 69% of Democrats favor a mandatory buyback program. But among all voters, only 43% were in favor.
That makes it a good short-term issue for O’Rourke to take to primary voters — but a dangerous position for a front-runner looking toward the general election.
Litmus tests aren’t new. The late columnist William Safire traced the term to the 1970s, when conservative activists in the Republican Party sought to separate “true believers” from wishy-washy centrists.
“Professional politicians, to whom winning is paramount, take pains to avoid the litmus,” Safire noted.
Today’s Democrats seem to be figuring that out.
Their party has clearly shifted to the left. This year’s debates have focused on proposals that were unthinkable when Barack Obama ran for president 12 years ago: abolishing private health insurance, decriminalizing border crossings, a mandatory buyback of assault weapons.
But Democratic candidates have discovered that they needn’t meekly submit to every litmus test they meet. They’re no longer plunging heedlessly leftward. In some cases, they’ve inched back toward the center.
That should improve their chances of appealing to the majority of American voters who aren’t part of the progressive left — and defeating Trump next year.