Max Steinbaum: Democrats, resist progressive temptation

Monday, January 21, 2019 - 6:17pm

During the 2018 college football season, Michigan Stadium drew an average crowd of 110,737 fans per game. That’s a lot of folks in maize and blue, and a greater number than Donald Trump’s 2016 combined margin of victory — a razor thin 77,744 Republican-cast ballots — in the key swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. With the help of 46 collective electoral votes in those states, the underdog Republican, a brash New York populist and self-styled “blue-collar billionaire,” cruised to a comfortable 306-232 electoral college victory over his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, earning a four-year stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Since then, Democrats have been strategizing on how to remove Trump from office — specifically musing on a progressive revamp of the party.

Naturally, Democrats were shocked and dismayed by the results of Nov. 8, 2016. Licking their electoral wounds, they immediately resolved to kill the Trump presidency in 2020. While Democratic determination to do so has solidified over the past two years, the party’s strategy to retake the White House remains uncertain. There is a profound fission in the party of Wilson, Roosevelt and Kennedy, an ongoing identity struggle between two competing factions. The first camp is the stable, if unenthused, old guard epitomized by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. The other is the surging progressive wing of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While the latter camp urges an ouster of the tepid Democratic establishment and an embrace of progressivism to restore vitality to the Democratic Party, tapping a dynamic leftist candidate is not the surest route to a Democratic Oval Office in 2020. If the Democrats’ priority is to defeat Trump, an autopsy of 2016 indicates that a progressive transformation of the party must be deferred.

It’s a counterintuitive prescription. The Democrats played it safe in 2016 with Hillary Clinton — a candidate who was as establishment as establishment gets. Progressives reason that if it failed them then, it will fail them again. A left-wing firebrand, in the style of Sanders or Warren, would breathe life into an insipid party that needs to free itself from uninspiring old-guard vestiges. It is an attractive thought for Democratic leftists, but not a very strategic one. As disappointing as it may be for this contingent, the party must avoid progressive daydreams if they want to achieve the universal Democratic priority of removing Trump in 2020.

Last June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a Democratic Socialist from the Bronx and a current U.S. Representative for New York — captured the attention of the nation with her stunning Congressional primary victory over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley. The then-28 year-old’s electoral upset was emblematic of a possible new trend in the Democratic Party of favoring impassioned progressivism over the establishment. In a recent spat with Ocasio-Cortez, former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill expressed concern over the progressive surge. In a December interview with CNN, McCaskill questioned why Ocasio-Cortez is “the thing,” dismissively naming the new congresswoman “a bright and shiny new object” who “came out of nowhere.” The diction was undiplomatic, to be sure, but McCaskill’s implications hold. A so-called “bright and shiny” progressive dynamo will impair the Democrats’ chances in 2020.

Take a look at the 2016 electoral map. If Clinton had won Ohio and Pennsylvania, she would be the president of the United States. Without Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, winning Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin would have put her over the critical 270 electoral vote mark. Swing states like Florida will, of course, be a bloody battleground between Trump and his Democratic opponent, but if 2016 is any indication, the next election could be won or lost in three or four states around the Great Lakes. Coastal progressivism, in the corporal form of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, sells better in San Francisco than in Saginaw. Progressives must keep in mind that picking a presidential candidate is a strategic affair. You have to consider the greatest swing audience — in this case, middle and working-class voters in the upper Midwest — and wrap your package accordingly.

That’s why the Democrats need non-threatening, moderate familiarity in 2020. They need a blue-jeans Democrat with folksy charm, a Joe Biden or Sherrod Brown, who can speak the language of the everyday Pennsylvanian or Ohioan and earn their vote back from Trump. To put the keys to the Oval Office back in blue hands, the fiery progressive wing must yield to pragmatism in the primaries, or risk extending their Trump nightmare into January 2025.

Max Steinbaum can be reached at maxst@umich.edu.