Why ‘centrists’ will sink the Democrats, if they haven’t already

The bipartisan, centrist political consensus is breaking down.

SOURCECampaign for America's Future

No political ideology in modern American history has failed as consistently, or for as long, as the Wall Street-friendly political brand known as “Democratic centrism.”

It’s true that individual politicians have succeeded under this umbrella, through art and luck, but their party and their policies have faltered under this ideology.  Yet its practitioners continue to hawk their wares, undeterred by a losing streak that has brought their party to its knees.

Consider the recent New York Times column from Steven Rattner, the Wall Street executive who helped Barack Obama rescue the auto industry.

Mr. Rattner is unhappy with Medicare For All’s growing support among Democrats and centrism’s waning fortunes. He frames that dissatisfaction, first and foremost, as a personal critique of Medicare For All’s leading proponent.

Bernie and friends

Rattner tells us Sen. Bernie Sanders (full disclosure: I was the senior writer for Sanders’ presidential campaign) is “banging on” about Medicare For All,  that he is a “crusty Vermont independent,” that he “wants to be a senatorial Pied Piper for Democrats,” and  – in what may be the greatest sin of all for Mr. Rattner –  that he “isn’t even a registered Democrat.”

Nor are voters spared Rattner’s scorn. Those who agree with Sanders on the issues are not “supporters” or “allies,” but “acolytes,” suggesting they are motivated more by religious fervor than by reason.

Another word for these “acolytes” might be “Democrats,” since a poll conducted earlier this year showed that 80 percent of registered Democratic voters viewed Sanders favorably.

Although Mr. Rattner writes about “the fringe of our party,” 65 percent of Democrats say that expanding Medicare to cover every American is a “good idea.” Which begs the question: Who’s really on the party’s “fringe”?

There’s a train a-coming

Politically, Mr. Rattner characterizes Medicare For All as “a freight train coming at us.” Who, one wonders, is the “us” in that sentence? Its popular appeal has been affirmed in a number of polls.

Mr. Rattner challenges that finding. “When factors like whether taxes would be raised or the Affordable Care Act would be repealed are introduced,” he writes, “the consensus swings to opposition.”

An informed reading of those polls suggests otherwise. First, the elastic word “consensus” suggests virtual unanimity among voters and obscures the idea’s growing support. Yes, one poll did see a drop-off in support after questioners raised the possibility of higher taxes. But pollsters did not mention the fact that, overall, health care costs would be reduced for most households, in some cases dramatically.

That omission left respondents with the impression that their costs would go up, and was thus misleading. Significantly, when Democrats were warned of higher taxes, 59 percent of them still supported Medicare For All. That suggests that voters can be educated on this issue.

Concern about repealing the Affordable Care Act seems equally under-informed, since Medicare For All would replace it with substantially better coverage, and at significantly lower cost for all but the wealthiest households.

More broadly, Rattner expresses concern that the overall Sanders agenda lacks appeal beyond the Democratic base. He might want to note a recent poll showing that the “crusty Pied Piper” is not only popular among Democrats but, in Newsweek’s words, is “far more popular among independents and Republicans” than the centrist Hillary Clinton.

When Democrats lose

No attack on progressive ideas is complete without a reference to Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, whose 1972 defeat to Richard Nixon occurred nearly half a century ago. Rattner obliges, and throws in Michael Dukakis’s 1988 defeat as proof that “the Sanders approach didn’t work.”

But Dukakis ran as Rattner’s kind of Democrat.  Even a cursory reading of the contemporary campaign coverage yields many references to Dukakis’ centrism. Some were complimentary, written before his campaign ran rather spectacularly off the rails. Some were neutral, as in the Washington Post’s June 1988 article on foreign policy entitled “Dukakis Adopts Centrist Stance.”

Dukakis was so reluctant to call himself a liberal, in fact, that it became an embarrassment – one George H.W. Bush turned to his advantage after Dukakis finally and reluctantly accepted the label.

Those centrists who insist on mentioning George McGovern, a candidate whose challenges were manifold, artfully ignore more recent losing presidential candidates in their own mold: Jimmy Carter in 1980. Dukakis in 1988. John Kerry in 2004. Hillary Clinton in 2016.

It’s true that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama also fit the centrist mold. But both of them also represented an exciting generational shift, and Obama was forced to tack back to the left in 2012 to restore his flagging poll numbers.

Principles of design

Rattner conflates Medicare For All with Hillary Clinton’s 1994 health care proposal. But it’s inapt to compare a federally-run program with Clinton’s plan. The latter was bedeviled by structural complexity, careless design, a poor political rollout, and an overdependence on the private sector.

It was, in fact, a “centrist” plan.

When Rattner laments the difficulty of selling voters on “the more carefully constructed proposals of centrists,” he is confusing complexity with efficiency.  It is a fundamental principle of both good engineering and good management: the cleaner the design, the greater the efficiency. Conversely, the more complicated a program becomes, the more likely it is to fail.

The Affordable Care Act improves life for millions of people, but its complexity has left it with multiple failure points. It depends on both the goodwill and the efficiency of private insurers, neither of which have been much in evidence. Its incentives for achieving actuarial balance are difficult to design and execute.

Politically, the ACA is overly vulnerable to Republican attack. Contrast the GOP’s difficulty undermining Medicare’s popularity among its core voters with its success in weakening their support for the ACA.

Whose model?

Remarkably, Rattner even writes that “our model of democratic capitalism has stood us well for more than two centuries.” He speaks scornfully of the “deep government intervention” that, he claims, has “often fallen short elsewhere, most notably in Europe.”

This two-century frame conveniently glosses over the Democratic Party’s greatest achievements, including Social Security and Medicare. And has Rattner reviewed the OECD’s comparative data for developed countries? The United States has a higher poverty ratehigher infant mortalitylower voter turnout, fewer paid holidays and vacation days, and weaker paid medical and family leave than the Western European countries Mr. Rattner disdains.

What would Rattner propose instead? “Better Jobs For All,” he says, with “people-centric initiatives like improving education… and increasing worker mobility.”

Democrats have been peddling exactly these nostrums for decades. Meanwhile, they have lost all three branches of the federal government, two-thirds of state houses, and two-thirds of governorships.

The old order is rapidly fading

The Democrats have achieved their greatest political and policy successes when they have ignored the “centrists” – in reality, ever-present naysayers who cloak their negativity in the pseudo-technocratic jargon of centrism.  It’s hard to imagine that the New Deal, Medicare, or the Moon Landing would have ever happened if milquetoast Democrats like these had been in charge.

Meanwhile, the old order is crumbling.  73 percent of voters are dissatisfied with the way the country’s being governed, despite topline economic improvements. 61 percent agree with the statement, “Republicans and Democrats have done such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.” That’s nearly twice as many as those who feel that the two parties are doing an “adequate” job.

The bipartisan, centrist political consensus is breaking down. That’s not an accident, and it’s not an injustice. It’s the result of repeated failures, both abroad and at home. The question is, what will replace it: something better, or something worse? If Democrats continue to follow the losing ways of the past, we probably won’t like the answer.


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