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Did 2020 prove that liberals can’t win?


In an attempt to better understand both sides of the argument, I am reaching out to prominent figures on both sides of the party to talk about how they see not just the 2020 election but also the future for Democrats. Today is the first of those conversations; I talked with Matt Bennett, the executive vice president for public affairs of Third Way, a moderate think tank.

Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Bennett: Democrats only can win nationally and build legislative majorities on the backs of moderates. In the presidential race, Joe Biden, an avowed moderate, soundly beat an incumbent president for the first time since another moderate (Bill Clinton) did it 28 years ago. That followed a presidential primary in which moderate candidates (Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Mike Bloomberg) won 57% of the primary votes before the race effectively ended with Bernie Sanders dropping out and a huge Biden victory.

In the House, mainstream/moderate Democrats flipped 33 seats from red to blue in 2018 and three more in 2020. Far-left candidates backed by Our Revolution and Justice Democrats flipped ZERO. While there have been some high-profile evictions of moderate incumbents in primaries, those wins only served to turn blue districts bluer; they did not create or expand the Democratic House majority by a single seat.

In the Senate, the only way we can hope to win seats in the red and purple states that dominate the Senate map is with moderates running on a party brand that resonates with those voters.

Cillizza: How much did things like the Green New Deal and “defund the police” hurt Democrats in the 2020 election?

Bennett: They hurt. There is a fair amount of agreement on some of the policies underneath “defund the police,” but the slogan alarmed voters. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn said “defund the police is killing our party.” Clyburn and the late John Lewis talked about it on the House floor. The ads run against Democrats were devastating. Joe Biden could withstand those attacks because he is known as a moderate and he has his own brand. But if you’re a House Democrat, you are only barely known by your constituents. If this seems like the position of the Party, you own it, whether it’s your view or not.

The shame about the Green New Deal is that centrists and mainstream progressives were (and are) inches apart on climate. But the Green New Deal included enough pieces that had nothing to do with climate and felt threatening to people’s jobs and way of life. It was ripe for the usual preposterous distortions by the right. And it worked — people believed that those Democrats were too far left.

The data are clear. Nationally, Joe Biden, running as a moderate with his own well-defined brand, is outperforming House Democratic candidates by 2.5 million votes. Voters knew Biden wasn’t too far left, but some clearly worried about congressional Democrats. Take Nebraska’s 2nd, a swing district in which Kara Eastman, running on those kinds of ideas, lost a winnable race in 2018. She ran again in 2020, and Biden won her district by 7 points. Eastman lost it again by 6.

Cillizza: What do you say to liberals like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez etc. who insist the energy (and money) of the party is on the liberal left?

Bennett: These notions were exposed as a myth by the 2020 elections. They are legends born of the political classes conflating things like noise on Twitter and (pre-Covid) rally crowd sizes with real-world impact and actual support. When it comes to the popularity of ideas, voter turnout, and results, the energy is with the moderates.

For example, in the primaries, turnout in the early states was highest in places where Buttigieg and Klobuchar won. Biden stoked huge turnout on Super Tuesday. The Sanders turnout in the primaries never materialized.

In the general, Joe Biden, running as a moderate, obliterated fundraising records. Other moderates, running for the Senate and the House, likewise brought in a sea of money. No Democrats, regardless of their place on the ideological spectrum, had trouble with fundraising or lost for lack of money. And this election saw record turnout in states and districts that Biden won. There was “energy” and money aplenty for moderates.

Cillizza: How much (or little) should Biden choose liberal favorites for Cabinet spots as a way to try to unify the party?

Bennett: The President-elect has made clear that he is going to have the most diverse Cabinet in history, and that will include ideological diversity. But he won’t be pushed around by anyone, including those in his own political coalition. He will choose the people he needs to repair the damage done by Donald Trump and move the country forward.

We think he has this exactly right. No one in our party should be trying to impose litmus tests of any kind on his nominees, as the left has done. No one should be preemptively disparaging potential nominees, as the left has done (including public attacks on at least one African American woman). We think Biden should have the latitude and support of Democrats to pick the team that he wants and needs.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The best way for Democrats to deal with the likes of AOC, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren is ___________.” Now, explain.

Bennett: This question has it backward. The real question is how they will deal with the rest of the Democratic Party. Will they work smoothly with our new leader, Joe Biden? Will they acknowledge that moderates flipped the seats that gave Democrats their majority in the House? Will they recognize and accept these political realities? If not, they will fairly be viewed as obstructionists.

One thing to note is that Sen. Warren is in a somewhat different place than the others you name. She has enthusiastically campaigned with Democratic moderates, and she’s made clear that they belong in the Party and are essential to building majorities.

Elections, the useful cliché goes, have consequences. Biden decisively beat Sen. Sanders and won the nomination running as a moderate. He did the same against Trump in the general election. He ran on an ambitious, modern and moderate agenda from start to finish. So while those folks certainly have earned their seats at the table, they must recognize that Joe Biden is sitting at the head.