The liberal-progressive spectrum in the Dem Primary

We’re coming up to another debate for the Democratic Party. Somehow, a lot of Democrats are surprised to see that Joe Biden isn’t doing so well in polls anymore. The 2016 cycle (as well as the recent midterm cycles) should have taught us something about the popularity of a Clinton-style centrist; we’re still trying to learn the lesson. 

The top 3 candidates now represent a range of sorts for Democratic candidates. You have Biden, who would be called a moderate in US context, positioned as the return of post-election Obama. You have Warren; most Americans consider her progressive, but allegiance to the centrist establishment is also core to her identity. Then you have Sanders, who is furthest to the left, and openly antagonistic towards the centrist establishment.

Biden has seen his share of polls and his fundraising ability plummet since the opening months of the campaign. He started very strong based on name recognition, but his public appearances are so bad that some of his allies suggested he should limit them. He was the favored candidate of MSNBC, but just kept making it hard to support him with his mistakes.

Upon understanding that Joe Biden has serious limitations, the mainstream media put in a strong effort to push Warren into the forefront. She was ignored before Biden started to get heavy criticism, then all of a sudden MSNBC fell in love. The good news about this, is that maybe it shows that liberal elites understand: centrism won’t win elections right now.

The bad news is that Warren isn’t actually progressive if people like banker Robert Wolf are saying “I think Senator Warren’s views are more pragmatic; I think she is very different in a conversation than when she’s on the stump.” What we have here is the possible return of pre-election Obama. 

President Obama was thought to be progressive when positioned against Clinton, but the media really took a liking to him as a candidate for some reason. We’re told it’s because of his communication skills or something, but I’d imagine policy had something to do with it. When he took the lead on rejecting public campaign financing, that helped pave the way for a lot of special interest money to flood the advertising industry. 

Liberal Democrats are impressed with Warren because she is so professorial. Based on some type of personal pride, they think a “white paper candidate” is a strong pick for the general election. They think “she has a plan” will have strong appeal for an audience that didn’t much like “I’m with her.” To Warren’s credit, she appears to understand how unpopular corruption is, and she knows that people want the rich to pay their fair share. As a nerd, I appreciate the distribution of detailed policy proposals, although she is not as special in this regard as many think.

Warren understands from the past few decades that you can’t make lasting change with just the presidency. Her response to this reality is to secretly reassure established party leaders that she is aligned with them. She is smart enough to know that many of those leaders are very unpopular, but she thinks she’ll be most effective by working with them. We should expect that Warren, if the head of the Democratic party, will take heavy cues from the old guard.

Biden, of course, would simply BE the old guard. He would get along well with the party leadership from the start, and serve as an affirmation that we aren’t ready to try anything different in this country.

Like Warren, Sanders knows that a single person cannot create lasting change for this government (thus the motto “not me, us”). His approach to this limitation is fundamentally different, trying to mobilize a grassroots movement to create bottom-up pressure to force change. He isn’t understood differently in private conversation than public appearances. We should expect that Sanders, if the head of the Democratic party, would seek to make systemic changes that increases the influence of the public.

As Warren takes the lead in polling and continues to put up good fundraising figures, it feels like we may be settling into a compromise between moderate liberals and strong progressives. Moderate liberals like this a lot; they really just want things to calm down, and they think Democrats are more electable if they are closer to conservative ideas. The progressive audience is split with regards to Warren, as some of us have concerns about Warren’s weak points – foreign policy, climate policy, diversity of support, and the fact that a significant chunk of the country calls her ‘Pocahontas.’

But Sanders is a scarier prospect for many moderates, who estimate that his willingness to use the word “socialism” will bring disaster to the Democratic party. Moderates think that if they just move close enough to the center of the political spectrum, Republicans are going to switch sides in mass. They think Republicans will stop suggesting that any of their policies are ‘socialist.’ So you see Democrats using conservative phrases like “this isn’t a socialist country” and “how you gonna pay for it” in response to progressive proposals.

The comparisons and debate going on between these 3 candidates are very important and relevant, no matter how many people claim they are bad for the party. Those who don’t want to debate are failing to acknowledge the DNC’s lack of unifying identity. The Democratic party should definitely be having an identity crisis. No matter how much of first world society is liberal in nature, they haven’t been able to earn more than 2 consecutive presidential terms since FDR. Not to sound too capitalist… but it’s nice to have a variety of choices in this case. Maybe one of these options can avoid passing the baton to another joke from the right.