Tuesday, July 30, 2019


John Harris -- the founding editor of Politico and a one-time Mark Halperin collaborator -- believes, shockingly, that Democrats who are arguing in favor of bold progressive ideas might have found a formula for success:
Put a bunch of Democrats on the stage and they can’t help but go off the rails: They compete with each other to win the favor of liberal activists, and saddle themselves with unrealistic positions that could leave a nominee vulnerable in the general election.

That was a prevailing Washington media and political class narrative after the first round of Democratic debates in Miami a month ago.

But as Democratic contenders gather on the stage again this week, a competing analysis is gaining power: Going a bit off the rails may be an entirely reasonable track to victory.
Harris's source for this view is Stan Greenberg, of all people.
“Candidates who look like they are cautious, modulating, have their foot on the brake are missing the moment,” said veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg....

The moment, according to Greenberg’s polling and focus-group work, has left voters of all stripes clamoring for disruption....

This interpretation is notable for the source. Greenberg first drew wide notice a generation ago, with landmark work about how Ronald Reagan captured many working-class Democrats who believed their party’s liberalism was out of step with their lives. He is a veteran of the 1992 “war room” of Bill Clinton—who won two elections precisely by practicing a brand of defensive politics that required regular reassurance to voters that his activism didn’t mean he liked big government, disliked free enterprise or was sympathetic to 1960s-style radicalism.
But what Greenberg is finding now is that voters don't think Democrats are scary radicals:
For one thing, Greenberg said, voters properly see most of the Democratic positioning as about making broad statements of values and ideals—not millstone-around-the-neck commitments that eliminate their ability to maneuver as general election nominee or president.

What’s more, he said, recent focus groups conducted for the American Federation of Teachers by the Greenberg-linked Democracy Corps suggest that a historically damaging charge—that Democrats’ plans to expand government amount to “socialism”—is losing some of its potency.

The focus groups with white working class voters outside metropolitan areas in Maine, Nevada and Wisconsin show that Trump uses partisan insults so promiscuously that his rhetoric may be devalued—participants didn’t find the socialism allegation compelling.
(I'd add that Republican crazies have been crying "socialism" forever -- they thought Bill Clinton was a socialist. It gets old after a while.)

A new poll also reveals that views of the Democratic Party are relatively unchanged over the past few years:
But beyond the political viability of specific policies, there’s also a broader question: whether Democrats’ growing liberalism, or their increasingly visible debate over progressive issues, has actually redefined Americans’ image of the Democratic Party or their perceptions about how well the party’s values align with the mainstream.

So far, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll finds, the answer is no. Views of the Democratic Party, in fact, haven’t really budged in more than four years. The share of Americans calling the Democrats “too extreme,” which stood at 41% in November 2014, now stands at an identical 41%, with only minimal fluctuation in the interim.

... Right now, both parties are about equally likely to be seen as “too extreme.”
But ... but ... the Squad! The first round of debates! The Trump tweets! Surely all that is making Americans believe that Democrats are dangerous radicals!

I don't see it. FiveThirtyEight's generic ballot polling average this year has been quite steady. (That's polling asking respondents whether they'd vote for the Democrat or the Republican in the next House contest, with no names attached.)

The first round of Democratic presidential debates took place on June 26 and 27. Donald Trump's Twitter attacks on four progressive congresswomen began on July 14.

Just before the debates, FiveThirtyEight said that Democrats were leading Republicans in the generic ballot polling by 5.9 points. Now, after the first debates and the Squad attacks, the margin is ... 5.6 points. That's effectively unchanged.

John Harris notes that certain moments in history make voters willing to consider politicians whose ideas are outside the perceived range of the acceptable:
When the ideological tides are moving in their favor, presidential candidates may not have to worry so much about their language, or pay an especially high cost for laying it on too thick.

The best illustration may come from an earlier swing of the cycle, when Ronald Reagan in 1980 dethroned a half-century of New Deal and Great Society dominance of American politics with a brand of free-market, pro-military conservatism that seemed radical at the time. Reagan, many analysts thought, would be doomed by such provocations as launching his general election campaign in Mississippi with favorable references to “states rights,” doubts about his commitment to Social Security, or disparaging environmental laws by saying trees and the Mt. Saint Helens volcano were causing more pollution than anything man-made. Instead, Reagan was seen as right on big questions about realigning the role of government and won 44 states against incumbent President Jimmy Carter.
Ross Douthat has expressed similar thoughts, imagining back in March that Bernie Sanders might be the left's Reagan: an older man, familiar to voters from a previous near-miss insurgent campaign, who can win an election by challenging the prevailing ideological orthodoxy.

Sanders doesn't look like the guy to do it this year (though who knows at this early stage in the race?), but maybe voters aren't as afraid of serious change as pundits believe they are.

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