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Bill de Blasio's progressive blinders will get Democrats nowhere

2019-02-07

Bill Maher, left, Will Hurd, and New York City Mayor Bill de Bill de Blasio on the Real Time with Bill Maher. (Janet Van Ham/HBO)

“Centrists got us nowhere.”

That’s the judgement of Mayor de Blasio on the current state of the Democratic Party. Appearing recently on Bill Maher’s HBO show, and echoing opinions he voiced in the Washington Post, the mayor seems totally detached from political reality. For it is the Democrats he considers “centrists” — self-described passionate pragmatists — who put the first real political checks on President Trump in 2018. And it will be those same kinds of Democrats who help beat him in 2020.

It was, indisputably, moderate Democrats who wrested control of the House of Representatives away from Trump’s Republican enablers, made Nancy Pelosi Speaker and made Brooklyn Rep. Hakeem Jeffries the Caucus Chair for the majority. They also handed gavels to new, tough-minded committee chairs like New York Reps. Nydia Velazquez, Nita Lowey and Jerry Nadler.

In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats needed 23 seats to take control of the House, and they won 42. They also lost two, for a net 40-seat pickup. Of those 40, 33 had been endorsed by the moderate New Dem PAC. None of the 40 — not a single new pickup — was endorsed by far-left groups that de Blasio favors, like the Justice Democrats or Our Revolution. Zero.

In his op-ed, de Blasio argues that ideas like Medicare for All, a guaranteed federal job for everyone and free college must be at the heart of what Democrats are offering to win elections. Leaving aside whether those policies are actually best for most Americans, let’s just look at the politics.

Political campaigns speak loudest through their TV ads, which is where a lot of their money goes. Our staff watched every one of the 967 TV ads that Democrats or their allies ran in competitive House races in the 2018 general election. Out of nearly 1,000 television spots, not one mentioned a jobs guarantee or free college. Two mentioned Medicare for All. Both of those de Blasio-style candidates lost.

It wasn’t just the House contests. Take the must-win presidential battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, the pragmatic Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf won reelection. And moderates Gretchen Whitmer and Tony Evers both won tough governors races in Michigan and Wisconsin. Before besting their Republican opponents, both also dispatched very liberal rivals in their primaries.

Indeed, those three gubernatorial campaigns offer Democrats a perfect roadmap for beating Trump in 2020. Hillary Clinton would be President if she’d won those three states, and she lost them by a combined total of just 70,000 votes. Whitmer, Evers and Wolf won two years later by a combined 1.3 million votes. They ran not on the promise of a Democratic Socialist revolution, but on kitchen table issues — health-care costs that are too high, good-paying jobs that are too scarce, even potholes that are too large. Whitmer’s bumper stickers said “Fix the Damn Roads!” and Evers used his opponent’s first name in dubbing the tire-killers of Wisconsin “Scott Holes.”

On Maher’s show, de Blasio went on to say that Democratic moderates thinking about running for President in 2020 “need not apply.” Really? In addition to his midterm amnesia, he seems to have forgotten that moderates Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are the only Democrats to have been elected President in the modern era. This is the kind of small-tent thinking that losing parties engage in.

Democrats will need everyone, from committed liberal activists to persuadable swing voters, to support their nominee if we are to dump Trump.

Those who watched the State of the Union address will recall the sea of Democratic women legislators, led by Pelosi, wearing suffragette white. They included some liberal leaders, like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who ran a savvy underdog race to beat a powerful Democrat in the primary. She went on to win in a very safe, very blue district, and she has become an important voice in our politics.

But the women in white included far more newly minted congressional moderates, like Georgia’s Lucy McBath, Virginia’s Elaine Luria, Jennifer Wexton and Abigail Spanberger, and New Mexico’s Xochitl Torres-Small, all of whom won tough races in red or purple districts. They prevailed because of their skill and hard work, but also based on the power of their passionate pragmatism. They found a way to unite the committed base and the skeptical swing voters, which is what Democrats must do in 2020 to win or keep their majorities and to take back the White House from its worst-ever occupant.

Cowan is president and Bennett is executive vice president of Third Way, a think tank. Both served in the Clinton administration.