When Will Moderates Learn Their Lesson?

If centrists can’t move past their doctrine and recognize when their candidates are unelectable, then how will Democrats ever beat Trump?

Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar.
John Locher / AP Images

The two major policy pitches of the Democratic nominee for president of the United States in 1972 were clear: an immediate end to the Vietnam War, and an immediate guarantee of a minimum income for all Americans. George McGovern ran for president that year, but the most progressive Democratic nominee in recent history did not get very far. He suffered the second-largest rout for a Democrat in American Electoral College history.

Incumbent Richard Nixon won 49 states and 520 electoral votes, severely wounding the spirits of countless young progressives. And I don’t think some of them ever fully recovered. “It was a generational defeat,” as BuzzFeed’s Katherine Miller wrote.

Some of these ’70s youngsters licked their wounds in 1972 and carried on with their progressive politics, howling for decades in lonely political winds. Other ’70s youngsters patched themselves up after the McGovern debacle by turning away from progressive policies, and by turning the Democratic Party away from progressive candidates, nurturing a deep cynicism about big, structural change. At the altar of Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution, some ’70s youngsters married themselves to moderation, or to conservatism. It was as if a progressive candidate had been their first love, and she had broken their heart, and they vowed to never, ever give another progressive a chance at breaking their political heart again.

Former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry is one of those ’70s youngsters who “loved” McGovern. Both men were highly decorated veterans who rose to political prominence as anti-war advocates in the early 1970s. When McGovern died in 2012, Kerry called him “a voice of clarity and conviction at a time when America needed it most.”

Kerry has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, a moderate candidate. It is difficult to pinpoint the views that might define a moderate voter, because self-identified moderate voters are all over the ideological map. It is easier to pinpoint the moderate Democratic candidates and all their aides, surrogates, pundits, and donors with megaphones—and all the primary voters consuming and reproducing their talking points. Moderates tend to agree with progressives on the crises of health care, inequality, and climate change, while advocating for gradual remedies that they consider more politically or economically viable. Moderates are largely tailoring campaigns to centrist and Republican voters they believe hold the keys to the White House.

Before this year’s Iowa caucus, Kerry spoke to a small group of ’70s youngsters at a diner in Maquoketa, Iowa. He asked them to apply their “practical common sense” on why progressive candidates can’t win. “If we go back to a 1972 that I remember well, when George McGovern was our nominee,” he said, “we lost 49 states.”

Twelve years later, the Democratic Party again lost 49 states when moderate Democrats nominated former Vice President Walter Mondale over the progressive Jesse Jackson. In 1984, Mondale lost five more electoral votes than McGovern—the worst Electoral College defeat of any Democrat in history. But for many ’70s youngsters moving into middle age, for many of their political children, the loss in 1984 did not cause them to question their new doctrine of the electable moderate and unelectable progressive. They shunned the progressive Jackson again in 1988 and lost big, again.

Moderate Democrats also lost presidential elections in 1980, 2000, 2004, and 2016. Since McGovern, moderate Democrats have a losing record in presidential elections: six losses to the five wins by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama (who ran a more progressive primary campaign than Hillary Clinton in 2008). But this history is lost in discussions of electability. It is as if moderate nominees are undefeated. It is as if the last time a Democrat lost was when the party nominated McGovern in 1972.

Moderate Democrats blame progressive candidates for losses, but they can’t seem to blame moderate candidates for losses. Moderates can’t seem to reflect on the historical electability of their candidates, as they implore progressives to reflect on the historical electability of their candidates. Moderates recognize how progressive candidates alienate certain voters, but they can’t seem to recognize how moderate candidates alienate certain voters. Moderates implore progressives to give moderate candidates a chance, but they can’t seem to give progressive candidates a chance.

Moderate Democrats have been consistently inconsistent for decades. They have been rightfully critical of the prospect of a progressive presidential nominee: A progressive could alienate centrist voters, drive up voting rates among conservatives, and imperil the reelection chances of House Democrats in districts Trump won in 2016. Moderate Democrats have wrongfully refused to be self-critical of the prospect of a moderate presidential nominee: A moderate could alienate progressive voters into not voting or voting third party, drive down the voting rates of the party’s younger and nonwhite base, and fail to win back young or liberal white working-class swing voters who swung from Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016. To be a progressive in a party with a moderate is like being on a team with someone who sees all your deficiencies and does not see any of his own deficiencies, who always takes the credit when he wins, and never accepts blame when he loses.

The critic’s refusal to self-critique is the tragic enigma of the moderate Democrat: It could cost the Democratic Party the most consequential presidential election in recent memory. Moderate Democrats have lost presidential elections again and again, even as the doctrine of the electable moderate wins Democratic primaries again and again.

I not only fear a moderate Democrat losing to Trump in November; I fear moderate Democrats refusing to accept blame for the loss.

My fears are rooted in what the doctrine of the electable moderate conveniently misses: the crucial importance of the other swing voter in swinging elections in the 21st century. The traditional, white swing voter oscillates between voting Republican and Democrat—the be-all and end-all for moderate Democrats. Some Americans never vote. But I worry about the other swing voter, the one who swings between voting Democrat and not voting (or voting third party).

Despite all the talk of the 6 million Obama-to-Trump voters winning the election for Trump, more Obama voters in 2012 swung to not voting (4.4 million) or voting third party (2.3 million) in 2016. These other swing voters were more likely to be younger and people of color—and especially young black people. Today, they are likely to favor progressive candidates. They are likely to be turned off by moderate candidates, turned off by the records of Biden, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar on issues of race and gender.

If Democrats nominate a moderate who loses a decisive mass of young black voters in November, then I suspect most moderates will not blame the party’s choice for Trump’s reelection. I suspect they will blame those other swing voters who swung to not voting.

If Democrats nominate a progressive who loses a decisive mass of white swing voters in November, then I suspect those very same moderates will blame the party’s choice for Trump’s reelection. I suspect they will not blame those white swing voters who swung to Trump. They will blame the progressive nominee for turning them toward Trump. They will repeatedly say they warned progressives of a replay of 1972 if they nominated another McGovern in 2020.

“Warren would be the most liberal nominee since 1972, when George McGovern got a pathetic 37% of the vote,” wrote Steve Chapman, a Chicago Tribune editorial-board member, in a recent column on the candidate’s unelectability. The MSNBC host Chris Matthews, a ’70s youngster, recently invoked McGovern’s rout to explain why Bernie Sanders can’t win. Even an adviser to McGovern in 1972, Marshall Matz, has tried “to sound the alarm” about history repeating itself if the Democrats nominate Sanders. “I do believe that Senator Sanders is too liberal to defeat an incumbent Republican president, especially an incumbent president with a good economy and a huge bankroll.”

Both Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 were incumbents with good economies and huge bankrolls. Both the progressive McGovern and the moderate Mondale lost badly. But where are the moderate Democrats sounding the alarm about Bloomberg or Biden or Buttigieg or Klobuchar being another Mondale, being too moderate to defeat Trump? If moderates can evoke McGovern to warn against a progressive nominee, then why can’t progressives evoke Mondale to warn against a moderate nominee?

For decades, moderate Democrats have repeatedly invoked McGovern’s rout whenever any sort of progressive appears on the political horizon. In recent Democratic primaries, moderates have warned of Howard Dean in 2004, of Barack Obama in 2008, and now, of Warren and Sanders, as the new McGoverns who can’t win.

How are these moderate Democrats running on their electability in 2020 when a moderate Democrat lost to Trump in 2016? How is the electable moderate reborn when it has died so many times in recent presidential elections? Simple: When moderate Democrats lose, they blame everything except the party’s decision to nominate a moderate for president of the United States.

Take the aftermath of the 2016 election. In her memoir, What Happened?, Clinton blamed FBI Director James Comey, Sanders, Russian operatives, sexism, the Green Party nominee Jill Stein, white resentment, the media airtime of Trump and the email scandal, and, bravely, herself. It is undeniable that all of these factors contributed to her defeat. But something even more basic could have been the deciding factor: moderate Democrats nominating Clinton over Sanders. Instead of blaming everyone else, including Clinton, perhaps those Democrats responsible for nominating her should be blaming themselves.

If the roles were reversed, most moderates would almost certainly be imploring progressives to blame themselves. If Sanders had been nominated in 2016, and similar factors contributed to his defeat, then I suspect moderates would not be highlighting all these factors, just as they do not highlight the factors that contributed to McGovern’s loss in 1972. That year, he faced not only a popular incumbent and good economy, but a “dirty tricks” unit that broke into the Watergate complex to wiretap the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Perhaps most terrible, many moderate Democrats either joined old Lyndon B. Johnson allies in “Democrats for Nixon” efforts or simply refused to offer their public support. Polls showed McGovern far behind Nixon except when paired with Senator Ted Kennedy. But Kennedy declined to run with McGovern, as did five other prominent moderates. McGovern had to settle for Senator Thomas Eagleton, who hurt his already poorly run campaign. If moderates can blame progressives for Clinton’s loss in 2016, then progressives can blame moderates for McGovern’s loss in 1972—and progressives can blame moderates for a Sanders loss in 2020 if moderates withhold support again.

If McGovern ran a good campaign, and was not running against a good economy, a popular incumbent, and the “dirty tricks” unit behind Watergate, if Senator Kennedy had run with him and moderate Democrats had rallied around their party’s nominee, then McGovern would have had a fighting chance against Nixon in 1972. But it is clear McGovern was ahead of his time; and perhaps his time, the time of the progressive nominee, is now. Trump is an unpopular incumbent. And the chance of Trump winning the majority of young voters, 18 percent of black voters, and 36 percent of Democrats—as Nixon did in 1972—is slim. And as The New Republic’s Joshua Mound notes, “With each passing decade, the types of voters drawn to McGovern’s 1972 campaign have become a larger and larger share of the American electorate, while the issues championed by McGovern have become more and more salient.”

But these younger voters, these voters of color, these progressive voters of all ages and races, still have to vote. And Nixon’s dirty tricks were trivial compared to all the disinformation and voter suppression to come from the extremely endowed Goliath who sits on his throne above the law. Both a moderate and a progressive Democrat will be able to blame an unrestrained Goliath if they lose in November—to deflect blame from themselves.

But the enigma of the moderate Democrat must end if the Democratic Party hopes to save this nation from Trump. Progressives, too, must be willing to engage in self-critiques. If Sanders or Warren becomes the nominee and loses, then progressives are to blame, not the white centrists who sided with Trump. If Bloomberg or Biden becomes the nominee and loses, then moderates are to blame, not any young people who did not vote.

The campaign story of moderate and progressive Democrats in 2020 is the story of their division. But why can’t they unite in a common willingness to support the other wing’s nominee? Why can’t they unite in a common willingness to look in the mirror if their own nominee loses? Why can’t they unite in a common willingness to admit when their candidates are unelectable? The progressive candidate was probably unelectable in 1972 against Nixon. The moderate candidates are probably unelectable in 2020 against Trump.

If moderates can’t move past their doctrine and recognize when their candidates are unelectable, then how will Democrats ever beat Trump? If Democrats can’t learn to self-critique, then how will they ever be different than Trump?