Since at least the Bill Clinton era, a simple ontology of liberal politics has prevailed among the kinds of people who tend to advise centrist Democratic politicians and get paid to discuss politics on cable TV. Simply stated, the theory is that Democrats win when they run and govern from the center and lose when pulled too far to the left. The “center,” or so the story goes, is where most Democratic voters are generally found. The “Left,” meanwhile, consists of activists and ideologues whose raison d’être generally involves pushing chimerical slogans, policies, and schemes that run afoul of the bread-and-butter or kitchen-table issues important to a voting public.
Given the contested and sometimes fluid nature of a term like “centrism” (or, for that matter, the “Left”), this rendering of things leaves us with quite a lot to unpack and plenty of potential avenues for critique. But what’s ultimately so amazing about this fable of US politics is that it remains a kind of ambient wisdom regardless of context, electoral outcomes, or who was actually on the ballot. Thus, when Democrats win, it’s said that the centrist strategic vision has been vindicated; and, when they lose, it’s somehow been vindicated as well.
In a development that should therefore have shocked no one, exactly this kind of argument has been getting airtime since last week’s elections, which among other things saw the Democrats lose a key gubernatorial race in Virginia and suffer a close call in New Jersey. Like clockwork, a chorus of usual suspects quickly emerged to issue a reheated version of the standard centrist explanation for poor Democratic electoral showings — the crux of which is that the party has allowed itself to be pulled away from the center and has lost ground as a result.
The most prominent articulation of this argument has come in the form of an op-ed by former Bill and Hillary Clinton adviser Mark Penn and former New York City Council president Andrew Stein, whose case hinges largely on the claim that the Joe Biden administration has “embraced parts of the Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez playbook.” “If,” they continue, “Democrats remain on their current course and keep coddling and catering to progressives, they could lose as many as 50 seats and control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections.” True to form, the piece is one Penn (who, incidentally, advised Donald Trump) has basically written several times before — and represents the same basic schtick he’s been performing since circa 1994. There’s plenty in the article that might be unpacked here, but this point is worth engaging in isolation because some version of it is almost invariably central to this style of analysis.
In Stein and Penn’s telling, the Biden presidency got off to a strong and characteristically moderate start before being derailed by deference to progressivism — in particular, the suite of policies found in the reconciliation bill currently before Congress. It’s an odd way to characterize the arc of American politics over the past ten months, which have seen Biden’s initial agenda be steadily trimmed at the behest of corporate centrists themselves. If Congress were still discussing a $6 trillion or even a $3.5 trillion package of legislation, or some version of the reconciliation bill had actually passed, the authors might have firmer ground to stand on. As it stands, however, the platform the Democrats originally pitched and officially ran on has been steadily whittled down and is now facing yet another hurdle even in its radically compromised form.
Given this trajectory of events, you might just as easily draw the opposite conclusion from the one drawn by Stein and Penn: i.e., that a significant reason for the Democrats’ current electoral malaise is that they ran on an agenda they have so far failed to enact and have since radically pared down. (Amazingly, the authors don’t even acknowledge the plentiful data indicating significant popular support for key items in the bill.)
Regardless, their contention that Biden has in any way been governing from the left, let alone “coddling” the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, will certainly come as news to many on the Left itself. Since taking office, the administration has steadily narrowed the scope of its official spending plans and policy ambitions. Biden’s proposed public option, supposedly representing the moderate and sailable alternative to Medicare for All, has barely even been mentioned. Despite an explicit pledge to raise the minimum wage, Democratic lawmakers were unwilling to overrule an unelected parliamentary referee in order to give millions of workers a raise. While Biden promised to reign in drilling on federal lands, the approval of drilling permits has spiked to levels not seen since George W. Bush was president. Though leading Democrats speak as if democracy is in peril, the administration is positively nowhere on the crucial issue of voting rights. Amid a significant upsurge in labor militancy, Biden is nowhere to be found.
The preceding represents only a partial list. In any case, however one decides to account for the Democrats’ recent electoral outcomes, it’s farcical to contend that the administration has spent an inordinate amount of time or energy pandering to the Left. As is so often the case, centrist pundits and consultants are quite misleadingly conflating their own ideological preferences with hardheaded strategic calculus — and, in this case, are enlisting an imaginary progressive presidency to do it.