Centrists: Chill Out

By Mike Koetting March 20, 2019

Inevitably, people are starting to talk about 2020.

Prickly City by Scott Stantis

Many people I know—which is to say older people who will under absolutely no circumstances vote for Trump—are worrying that the Democrats are tending too far left. My advice: “Chill out!’ And It’s not just that this is all ridiculously far-way—although it is. Unless the Democrats lose their collective mind, I am not worried by this.

I consider myself progressive, but more of a gradualist. I supported Clinton over Sanders. I have many concerns about the policies proposed by those further to the left. But so what? As economist Brad DeLong points out (in a fabulous Vox interview by Zack Beauchamp, strongly recommended): “The baton rightly passes to our colleagues on our left. We are still here, but it is not our time to lead.”

I think there are two issues in play, how someone would govern and whether they could be elected.


From a governance standpoint, there really isn’t much place for centrists in today’s political landscape. Centrist proposals require someone to compromise with. But there’s no one there. As DeLong, who describes himself as a “Rubin Democrat,” puts it:

There is no allegiance to truth or anything other than the fact Republican leaders have decided on scorched earth, and other Republicans will back them to the hilt. Today, there’s literally nobody on the right between those frantically accommodating Donald Trump, on the one hand, and us on the other.

David Atkins, in The American Prospect is even blunter. He argues that the problems facing America—particularly the environment and income maldistribution—are so serious that we are simply kidding ourselves to pretend that we could ever achieve what is in fact necessary by waiting for Republican compromises. Atkins argues that centrist arguments about what is “realistic” are irrelevant, because their ideas of what is “realistic” are not commensurate with the size of the problems:

Any “solution” that would realistically get the vote of even a single Republican senator wouldn’t come close to doing what the moment actually requires.

These analyses strike me as accurate. Democratic centrism has become a form of negotiating with ourselves for compromises that will never come. We saw this in the Affordable Care Act. The ACA had been the Republican plan for the previous 20 years. But they were unwilling to put a single vote on it and have spent the last nine years relentlessly attacking it…on what basis it is not even a little clear.

While voters may understand this dynamic, maybe this argument won’t sway voters who long for the idea of unity and compromise. So we need to consider: do more or less progressive candidates change the odds of getting a Democratic administration? Hard to say. But at this point I think more progressive candidates are more likely to increase the odds of winning.


In one dimension, America is now split into three camps, those who will back Trump no matter what, those who will oppose Trump no matter what, and those whose opinions fluctuate. On another dimension, it is split into three groups—those who will definitely vote, those who definitely won’t vote, and those who might or might not. I don’t know how many people will end up in each cell (and I’m sure it’s a moment-to-moment thing).

But there are several things I am confident about. Barring any really surprising turn, the election will be decided by the cells of the below table in pink. Actually, it will be decided by the areas in pink in a small number of states—Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and maybe one or two other states. The remaining states are largely a foregone conclusion—unless one candidate is a complete runaway, which seems like an unlikely guess at this point.

The results in these key states will depend heavily on turn-out among minority populations and young people. It will also depend on the extent to which white voters abandon their respective group trends—anti-Trump for college educated voters and pro-Trump for those without college educations.

I believe if Democrats in these key states can turn-out minority and young voters and take even a splinter out of the non-college educated whites, it will be more than enough to offset any possible loss among college-educated whites who might be worried about more progressive approaches. While polls differ somewhat, Morning Consult shows Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania with substantial disapproval for Trump among registered voters and Florida, Georgia and Arizona as essentially toss-ups. So Democrats have good starting spots in these states.

While even less scientific than polling data, it seems to me that positions further to the left are more likely to attract the voters that Democrats need than more careful centrist proposals. “Medicare for all” is something people can rally around. Incremental improvement of the ACA doesn’t sound to me like something that increases voter turn-out or woos non-college educated whites struggling to cover their health costs. Nor do I expect they will they will say: “Yeah. That would be a good idea but we’re worried about the long run fiscal impact.”

Winning and Governing

What are the centrist arguments against more progressive positions? The first is that it will cost votes from undecided voters. Maybe. But, as I argued above, I think that will be more than offset by the other votes it frees. Remember the electorate is getting younger and more diverse. If young people and minorities vote anywhere near their weight in key states, the Democrats win the presidency.

Well, you might say, that’s fine. But what happens when it’s impossible to deliver on those promises? Or what happens if, worse yet, we try to fully deliver on all those promises.

I concede there are some risks there. I believe those risks are less than the risks of Donald Trump getting re-elected, but I also believe that in their own right they are modest risks. Should Democrats take control of the Presidency and the Senate, and keep the House, there is enough diversity within the party to keep things sane and it’s not as if progressive aims are themselves antithetical to general Democratic sentiment The biggest issues are that they would be too divisive in the rest of the country or that they would break the budget.

It is true that it is hard to get major change adopted if half the country is opposed. But, hard or not, that often seems to be the only way to move forward. From Civil Rights to Reproductive Rights, the changes didn’t happen because everyone in the country believed, but because we made institutional changes that changed people’s attitudes.

About budget issues, for at least the last 50 years, Democrats have shown themselves infinitely more responsible than Republicans. Odds are good that these issues can get sorted out. I don’t see any likelihood that progressive ideas would be get adopted without thorough vetting. As DeLong says:

…We argue with them, to the extent that their policies are going to be wrong and destructive, but also accept that there is no political path to a coalition built from the Rubin-center out. Instead, we accommodate ourselves to those on our left.

One other consideration: In order for Democrats to do any of the things that need doing, they must retake the Senate. Positions with regard to Senate races, as with House races in the last midterm, will need to be considerably more nuanced to local conditions. In many places the arguments that will win Senate seats will be much closer to the center. All the better. That will still take Senate seats away from Republicans and it will help keep Democrats more balanced than Republicans have been.

In sum, I am not worried about Democrats nominating someone “too far to the left”. I am worried about not winning. Our concerns must be around supporting whoever gets nominated. And if that is someone more progressive than I would choose, that’s probably better than okay.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

One thought on “Centrists: Chill Out”

  1. There are still too many Ds, irrespective of their left or center leanings, who think the way to beat M. Petits-Doigts is on the character issue. This is a stone loser; nobody, even his most craven disciples, is in doubt about his character. Somebody needs to start pointing out that his policies are mostly hurting those who have supported him: farmers, small business owners, coal miners, people like that. They need to hear from a usually reliable source not that he has been lying–they know that, and they think it’s cute–but that he has been lying to them. Certainly more likely to work than continually pointing out that he is a dreadful human being, which everyone already knows.

    In any case, the Ds are more likely to be undone by their own stupidly devised mechanism, the binding open primary. Every election cycle, more and more people catch onto the notion of tactical voting, so it becomes always more likely that the most awful available candidate will either get the nomination or muddy the waters for the eventual winner.


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