Members Only | June 12, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Is ‘Overreach’ Dead?

A change in conventional wisdom might liberate Democrats.

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The conventional wisdom does not turn often but when it does, it’s wow.

The conventional wisdom, or the CW, used to warn the Democratic Party against moving too far left for fear of handing victory next year to Donald Trump.

Pick someone safe, the CW said—someone “moderate” and “electable.” But something is happening now. The CW is turning, and “overreach” may no longer be a thing.

Trump’s clearest path to victory relies on Democrats making a series of self-destructive decisions. But even if Democrats turn leftward and nominate a weak challenger, they’d still have a credible chance at unseating Trump. The country’s rampant polarization guarantees that anyone—no matter how extreme—would be well-positioned against the president. …

All the Democratic overreach may not matter. Presidential reelection campaigns are fundamentally about the incumbent’s performance in office. As much as he wants, Trump can’t effectively use the slogan “make America great again” for 2020. He’ll need to run on his record, not just on the deficiencies of the challenger. …

As long as they avoid the extremist temptation, they’ll be heavily favored to win the presidency. And even if they don’t, they still have a fighting chance (italics mine).

That’s from Josh Kraushaar. He’s the political editor of National Journal. Kraushaar and the Journal are as middle-of-the-road as one can be. He and it are therefore pretty good indicators of what Washington elites believe to be true. About the only way for the above quote to be more amazing is if it came out of the mouth of someone more in sync with Washington’s elite, like NPR’s Cokie Roberts or NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

Still, it’s amazing, and we should appreciate it. Kraushaar was among the first to warn the Democrats that going too far left was a sure way to lose. He and others said this not because they are smarter than the rest of us (though they are smart), but because that’s what the CW has been for years. Sure, Trump’s 2016 victory was, for most of us, the clearest sign yet of centrism’s death, but the CW is a stubborn thing. It’s always a little behind current events, and it can become even more entrenched the more it’s challenged. So the fact that it appears to be changing is, seriously, wow.

I don’t want to overstate this change, but if it’s true that Democrats no longer need to worry about “electability” and “moderation” and “centrism” and all the rest of that nonsense, they might be liberated in ways never seen in my lifetime.

If the CW is changing, the Democrats can stop being cautious and start being aggressive. (Yes, many of us have been making the case for aggression but those arguments were marginal. They now appear to be taking hold of the center.)

Put another way, the Democrats can pick a cold-blooded partisan with whom, as Bloomberg’s Karl Smith convincingly argued, they can put America back together.

Yes, [Joe] Biden inspires respect across the aisle and is well-liked generally; he really does seem like the kind of person who could bring the country together. Because of America’s unique constitutional and political arrangements, however, a Biden campaign and presidency is more likely to drive the country further apart. …

There is, however, a way out of this dilemma, and for the country to begin the process of political healing: The Democrats should pick an unabashedly partisan candidate. That gives [congressional] moderates some space to operate. A socially moderate but free-market Republican could credibly claim to prefer Trump to, say, Bernie Sanders, while being deeply uncomfortable with both. …

Congress needs more [moderates] on the Republican side — and the way to get them is for the Democrats to eschew feel-good bipartisanship and elect a fire-breathing liberal. Joe Biden is by all accounts a great guy and seems to genuinely believe in reaching across the aisle. But he’s not what the Democrats, or the U.S., needs right now.

Unvarnished partisanship has campaign merit, too. Consider this familiar but tired question: Should the Democrats fight for so-called Obama-Trump voters (people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, then Trump in 2016) or should the party stop futzing with the margins and start driving out millions of people who don’t normally vote?

As long as the CW warned against going too far left, the answer was clear: reclaim Obama-Trump voters. But if the CW is turning, and the Democrats can win “no matter how extreme the nominee is, that might lead elites to see the wisdom of partisanship. It’s no longer an impediment. Indeed, it may be a concrete strategy for winning.

Again, I don’t want to overstate this turn in the CW. And anyway, there are still obstacles aplenty. States vote for presidents, not people. National polling can, therefore, mask state-level realities. Trump is unpopular, sure, but he’s still the president. That’s a built-in advantage. And Kremlin operatives are not going to stop sabotaging Democrats, not after their last investment paid off so handsomely.

Still, Kraushaar is right. Trump is weak. Polarization is strong. The Democrats have a fighting chance. And happily, the conventional wisdom may be turning.

Two cheers for small victories!

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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