At a centrist Democrats’ conference in Columbus, Ohio, the burning question was how to create an economic message that could beat two people in 2020 who have crystal clear economic messages: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
When it came to who they hoped would run for president on that vision, though, many of the moderate Democrats in attendance had the same answer.
“No idea,” one strategist said.
“I’m not sure that I can think of anyone yet,” said another.
“No one,” said one state politician. “I’m serious.”
Ahead of what is likely to be a battle over the ideological future of the Democratic Party, the progressive left is bursting with candidates who bring big names, hefty donor bases, huge email lists, and a host of big, progressive ideas.
Centrist Democrats are eager to take on the party’s ideological left. But nearly 30 years after Bill Clinton won with an explicitly moderate brand of Democratic politics, they are smaller in number, and in a sign of just how much the Democratic Party has changed in the last five years, they're explicitly defining themselves in response to a democratic socialist from Vermont. They’re still searching for their message — and their messengers.
At the presidential election–focused “Opportunity 2020” conference, hosted by the center-left think tank Third Way, there wasn’t much in the way of presidential candidates. The featured speakers were currently much lower key players in the increasingly serious field of prospective Democratic contenders — Jason Kander, who just announced his run for mayor of Kansas City, Missouri; Virginia Sen. Mark Warner; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.
The lineup at the ultra-progressive Netroots Nation conference this August, by contrast, will be crowded with expected Democratic contenders: Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, plus rising stars like 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
They’re likely to tout sweeping economic ideas at that event: things like Medicare for All, guaranteed federal jobs, a nationwide $15-an-hour minimum wage, and free public college.
When it comes to moderate voices in the 2020 election, “I think there is a risk that they get drowned out,” said Rep. Jim Himes, of Connecticut, who chairs the House’s moderate Democrat caucus, the New Dems. “There’s a lot of volume and emotion and energy around the more activist wing of our party.”
Third Way convened the conference in Columbus, a collection of moderates from Washington, DC, and 20 mostly purple states, as a strategy session to figure out how to counter that loud, energetic wing.
Third Way pitched conference-goers on a Democratic message of opportunity — an economic vision that the group believes will resonate more strongly with voters, particularly independents, than Sanders’ or Trump’s. The idea, Third Way argued, is to address economic anxiety that persists despite a booming stock market with an emphasis on creating jobs, apprenticeships, and the social safety net — without resorting to anger, resentment, or talk of a rigged system.
The key for Democrats, many at the conference said, is to make sure those opportunities are built for all Americans — reaching beyond the urban areas where the party, in recent years, has been increasingly confined, and enabling young people to stay in the communities where they grew up.
Third Way’s polling shows an advantage over what it called the "Sanders-style message" — 46% of voters said the government’s focus should be on “policies that spread opportunity to more people and places,” compared to 25% who said “policies that address income inequality.”
“Right now the only narrative we’re getting is from the far left,” said Jack Markell, the former governor of Delaware. “It’s important that we have this debate in the party.”
But the Opportunity Democrats’ big ideas — carefully constructed, polled on, and laid out by Third Way in Columbus — are not nearly as big as the far left’s, though that’s partly by design. There’s a venture-capital-like bank that will lend on a massive scale to underserved areas, an apprentice program modeled in part after land-grant colleges, a universal private retirement fund. Also, an Americorps-like program for retirees, called “Boomer Corps.”
Sanders loomed over much of the conference in Columbus — as an adversary, a comparison point, and, in some ways, as an inspiration.
“To his credit, Bernie has offered something that is coherent, and big, and is very well-known,” said Matt Bennett, Third Way’s vice president of public affairs. “If you walked out on the street of Columbus, 6 of 10 people could tell you what Bernie’s economic vision is.”
There is a pervasive narrative that the energy in the Democratic Party is mostly among progressives. That’s true particularly when it comes to the looming 2020 presidential election, where most of the party’s buzzed-about contenders, from Harris to Warren to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, have spent their time in the Senate outdoing each other to come out in support of what are traditionally considered very liberal policies on economics.
“It’s accurate to say most of the energy on Twitter is on the far left, and a lot of the energy in Washington is on the far left,” Bennett said. But he believes many are inaccurately conflating the energized Democratic base with Bernie Sanders supporters.
“If you go talk to the resistance, the likelihood is that they voted for Hillary, and they hate Trump to the bottom of their soul," he said. "That doesn’t mean they want a [$15] national minimum wage.”
Moderates in Columbus argued that they own most of Democrats’ recent high-profile victories, from Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania to Doug Jones in Alabama. With just a few exceptions, their centrist candidates have steadily beaten out more progressive opponents in Middle America, running on ideas like fixing the Affordable Care Act rather than moving to a single-payer system, and many of them have consistently outraised the incumbents they’re challenging.
But without a forceful, moderate messenger, none of that may matter in the 2020 election.
One name that Democrats in Columbus did, occasionally, offer: former vice president Joe Biden, who has been publicly mulling a presidential run. Jeff Danielson, a state senator from Iowa, said at first that there was “no one” he was excited about when it came to 2020. But Biden, if he would agree to run, was an exception, Danielson said.
“Elderly white men are not necessarily what’s popular in our party right now,” Danielson conceded. “But I think that there will be a shift in the moment. Voters are going to look for stability, and I think he embodies that.”
Others said they were excited by state-level politicians: mayors like Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, and Los Angeles’ Eric Garcetti, and governors like Deval Patrick, Steve Bullock, and John Hickenlooper. (Bullock, considered to be more moderate, is nonetheless speaking at the progressive Netroots in August.)
Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois moderate who carried a district Donald Trump won handily, said she’d heard a marked shift in the most important issue people brought up to her in the supermarket aisles of her district. For years, she said, it was jobs and the economy; then, for a year, it was health care.
Now, she said, the refrain is simply: “Just get something done. I’m tired of all the fighting.”
Governors and mayors like Bullock and Garcetti are a remedy to that frustration: working in smaller confines and freed from the snarl of Washington, they have a long and detailed record of accomplishments to point to.
But even as they crafted their message in Columbus through polling, strategy sessions, and debate, attendees were aware that, especially against Trump, there’s a necessary piece they’re still searching for.
“How do we compete with ‘we’re bringing the coal mines back’?” said Himes, the Connecticut congress member. “We’re not suited to lying to the American people, and we’re not naturally arbiters of emotion and anger, and so how we tell our story in a way that makes people want to mount the barricades is, I think, one of the biggest challenges that we have. And I’m not sure, sitting here today, that I have the answer to that.”
Jack Markell is the former governor of Delaware. A previous version of this story misstated his position.