What Sort of President Can Most Advance Progressive Causes?

Maybe not the one you think: When all you do is pitch to your base, it turns out no one else has much to gain by playing ball with you.

A more moderate president doesn’t mean progressive momentum dies.

Illustration by CSA Images/Getty Images

Something funny is happening on the way to the 2020 presidential election. Despite all the attention young female progressives in Congress are getting, the top-polling Democratic presidential candidate is former Vice President Joe Biden.

In the field of 24 Democratic candidates, Biden is arguably one of the least liberal contenders, and brings with him a set of baggage that mortifies progressives, including his unwelcome touching of women, his apparent belief that the current Republican Party can be reasoned with, and his general tendency of opening his mouth only to switch feet.

As of May 28, Real Clear Politics’ collection of six major polls all have Biden leading the Democratic pack by an average of 17 points, 34.7 to Sanders’ 17.7 points and distant-third-place Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 9.8 points. In South Carolina, a key early primary state whose Democratic voters are mostly Black, Biden led Sanders 46 to 15, according to a recent Post and Courier-Change Research poll).

We could go digging for answers in the data, but the more interesting exercise might be to play out what a centrist President Biden could mean for progressive politics.

A President Bernie Sanders or a President Elizabeth Warren or one of the other candidates on the left end of the spectrum certainly would best serve social justice and progressive values. Right?

Maybe, but maybe not.

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A more-nuanced analysis shows the Democratic Party, like all modern political parties, is a coalition of diverse interest groups. There are progressives calling for universal health care and stronger social safety nets, there are those focusing on climate change, there are Black voters looking for representation and historical justice, there are Latino voters in border states who are uncertain that Democrats represent their interests amid an immigration crackdown, there are Silicon Valley tech workers and Midwestern labor unionists, there’s a peace wing but also national security hawks who emphasize geopolitical threats posed by Russia and China to Western liberalism.

The New York Times reported in April that, contrary to the very outspoken progressives on social media, the broader Democratic electorate is a lot more moderate—the Twitterati are outnumbered almost 2 to 1, in fact. About one-quarter of Democrats identify as “ideologically consistent progressives,” and only a tenth might identify as Democratic socialists, the Times found. It’s not difficult to extrapolate that Biden could win the nomination on those numbers alone.

The congressional makeup of the Democratic Caucus is similarly diverse. The 2018 midterm election flipped 40 seats in the House of Representatives. This was seen as a progressive victory, but it wasn’t entirely. There were a total of 67 Democratic freshmen representatives elected that year. According to Progressive Punch, which ranks elected officials by their voting records, only 18 of the newcomers are ranked among the top 40 most-progressive members in the caucus.

That doesn’t mean that anyone not in the top 40 isn’t progressive. But the representative ranked as the 40th most progressive is none other than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who frequently gets tarnished with that most unenviable of monikers, “establishment politician,” and has been criticized in her own caucus for not aggressively pursuing impeachment proceedings against President Trump.

It’s still the party of liberals and progressives, but in reality, it’s a moderate-liberal party.

When all you do is pitch to your base, it turns out no one else has much to gain by playing ball with you.

While progressives are most visibly represented by headline favorite New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a far more typical example of the new congressional class is Harley Rouda, a former Republican who now represents California’s 48th District in conservative Orange County, which was recently held by Republican Dana Rohrabacher, a Trump loyalist known mostly for his parroting of the Russian government’s policy preferences. Rouda ranks 142nd on Progressive Punch’s list, out of a caucus of 235.

If there’s anything we can learn from Trump’s first years in office, it’s this: Leading from the extremes isn’t very effective for getting stuff done. Most of Trump’s “accomplishments” have come from a slew of executive orders—many of which have been quickly challenged and overturned in court. There has been almost no significant legislation passed—Trump’s budget proposals arrive dead in the water, every other week is Infrastructure Week except nothing ever happens, and his Big Beautiful Wall remains unfunded and unbuilt.

When all you do is pitch to your base, it turns out no one else has much to gain by playing ball with you.

Consider a moderate president like Barack Obama and you see a longer string of legislative accomplishments, including the Affordable Care Act, which is the closest thing the United States has ever had to universal health care. Obama’s liberal reputation had more to do with his embodying progressive dreams as the first Black president than with his track record of legislation. He was a compromiser and led a diverse coalition the way you would expect a diverse coalition to be led: not by insisting everyone kowtow to him and his plans, but by working with Congress and taking part in the back-and-forth of the legislative process that gives some and wins some.

Even John F. Kennedy, a young liberal at heart, routinely had to work with more conservative Southern Democrats to get legislation passed. While he managed a few liberal successes in raising the minimum wage and anti-poverty programs in Appalachia, his civil rights initiatives were lackluster and bogged down in Congress. By contrast, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was a moderate, older Texas Protestant and machine politician, but it was he who ushered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress, enacted the Great Society programs (such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act) and the War on Poverty.

A more moderate president doesn’t mean progressive momentum dies.

Apparently, deal-making is a required skill for a president to make change happen.

So look back at the field of 24 candidates, from Biden and Sanders on down to the (let’s be realistic) also-rans polling at less than 1 percent, such as New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, progressive activist Marianne Williamson, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Who could be an effective leader of an unruly coalition government that includes everyone from Ocasio-Cortez to Pelosi to Rouda and even to some more sensible members of the Republican caucus, like Rep. Justin Amash, who recently broke ranks to call for Trump’s impeachment?

If it came down to it, could a progressive president like Sanders pull that diverse caucus to the far left to enact his projects, or would the more-centrist Democrats peel away? On the other hand, would that diverse caucus with a vocal progressive minority help pull a moderate like Joe Biden further to the left—especially if Pelosi makes good on her promise to bring in new party leadership in the next Congress? Which candidate would be more likely to get stuff done—maybe not everything on the progressive wish list, but a lot of stuff that’s pretty good?

A more moderate president doesn’t mean progressive momentum dies; it just means most people aren’t ready for a revolution. But they might be persuaded to support some revolutionary ideas.

There’s more to running a country than the person in the White House. The Democratic Party, at least, isn’t remaking itself into an autocratic party driven by one person at the top. It’s going to continue to be messy, but that may be its saving grace.


Correction, 5/30/19: An earlier version of this story misinterpreted a poll about the favorability ratings of candidates. That information has been removed, as it was also somewhat beside the point.