MODERATE DEMOCRATS have had a good few months. They dominated the Democratic primaries ahead of the mid-term elections, duly delivered a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, and have been quietly getting their way there, too. For all the hoopla over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the House agenda looks pragmatic, with a focus on fiscal prudence, infrastructure development and not impeaching President Donald Trump. House Democrats think this approach will keep on board the centrist voters they won last year. That looks like a more promising way to get rid of Mr Trump. So why are the early Democratic runners for next year’s presidential election flocking to the left?
In 2016 Hillary Clinton said Senator Bernie Sanders’s promise of universal state-provided health care could “never, ever come to pass”. Most Democratic candidates in competitive mid-terms races also rejected it. Yet all three heavyweights who have so far declared for 2020—the senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren—are for it. So are several big names expected to announce shortly, including Senator Cory Booker and Mr Sanders himself. Only Ms Warren and Mr Sanders among them have a record of taking populist positions. The rest have leapt to them. Indeed the uniformity of their proposals is striking.
Most offer some version of Mr Sanders’s free college pledge. All are for giving a federal job to whomever wants one, as first suggested by Mr Booker. These proposals are not necessarily crazy; the health-care system is a mess. But the idea that they could form a realistic agenda for a governing system choked by partisanship is absurd. The light-headed fashion in which the early runners are airing their proposals adds to that impression. Slammed on social media for having promised only two years of free college, Julián Castro—once Barack Obama’s centrist housing secretary—shot back that he’d push for four, then. Pressed for her view of private medical insurance, Ms Harris said she’d scrap it. She later tried to walk that back. Yet what was she—what are they all—thinking of?
Ms Ocasio-Cortez, for one. Inspired by the demise of the centralised party structure and the rise of social media, the left-wing activist world she represents has rarely been more vibrant or intimidating to the Democratic establishment. Some compare it to the supercharged activism that pushed the Democrats leftward in the 1930s and 1960s. The alacrity with which Ms Harris and Ms Warren praised Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s signature policy, the Green New Deal, supports that. (So does the fact that a 29-year-old freshman congresswoman is considered to have a signature policy.)
That is one of two structural changes behind the new populism. The other is the growing importance of online fundraising, which most Democratic consultants think requires bold left-wing pledges, especially in a crowded primary field, in which cash-hungry populists will compete to be the boldest. That contest promises, in turn, to make online fundraising even more important to those involved, because it will make Wall Street donors less generous. Ms Warren’s proposed wealth tax on households worth over $50m has already given them something to hate. Still, the effect of these structural factors can be overstated.
As the mid-terms indicate, the activists are not in step with most Democratic voters, who appear more focused on opposing Mr Trump than on remaking the health-care system. Historical comparisons underline this. The leftward lurches of the 1930s and 1960s were also spurred by events, in the form of the Great Depression and the civil-rights struggle, which convinced millions of the need for radical change. There is little evidence that most Democratic voters think today’s more complicated socioeconomic inequities warrant the big expansion of the state that the populist candidates are promising. Even in fairly liberal states such as Colorado, voters have rejected proposals for a single-payer health-care scheme. Mr Sanders’s better-than-expected run in 2016 said more about dissatisfaction with Mrs Clinton than the power of his ideas. This also suggests the consultants may be wrong to demand hard-left pledges for the purpose of fundraising. Of the three past masters of online fundraising, Mr Obama, Beto O’Rourke and Mr Sanders, only the last is an outright left-winger.
The disruptive effect of Mr Trump offers more fundamental explanations for the Democrats’ lurch to the left. Activists think his ideological nonconformity and unpopularity afford them an opportunity to shift the Overton window to the left. Establishment figures such as Mr Booker and Ms Harris still seem mesmerised by his ability to make headline-grabbing pronouncements with which Mrs Clinton could not compete for attention. This seems to underappreciate his subsequent weakness. Over half of voters—roughly the portion the Democratic candidate would need—say they will definitely not vote for him. It is not obvious why such voters, sick of Mr Trump’s antics, would warm to a Democrat offering a different set of implausible promises. “If we try to out-crazy the policy announcements of a troubled president, we will do nothing to restore confidence,” warns Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.
Trumpish or anti-Trump
Trying to improve on Mrs Clinton may be a better strategy—and her proposals were the least of her problems. Voters rejected her because they didn’t like or identify with her, not because her jobs plan was small-bore. The new populists’ reluctance to grapple with that hints at a lack of confidence in their own ability to win voters’ trust. It is surely no coincidence that they represent the main cohort of hated Washington insiders in the contest. More outsiderish candidates—perhaps including Mr O’Rourke, who, like Mr Obama before him, is not primarily associated with Washington despite his time in Congress—may be better at talking to voters without promising them the moon. But there is no sign of them yet. For now the race is dominated by senators offering the moon on a plate, in Swiss cheese, pepper jack, or any other flavour.