Should Democrats Recruit Pragmatists or Progressives?

Stuart Rothenberg May 16, 2017 · 8:55 AM EDT

A Republican friend of mine recently argued Democrats need to run candidates like former congressman Heath Shuler if they are going to become competitive again as a national party. The Democrats, he insisted, are just too liberal, especially culturally, to win where they must.

Given the Democrats’ ongoing debate over ideology, pragmatism and strategy, the mention of Shuler, a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who represented western North Carolina in the House from 2007 to 2013, got me thinking about where both parties stand.

The Democratic Party is widely portrayed – by Republicans, journalists and even some Democrats – as in a death spiral. The GOP controls Congress, most governorships and a majority of state legislatures. A Democrat no longer sits in the Oval Office, and for the first time in many years the Republican presidential nominee carried Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

And to make matters worse, Democrats can’t figure out whether the party needs to move to the center – to attract more swing voters and moderates – or to the left – to draw a sharper contrast with the GOP and energize Bernie Sanders voters.

Democrats certainly have challenges right now, but their greatest problem is not numbers but distribution. 

The Democratic presidential nominee has won a plurality of the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections, going back to 1992. Only in 2004 did the Republican win a plurality.

Hillary Clinton won 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump, but her voters were clustered in relatively few congressional districts and states.

She won only three of the ten most populous states – California, New York and Illinois – yet her total margin in those states, about 6.9 million votes, was more than three times Donald Trump’s 1.8 million vote margin from his seven largest states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Michigan.

Indeed, Clinton’s margin in California alone,  almost 4.3 million votes, was double Trump’s total margin in his seven most populous states.

It isn’t news that many Democratic votes are “wasted,” but that doesn’t require a complete remaking on the party. 

The question is, given the realities of this political landscape, what kinds of candidates should Democrats nominate up and down the ballot? 

Count me as skeptical that Democrats will or even could nominate a new round of Heath Shulers.

Shuler was a good fit for his district, as were Tennessee Democratic Reps. Lincoln Davis (2003-2011), Bart Gordon (1985-2011) and John Tanner (1989-2011), North Carolina’s Mike McIntyre (1997-2015), Pennsylvania’s Jason Altmire (2007-2013) and South Carolina’s John Spratt (1995-2007). All were either moderate or conservative Democrats.

But times have changed. Our broad-based parties have morphed into rigidly ideological ones, which means we probably have seen the end of truly “conservative” Democrats and “liberal” Republicans. Democratic donors and primary voters are not likely to support many Heath Shulers these days.

And yet, that doesn’t mean the situation is as bleak for Democrats as my Republican friend suggests. After all, it’s not as if the GOP is doing so well today because it has moved to the center or broadened its appeal over the past few decades. Not at all. Republicans are in control of the House and the Oval Office in spite of their move right

There is plenty of evidence that the GOP is not positioned ideologically any better than the Democrats.

The April 17-20 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 50 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Planned Parenthood compared to only 28 percent who didn’t. Former President Obama’s name identification stood at 52 percent positive/33 percent negative, far better than President Trump’s.

A clear majority, 57 percent, said that “Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people,” while only 39 percent said government is doing too many things “better left to businesses and individuals.”

The same survey found two in three respondents said that climate change is a problem and some action is necessary, while one-third was skeptical about the need for change or said concern about climate change is unwarranted.

The April 5-11 Pew Research Center survey found the GOP had a clear advantage as the party better able to handle the terrorist threat and very small advantages on gun policy, trade, taxes and the economy. Democrats, on the other hand, had substantial advantages on government spending, immigration, foreign policy, education, health care, abortion and the environment.

Of course, polls don’t tell the whole story. Elections are not merely referenda on issues. Ultimately, campaigns are about dictating the terms of an election.

Ronald Reagan satisfied concerns about his judgment enough to make the 1980 election about Jimmy Carter. Obama made the 2012 election about a caricature of Mitt Romney. Donald Trump won because he made the election (for a handful of people in a few states) about Hillary Clinton.

It sounds simple, but Democrats need to nominate candidates who are personally appealing, can raise money, can put together quality campaigns and, most importantly, can win the argument over what the 2018 and 2020 elections are about. 

Obviously, each district and state is different, as is each election cycle. 

Next year, Democrats have an opportunity to tap discontentment with the president. Trump voters are not fleeing from him now – did anyone really think that they would after less than four months? -- but a year from now, things may be different. 

There is no “right” answer about whether Democrats should move to the center or stake out positions even further to the left than they are now. It all depends on the district’s or state’s voters, on the particular candidates and on the national political environment.

In more conservative districts, particularly in rural and suburban areas, Democratic nominees should establish their differences with their national party and their pragmatism, all the while talking about core liberal values (tolerance, opportunity, economic growth and community) that have broad appeal. But in other districts, Democrats ought to adopt more liberal positions to motivate the base and draw sharper contrasts with the GOP.

It’s tempting to make every campaign into a stark, ideological choice, and my colleagues in journalism certainly tend to do that. But voters don’t always see elections that way – at least not the swing voters in swing districts who ultimately decide which party controls Congress.

Both parties have pushed to the ideological extremes, but the GOP benefited from eight years of Obama, when they could run campaigns against him and his ideology. Now, Democrats have the same opportunity. They will limit their gains if they run only on ideology and against the “big banks,” “millionaires and billionaires” and “opponents of women’s rights.” 

None of this means that Democrats in the most conservative areas will have the successes that Shuler or McIntyre once had. That is not likely to happen, even if the Democrats run personable, more pragmatic nominees. Rural areas will remain a problem for Democrats until at least the next post-redistricting census. 

But long-term demographics are still likely to benefit the Democratic Party. Republicans ought not forget that – or how and why they made gains over the last decade. Because, in a few years, GOP strategists will likely have to deal with the same questions that are now dogging Democrats.