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Altitude

One Big Thing the Dems Get Wrong About Warren

The political establishment loves the center. But it’s the radicals who end up writing history.

Welcome to Altitude, a new column by POLITICO founding editor John Harris, offering weekly perspective on politics in a moment of radical disruption.

Washington journalists these days are having many conversations with Democratic operatives and veterans of previous administrations that go something like this:

This is insane. Our party has a death wish. We are going to blow this election and give the country four more years of Donald Trump.

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These downbeat Democrats are talking generally about what they regard as their party’s dangerous lurch to the left in the 2020 campaign. Most often these days they are talking specifically about Elizabeth Warren. And they are talking even more specifically about her embrace of mandatory “Medicare for All.” By these lights: The plan is wildly expensive, unrealistic, frightening to moderate voters in key swing states who want to dump Trump but need reassurance before empowering a liberal in the Oval Office.

It’s awkward to admit—would you want a loved one to date a “Democratic operative”?—but what these cynics and hacks and bed-wetters say makes sense to me. With the stakes so high in 2020, why wouldn’t Democrats play it safe? With Trump becoming more divisive by the day in positions and rhetoric, why wouldn’t Democrats run as uniters? Why not try to own the center?

There are strong answers to these why-not questions. But it is the questions themselves—the fact that they seem so obvious to someone like me—that are relevant here.

The right has been fulminating for decades about liberal bias in the media. More recently the left, including Bernie Sanders, has inveighed against capitalist bias caused by corporate ownership of news organizations.

Meanwhile, a quarter-century covering national politics has convinced me that the more pervasive force shaping coverage of Washington and elections is what might be thought of as centrist bias, flowing from reporters and sources alike. It is a headwind for Warren, Sanders, the “squad” on Capitol Hill, even for Trump. This bias is marked by an instinctual suspicion of anything suggesting ideological zealotry, an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.

A confession: I’ve got it. A pretty strong bout, actually.

I am not terribly self-conscious about my predispositions to see politics and governance a certain way. These wouldn’t be my predispositions if I didn’t think they had something going for them. But the recognition of bias imposes an obligation to push against default thinking and explore the possibility that it is wrong.

Here’s the main reason it might be wrong: The most consequential history is usually not driven by the center.

As Bill Clinton began his second term, before the eruption of the sex scandal, he spoke frequently of his desire to be a national unifier, and, quoting Scripture, a “repairer of the breach.”

One skeptic was the great 20th century historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who knew and liked Clinton, but was deeply wary of middle-of-the-road politics. “Great presidents,” he told me, “are unifiers mostly in retrospect.”

In their own times, he noted, they divide the country over large questions—slavery, civil rights, the proper role of government versus the private sector—and only later “unite the country at a new level of understanding.”

It is clear that Warren, who has so far run the most disruptive and effective campaign of the Democratic race, is ready to divide the country and her party over the proposition that a much more aggressive role for government is needed to bring business to heel and protect individuals and the global climate from the predations of a free market. Sanders has won a corps of devoted backers animated by the same disdain for centrism.

After a dozen years as POLITICO editor-in-chief, I’ve shaken off that title and daily management to take on a new column. We are calling it “Altitude,” not because I think my vision is superior to other people’s but as an aspiration. There is usually historical context to even the most startling developments, if one climbs above the smoke of the nonstop Washington fire to see it.

As an illustration, let the mind go to an equivalent moment in the 1980 campaign. There was an equivalent cadre of Republican operatives and amplifiers in the news media stewing that the GOP might have a death wish—that beating Jimmy Carter should be simple if the party would nominate a sensible voice from the center like John Connally, Howard Baker or George H.W. Bush but instead might blow it by nominating a conservative zealot like Ronald Reagan.

The political and policy consequences of Reagan’s challenge to the centrist assumptions of that era still echo (with increasing faintness) four decades later.

I’m not saying that familiar Democratic voices like Rahm Emanuel (“Someone needs to say it: Medicare for All is a pipedream”) or Bill Galston (her new plan may be “the longest suicide note in recorded history”) or Steve Rattner (“a Warren presidency is a terrifying prospect”) are wrong. I am asking how they are so sure they are right.

Recall that in 2008 Barack Obama was opposed to gay marriage and an individual mandate to carry health insurance. Reparations for the descendants of slaves, backed by several 2020 candidates, was not simply a controversial idea but one outside the bounds of mainstream politics. On government’s role in health care, a wealth tax, decriminalizing illegal border crossings and other issues, even self-described moderates are well to the left of anything Obama considered safe. It’s not that the centrists of the past 20 years are right or wrong so much as irrelevant once history starts to gallop.

Here’s something I’ve long believed—more or less—that many in Washington media and operative classes in both parties also believe. For all the talk of “polarization,” if you sent delegations of high-level Washington Democrats and Republicans to a secret retreat (say, to Andrews Air Force Base) and all sides were insulated from backlash from their party’s own activists, this group would not have an especially difficult time striking a comprehensive agreement on immigration reform, or modifying Obamacare, or a long-term budget accord. David Gergen would approve.

Here’s why, over the years, that more-or-less belief has shifted from more to less. Fundamental societal change comes from people burning with grievances, obsessed with remedies, ready to demolish old power arrangements to achieve their ends.

What’s more, a fair appraisal of the past generation has to acknowledge that bipartisan assumptions in the Washington governing class and establishment media are at least partially complicit in some of the largest policy debacles of the past generation (bogus assumptions before the Iraq War, the 2008 financial meltdown). On politics, candidates who were most attuned to the purported wisdom of the Washington operative class were thwarted in the fight for power on multiple occasions when the consequences were huge (the 2000 presidential election, the 2016 GOP primary and general election).

People who don’t share my centrist disposition do not have a death wish. They just have a different idea of how a new governing order comes to life.

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