Government

Some Democrats worry leftward liberal lurch hurts 2020 chances

Voters seem split whether to cheer or cringe over stances

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to a crowd Aug. 11 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. “I do think there are candidates in this race that are lurching way over, and I’m not even sure I can describe it as progressive,” he said in an interview. “It’s just sort of impractical proposals that may sound good on the internet or on social media, but when they come up to living and breathing human beings just don’t make sense as proposals.” (Salwan Georges/Washington Post)
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet speaks to a crowd Aug. 11 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. “I do think there are candidates in this race that are lurching way over, and I’m not even sure I can describe it as progressive,” he said in an interview. “It’s just sort of impractical proposals that may sound good on the internet or on social media, but when they come up to living and breathing human beings just don’t make sense as proposals.” (Salwan Georges/Washington Post)
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DES MOINES — The question is about as old as politics in a democracy itself: Does a political party that moves away from centrist policies toward ideological extremes risk alienating middle-of-the-road voters — and thus losing?

For Democrats in the 2020 presidential election, that debate is not breaking new ground. But the stakes in this election for Democrats amplify its importance.

Democrats are hankering to evict Republican President Donald Trump from the White House. Democratic voters regularly say that when they are surveying their party’s expansive field of candidates, they are looking for someone who can beat Trump.

What they do not agree on is whether some of the Democrats’ presidential candidates, and by extension the primary debate in general, is moving so far to the liberal left that it could wind up hurting the candidate when he or she is facing Trump in the November 2020 election.

Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are staunch proponents of Medicare-for-all, in which the federal government would eliminate private health insurance and create a completely government-run health care system. Beto O’Rourke has proposed a mandatory federal government buyback of military-style assault weapons. Multiple candidates have endorsed reducing illegally crossing the border into the United States to a civil infraction, and providing immigrants in the country illegally access to health insurance.

While these and other policy stances make many Democratic voters cheer, they make other Democrats cringe.

Place Matt Bennett in the latter column.

Bennett is co-founder of Third Way, a Washington, D.C., think tank that promotes, in its words, “modern, center-left ideas.” He was in Iowa recently as part of Third Way’s effort to influence the influencers: people in early caucus or primary states and general election swing states who are connected to campaigns and advocacy groups.

Bennett’s message to Democrats: Don’t go crazy during the primary.

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“And our fear is we’re kind of going crazy,” Bennett said during an interview in Des Moines. “We’re kind of letting Twitter dictate what these candidates are doing and saying. And that’s a terrible idea. And it could imperil us in really significant ways.”

It’s a sentiment shared by some of the candidates in the presidential race themselves.

“I do think there are candidates in this race that are lurching way over, and I’m not even sure I can describe it as progressive. It’s just sort of impractical proposals that may sound good on the internet or on social media, but when they come up to living and breathing human beings just don’t make sense as proposals. And I am worried about the damage that’s doing,” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, one of the presidential candidates, said recently during recording for “Iowa Press” on Iowa Public Television.

“In order to beat Donald Trump, we’re going to have to win some purple states like mine and like (Iowa) and like others around this country,” Bennet said. “And if we’re not aiming for that in the primary ... I learned very early on that you don’t say one thing in a primary and something else in a general election.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who stresses his credential as the only Democratic presidential candidate to win a statewide race in a state won by Trump in 2016, shares Bennet’s concern.

“These debates are disconnected from people’s lives and we have to actually be talking about the challenges people have each and every day,” Bullock said during a recent trip to Iowa.

The Democratic electorate seems divided on how much to worry.

In a September poll from CNN, a plurality of potential primary voters — 49 percent — said they fear nominating a candidate who is too liberal.

And yet many other Democrats say they do not share that concern. Some of them could be found recently at the Polk County Democrats’ Streak Fry, which featured appearances by 17 of the presidential candidates. Some Democrats there said they are comfortable with the policy debates in the primary, and even suggested some candidates could stand to be a little more liberal.

“I’m way far to the left myself, so I’m very happy with that,” said Lou Fenech, of Cedar Falls, who said he likes Warren “a lot” but also likes Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg.

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“I think too many of us worry about that and we compromise and we shift to a center that is shifting further to the (ideological) right,” he said.

Lorae Johnson, of West Des Moines, said she is “good with” the left-leaning debate in the primary field. She even said of Buttigieg, her favorite candidate (she said Warren is a close second), “In fact I think Pete could go a little more to the left.”

Matt Bennett is warning the party and the candidates to be careful to not be too swayed by voters like Lou Fenech and Lorae Johnson.

“The activists who are driving the conversation on Twitter, who are showing up at campaign events a year and a half before anyone votes, they do not speak either for the general electorate but certainly not even for the broader democratic electorate,” Bennett said.

“And that it is very dangerous if our party goes too far to the left. And we can see them leapfrogging each other in an attempt to go to the left in these debates,” he said. ”And we think that’s a really, really dangerous thing.”

Bennett said his analysis is that the key to the 2020 election for Democrats is winning over voters who in 2012 went for former Democratic President Barack Obama but in 2016 for Trump.

“It is very, very possible to persuade Trump voters to come back, or to come for the first time to Democrats, particularly in the suburbs. And it’s a super-high yield bet when you do it,” Bennett said. “Persuasion is the thing that’s going to win this election, and probably it will be Obama-Trump Democrat voters that win the election for Democrats in 2020, if we win. And it will be in those places that we talked about.”

Those places include many Iowa counties along the Mississippi River and the state’s northern border with Minnesota.

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When asked whether the primary is steering the Democratic Party too far to the left, Buttigieg attempted to split the difference, warning against “purity tests” while saying the party still can stand for “bold” ideas.

“But there’s a way to do that that doesn’t just switch off half the American people,” Buttigieg said in an interview. “And that’s going to be really important not just in terms of how to win, but in terms of how to govern.

“If we want to do some of the most ambitious things done in my lifetime or longer around health (care), around guns, around wages, around immigration then we’ve got to keep that American majority on board.”

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