In the fall of 1968 when I was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri I engaged in a discussion with friends about who to support in the upcoming presidential election. That Spring I had been a “clean for Gene” person supporting Gene McCarthy, the anti-war candidate whose results in the New Hampshire primary caused Lyndon Johnson to declare he wouldn’t run again. Some of my friends had gone to Chicago to the Democratic Convention that summer to protest against who would eventually be the nominee—Hubert Humphrey. “Dump the Hump” was the battle cry. Now in the general election the choice was between HHH and Nixon. Friends saw HHH as being too close to Johnson’s war policies, even though he tried to distance himself from the Vietnam War direction. Even though HHH had a long liberal record, he was too tainted for my purist friends to support. I told them to get over it and vote for Humphrey, or else end up with Tricky Dick. We know how that turned out.
In 1972 the Democrats nominated left-leaning George McGovern. We know how that turned out as well.
Fast forward to the midterms of 2018. A blue wave of progressive Democrats took over the House, clamoring for all kinds of progressive legislation—The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, etc. Now there is a growing field of Democrat candidates who the press is quick to categorize as leaning left progressives, or more middle of the road moderates. When asked about this diversity, and potential schism, they talk about how the Democratic Party is a “big tent”. To some it is more like a Big Top Circus.
Paul Wellstone once said he represented the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party. A clever way of saying he adhered to progressive principles. Bill Clinton was elected as a “new Democrat” by playing the middle game. I’ve heard it said that the only things in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos. I guess Bill proved them wrong.
So it boils down to the perennial debate in the party—to go full progressive, “Pro”, or more middle of the road moderate, “Mod”? There may still be a few conservative Democrats, but if so, they are on the margins. So the contrast breaks down like this:
The “Pro” argument: People are ready for bold change. They believe the system is rigged for the one percent. They look at the tax cut and wonder where the hell is my trickle down? The majority believes in common sense gun safety laws, in climate change, and equal rights. They also see health care as a primary issue, and are warming up to Medicare for All. The recent midterms show that a progressive plank can win. Enough of accommodation—go for it!
The “Mod” argument: Donald Trump is licking his chops hoping that a left-leaning candidate will emerge so he can yell “socialist”! Middle America will cringe and also recoil against what they see as more taxes and government control. The progressives are too wild and Ma and Pa ain’t there yet. We need someone who can promote sensible policies without scaring away the great majority. A moderate has the best chance to beat Trump.
Time will tell which way the wind will blow. If history is our guide a case can be made for either camp. In the meantime we’ll all tune in on the news for the latest outrage and wonder how did we get here and where are we going?