Can radical pragmatism win the White House?

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Progressives might not be thrilled about it, but President Joe Biden, who will be the oldest American president to seek re-election, is just the kind of candidate that Democrats need to hold onto the White House and to expand their ranks on Capitol Hill in 2024.

That’s the message from Will Marshall, the president of the Washington D.C.-based Progressive Policy Institute, a think-tank that traces its roots to the old Democratic Leadership Council that leaped to prominence during the Clinton era.

As the party gears up for a 2024 re-election campaign that seems destined to be a repeat of the 2020 contest between Biden and former President Donald Trump, Marshall argues that the party needs to come to the middle if it hopes to win back independents and non-college graduate voters who defected to Trump in 2020.

Marshall recently took a few minutes to speak about the 2024 campaign, the issues that motivate voters, and why a message of “radical pragmatism” might just be what the nation needs right now.

Q: First up, for people who don’t know, what is the Progressive Policy Institute? And what do you mean when you talk about “radical pragmatism?”

Marshall: PPI is a center-left think-tank that’s been around for more than 30 years. We earned our spurs under Bill Clinton and started the [Democratic Leadership Council]. We wrote the script for the first term of the Clinton presidency. Today, we’re bigger than ever, and are a force for radical pragmatism. We think the Democratic Party needs to expand and build bigger majorities that can last. That requires a message that is less radically progressive and reaching the voters we’re not reaching. That’s independents and working-class or non-college voters.

Q: That’s a tall order.

A: Around 2000 millennials started to come of age and raise their voices. In this century, Democrats moved well to the left. In fact there is a recent Gallup poll, 63% of white Democrats describe themselves as liberal. The party moved to the left, driven by younger progressives, and people who have blamed Clinton for things that have happened since he left office.

The party has moved to the left. But the problems for Democrats is that the country has not moved to the left. It’s still not a country that has anything like a progressive majority – and Democrats have struggled with that reality. In 2016, the progressive primary — the candidates tried to win the favor of progressive voters.

Then along comes Joe Biden [in 2020], and he wins the nomination. As almost always happens — I’ve seen one exception in my lifetime, the Democratic nominee, even though the party has more self-identified liberals, the country is not [more liberal].

Q: But the data shows that young voters are a force in the party — they helped stave off Republican gains in [the 2022] midterms. Issues such as abortion rights really mobilized them.

A: There are a few pro-life Democrats, but it’s not really an issue that splits the party ideologically. The Republicans lost independent voters, because they put up crazy MAGA types, and the aftershocks of the 1/6 inquest – that was a fundamental issue.

Q: And what does all of this signal for 2024?

A: It’s shaping up as a rematch of 2020, but this time with two diminished candidates. It’s also a race that isn’t exciting anyone – at least on the Democratic side. We’ll see declining turnout. That makes me nervous.

Trump has even bigger problems — he’s even less popular than last time. College-educated Republicans have moved against Trump since the Jan. 6 attack and hearings. He has still this hardcore of white, working-class voters, and he made gains among working class Hispanic voters. Biden is a decent man who saved the country from Trump in 2020.

Q: And what role do you see your group playing in all this?

A: Our closest allies are the Democrats who are running in the swing districts and want to keep the majorities. We have to enlarge the Democratic coalition. In the southern principle of hunting where the ducks are – you have to get independent voters and non-college voters. We’re spotting the Republicans a 25-point lead with that group of voters. Politics is a game of margins. You have to get your [voters] out, but you also have to reduce the other guy’s margins.

We’re in this stalemate, where power ping pongs back and forth between two minority parties. If you think you’ll be back in power in two years, it’s not an incentive to expand the base. It’s just an incentive to mobilize your existing voters. It’s cause for polarization.That’s the question we need to ask ourselves. And groups like ours have the answer.

Copyright 2023 John L. Micek, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.