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To win, Democrats must look to the middle

Liberal activists complain, but the party can't achieve lasting gains without attracting centrists

By Todd Eberly

8:00 AM EST, February 26, 2012

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In a recent report I wrote for Third Way, I tried to explain why Democrats are unable to translate the party's persistent voter identification advantage into sustained congressional and White House dominance. In the report, "Family Feud: Democratic Activists v. Democratic Voters," I explain that the Democratic coalition is more divided between activists and rank-and-file members than are the Republicans. Most Democrats are moderates, and this has not changed in 40 years. Party activists are liberals. The Republican Party has moved right since the 1970s and reached a point where there is little divide between activists and non-activists.

The Republican coalition is smaller, but it's uniformly conservative. But there remains a divide between Democratic activists and non-activists. Non-activists are very moderate and include quite a few conservatives. Furthermore, non-activists make up the vast majority of the party and are ideologically situated right between the liberal and conservative "peaks" of each party's activist base. Republicans can win by attracting those moderate and conservative Democrats; in fact, the GOP is sunk without them. If Democrats can bring them securely into the fold, they are unbeatable.

We see some of this playing out on the national scene right now. President Barack Obama is enjoying a resurgence in the polls, but this has little to do with anything the White House has done. Rather, it's being driven by 1) signs of life in the economy, and 2) the GOP veering right and making the president appear more moderate in comparison. This can work for the president — if both factors remain. The rising price of oil may derail rising optimism, and if the GOP soon settles on Mitt Romney, the intra-party battle driving the rightward shift will end and Mr. Romney will have time to reposition himself. So the president must remain committed to keeping moderate Democrats in the fold.

Several Democratic activists have accused me of trying to turn Democrats into "Republican-lite," devoid of core party principles. Not true. If Democratic activists are satisfied with the current ping-pong battle for control of government, they can ignore party moderates. But if they want a sustained hold on power, Democrats need moderates. With a sustained grasp on the mechanisms of government, Democrats could begin to rebuild voters' trust in government through moderate and incremental policies. Once trust has been restored, larger reforms may be possible. At present, lack of trust in government will derail the emergence of a truly progressive majority any time soon.

There is a pervasive myth in America that strong leaders can, through force of will, take the country in new directions. Such directors of change are rare, if they exist at all. Franklin Roosevelt came to power when the people were ready for social change, and his ideas were an extension of existing state-based reforms. When Roosevelt tried to direct change through packing the Supreme Court or intervening in Democratic congressional primaries, the public rose up and swatted him down. Ronald Reagan did not direct a conservative revolution either; he channeled and gave voice to a growing public dissatisfaction with government. Reagan got his tax and regulatory reform and his defense increases. But he never unraveled the New Deal safety net. He never brought the force of the American people into his battle against communism in Central America. Like Roosevelt, Reagan facilitated changes percolating up from the people.

If Democrats on the left want a progressive revolution in America, they need to understand that it will not happen from the top down. They need to find areas where activists and non-activists overlap. They need to facilitate the change that the vast and vital center is seeking. If they can accomplish that, then perhaps moderates will become open to a more progressive government. Then, when the people are ready, Democrats can help facilitate the change.

Right now, however, Democrats need to focus on how they can win consistently, and that requires engaging the party's moderates. It does not mean abandoning core beliefs or giving up on efforts to influence opinion. But it's easier to influence opinion when you win elections.

My research suggests Democrats can embrace the middle and win, but if Republicans push too hard to embrace the middle, they will lose too many of their activists and non-activists. The key to victory for Democrats is to force Republicans to fight for the middle — it's a win-win strategy for Democrats, as they grow their coalition and divide the Republicans.

Todd Eberly is coordinator of Public Policy Studies and an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. His email is teeberly@smcm.edu.