View from
The Center

Will Marshall: Where Are the Moderates?

(Lisbon Council)

“I don’t see a full, vigorous pivot by this President (and this White House) back toward the themes and approaches that Joe Biden articulated in his 2020 presidential race.”

On June 8th, Merion West editor-in-chief Erich Prince was joined by Will Marshall, who serves as president of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), a centrist Democratic think tank historically associated with the “New Democrats.” In addition to overseeing PPI, Mr. Marshall is an honorary vice president of Policy Network, an international think tank for progressive policy, and he frequently contributes media commentary, having written at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, and other newspapers. In their conversation, Mr. Marshall comments on the Democratic Party’s most pressing issues, the public’s current perception of the party, and what he believes Democrats can do in order to regain momentum.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Will, I read your January, 2022 Hill op-ed “How Biden can get his presidency back on course.” In that piece, as you recall, you outlined a few concrete proposals that the White House ought to pursue. The first one, as I think all of us these days would agree with today, was inflation. At the time, Senator Joe Manchin, Larry Summers, and a few others on the Democratic side were warning about inflation, but it wasn’t super common [within the party]. And then you also talked about rejecting “cultural leftism.” So I’m wondering now, if you were going to write the same op-ed in June of 2022, would you suggest those same points, or how you would rate the White House’s progress–or probably lack of progress–on following these points that you articulated?

We were worried about inflation back in January because we didn’t think it was going away. There was a view in the White House that it was a transitory phenomenon, and that once we sorted out our supply chain problems and companies started to respond to surging demand, things would level off, but they didn’t. And I think we’ve argued, along with people like Larry Summers, that it’s clear in retrospect that we overstimulated the economy. It was the COVID-19 relief measures story before Biden got into office; then, there was the big relief bill he did last year. And, at the time, we were still talking about a big reconciliation bill; it was going to be very expensive, arguably not really paid for, and therefore inflationary in its impact. And so it was clear that Americans were really beginning to worry about rising prices or eating away at their purchasing power. We didn’t think that the White House was taking the problem seriously enough.

Now, in fairness, presidents don’t have a whole lot of levers for fighting inflation. But they can and should put what’s top of mind with voters at the center of their discourse. So, we really had in mind Joe Biden using his fabled empathy. He does a really great job of talking to people who are hurting and empathizing with them, paired with pursuing sensible steps that you can take with executive action and fiscal and tax policy–things that are not controlled by the Fed–to mitigate inflationary pressures and show people you’re fighting it. And I think, frankly, the White House didn’t really do that. They didn’t put the issue front and center until now. The last week’s stories were that the President was impatient with the staff and called everybody to battle stations in his administration. Janet Yellen, Secretary of Treasury, came out and admitted that she and others there, by implication, had underestimated the staying power of inflation. But, lately, it seems to me that the White House has pivoted to make inflation the central issue. There, again, the question is: How credible is the agenda of action? How credible are the actions the White House is proposing to the public? Do they think it’s really going to provide relief? We’ve got more work to do there, it seems to me. On cultural leftism, we had fascinating election primaries last night.

I’m glad you brought that up because that was the next thing I wanted to touch on.

Yeah. So, we had these primaries–California and other states–last night. And one of the big headlines today is the recall in San Francisco of Chesa Boudin, who was the exquisitely, extravagantly, progressive prosecutor in San Francisco, one of the bluest cities in America. Even there, though, people could not really fathom why a public prosecutor would be more interested in not prosecuting crime than in public safety. And so even in San Francisco, this progressive agenda, a criminal justice agenda, or at least as it’s defined vis-à-vis prosecution, included a disinclination to prosecute people for property crimes and for quality of living crimes and a failure to get a better handle on homelessness. People in the cities are really reacting to homeless encampments.

The problems in San Francisco, the Tenderloin district, were huge, and London Breed, the mayor there, felt she had to break up a big kind of incipient encampment. LA has got big problems. There, the problem is less coming from the White House. Now, obviously, the President did not embrace the defunding of the police. He called in his recent speech to Congress for more funding for the police; he hadn’t joined this theory that crime should be viewed exclusively through a racial equity frame, as opposed to a public safety frame. But there are many voices in the party that have, and that spills over into the public image of the party in really destructive ways for Democrats in general. And this is also true for this President, whose—to come back to your original question—approval ratings haven’t improved. He’s down now, with maybe 41% approval.

Are you surprised by that, Will? 41% approval—that’s pretty low. You must have anticipated this in some way, though, because you’ve been publicly urging the White House to pursue a different course.

I’m not surprised that there’s been a big drop in the President’s public approval ratings–what I’m surprised by is the lack of an effective strategy to start countering it. It was evident that he was down at the beginning of the year, and we haven’t seen a concerted strategy to deal with the prime vulnerabilities, starting with inflation, as we just discussed. But there have been other problems. Frankly, the whole reconciliation struggle continues today; everybody’s still investing time and energy and trying to get a deal for passing the clean energy provisions of the original reconciliation package.

But the damage done by that whole spectacle last year, starting in December and culminating in the fall with the collapse of reconciliation discussions, is really underrated in the White House. I don’t see a full, vigorous pivot by this President (and this White House) back toward the themes and approaches that Joe Biden articulated in his 2020 presidential race. And the White House made a big mistake last summer in letting the Left define much of its economic agenda. I think it still hasn’t seized control of that discussion. Are Democrats pushing a bill to break up America’s most successful and innovative tech companies? This is folly; Democrats are hugely underwater. When you ask the public, which party do you trust to handle inflation? By about 19 points, they say Republicans.

Also on “Which party do you trust to manage the economy?” Republicans have a 12-14 point lead, depending on which poll you look at. There’s a confidence gap on the economy, which is now at the top of everybody’s priority list. President Biden needs to be talking about economic growth, about building on America’s competitive advantages and innovation and high tech innovation–not colluding with a new push from the Left to gut our most competitive companies.

There’s this push (actually, it’s a left-right); we’ve got the anti-capitalist left joining hands with the Trumpist right. The Left thinks that these companies are just too big and a threat to competition, even though they really have a hard time offering solid evidence for that proposition. The Right is mostly concerned with Donald Trump and other veracity challenges. It’s a bipartisan conspiracy against our best companies—I mean our most competitive and innovative companies. It’s not to say there aren’t problems in the tech companies; there are, and they deserve close scrutiny and probably some public corrections when it comes to privacy and data security, which is where people are most concerned. The voters, to the extent that they really care about the actions of big tech companies, it tends to be about privacy and data security. And this Klobuchar-Grassley bill doesn’t even address that. The larger point is that we are bashing private enterprise, bashing successful companies that invest heavily in the American economy. Actually, in the tech and e-commerce sector, job creation grew during the pandemic—one of the only sectors where that happened. Basically we’re talking about companies doing the right thing, investing in creating jobs, helping us compete with China. So is this really the time to try to break them apart? It makes no sense at all to me.

Will, you’ve obviously been intimately involved in Democratic Party politics for a number of years, and you alluded to not having seen a pivot that you might like to see from the Biden administration. Are there lessons, perhaps particularly from the Clinton administration, or also from the Obama administration of this idea of pivoting in either messaging or in the sort of policies being pursuing in response to either changed realities or a change in voter sentiment–lessons to be learned from history?

I’m reluctant, Erich, to draw analogies to what happened to Clinton or even Obama, just because the context is so different. The polarization, the tribalization is so deep.. I like to say that the American electorate seems to be in a state of clinical depression. No sooner does one team get power that people sour on it and make things go the other way. And so you have this kind of democratic ping pong effect, and nobody can get any traction or break the cycle. I’m not looking to this president to perform miracles, but there are things he could do.

What was it about Joe Biden that attracted voters to him and led to his very convincing victory over Donald Trump in 2020? They liked the fact that he was first an experienced political leader who knew his business and not an interloper who didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Sorry, but that’s true.

Secondly, Biden promised to be the president for all Americans; he was going to try to rise above the tribalism; he was not just going to come in and smite the other side in the way that the Republicans have been doing. He wanted to try to govern for the benefit, as he said, of those who didn’t vote for him, as well as those who did. I think he was sincere about that. He’s been around long enough to know that one-party government is a loser for the country; it doesn’t get you good government. But when he got into the White House, there was this intoxicating moment when–because he was so powerful–the people in the White House convinced him he had the potential to be the next FDR and do his own version of the New Deal. It was never in the cards given the narrowness of Democratic margins in the House and Senate. But, in any event, you couldn’t do both things. You couldn’t be the champion for rising above partisanship, as he promised to do in the election, and, at the same time, be the maximum party leader to the Left, to the people who didn’t even vote for him.

You can’t be the president who is bigger than his party and the president who is driving the most purely partisan governance strategy that gets zero support from the other side. Those things didn’t add up to people. So I would say that–going back to the original idea to be a president who transcended partisanship–the one thing you have to do is get a little help from the other side. And I’m not sure that’s going to happen, particularly if Mitch McConnell gets back [as Majority Leader]. Good Lord, if Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are the leaders of Congress afterward—it’s hard to imagine that–but still, the President has to distance himself from the very unpopular ideas of the progressive left. He can’t leave voters in doubt of his opposition to ideas that are toxic to swing voters, to battleground voters whom we need to persuade.

To that point, reports are emerging that the Democratic Party is losing support among Hispanic Americans? I’m wondering about your reaction to that, your diagnosis of that, and how related that might be to some of the points you’ve been making? 

We’ve written about that too, in the last two columns, precisely on this point. Democrats have a working class problem, but not just a white working class problem. So, obviously the problems with the white working class are well known and go back to the 1970s and 1980s. Then, we saw the really disconcerting thing for folks who are Democrats which was the erosion among Latino voters, Hispanic voters, particularly working class in 2020. It was everywhere. There was a real fall off, and that’s continued. Look at the President’s ratings with Hispanic voters that continue to slump.

And you even saw some erosion among African American voters, who are staunchly Democratic, but you’re even seeing some decline there. And it’s most pronounced among voters without college degrees. So, there’s a supposition among Democrats that cultural politics hurts us with working class voters, particularly white working class voters, and it is preventing them from understanding that their real economic interests lie with us, with Democratic policies and programs. But that’s not what people think. There’s very little empirical evidence to support the view that working class people have a lot of confidence in Democrats and in the economy; on the contrary, they don’t. So, that’s bled over into the Hispanic and black communities that we thought were more Democratic, or are more Democratic-leaning.

As you might recall, Will, a number of conservative commentators and office holders were really triumphant after the 2020 election. They were upset, of course, to have lost the presidency. But they were very excited about the idea of a multi-racial working class coalition, which was described by Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Josh Hawley, and other people in this National Conservative movement. They have this vision of building a conservative coalition of working class people of all races, and they are  are very optimistic about all working class people being a constituency for the Republican Party.

I just thought that was pretty delusional. I mean, I’ve been at this since I came into town in 1980, and one of the most shocking developments of the recent years is the return of overt racism to political discourse. Frankly, that’s identified with Trump, with right-wing populists and the alt-right. So, the idea that a party that is trying to rally white working class voters around the fear of being replaced by black and Democratic voters would be able to put together a multiracial coalition is absurd. While Donald Trump and his followers are around, it’s not going to happen.

But we can suffer erosion; I mean, Democrats are going to continue to have an advantage with Hispanic voters. And, obviously, that’s even more of a case with black voters. But politics is a game of margins. That’s why we’ve been saying we have to do better with white working class voters. Joe Biden is President because he did better with two groups: suburban whites with college degrees and working class whites—on both sides of the diploma divide: college educated and non-degree holders. That was pretty exciting. That’s a small gain. But that’s a big group.

It’s a crucial point about politics being the game of margins. We talk about black men breaking more for Governor Brian Kemp in 2018 compared to years past or for Senator Ted Cruz against Beto O’Rourke in 2018. As such, I want to get your thoughts on the last question which is about conflicting trends. On one hand, we see that there seems to be a resurgence of more pragmatic, less progressive Democrats asserting themselves such with, as you mentioned, the San Francisco recall; we also think of Mayor Eric Adams in New York or Fani Willis, the District Attorney in Fulton County, Georgia. But, on the other hand, we see things like John Fetterman defeating Conor Lamb or the recent primary with Kurt Schrader in Oregon. So there seems to be some mixed data. But would you argue that there is a trend one can decipher between moving more toward pragmatic Democrats or the continued march of the progressives?

Well, the march of progressivism has always been exaggerated. If you look carefully at the numbers here, only about 8-12% of Americans identify with the views of a Bernie Sanders or an AOC, democratic socialism. That kind of a far-left view, let’s call it, has disproportionate cultural power.

It is echoed by the sympathetic Amtrak Corridor media. There are a lot of interest groups and liberal billionaires supporting them. So they make common cause of interest groups that are pushing that kind of pro-government agenda in Washington. And they’re young, so it’s young activists. It’s easy to make the argument if you extrapolate that they’re going to be a bigger share of the future Democratic Party. But they really haven’t been. Even honest members of the social justice activist wing have been saying “Look, I’ve had a theory, but it has not worked.” The theory was that by being pure progressives or being ultra-progressive, you would get the maximum enthusiasm and excitement from young voters. They would turn out in such numbers that you would win elections.

It didn’t happen though. It didn’t happen in 2018, when more moderate Democrats helped to return the House [to Democrats]. It didn’t happen in 2020 when we lost everything except the Biden race. And, so I think that there’s a recognition that the progressive ascendancy, as PPI argued in a very important paper here called the “New Politics of Evasion,” is a myth. There is no progressive ascendancy. But progressives are a loud and pervasive voice in the party.

Activism, political activism, correlates very strongly with ideological zeal, on both sides. So, your most active voices, on both sides, tend to be farther right and farther left. But I think what we’re realizing is the dearth of actual victories by progressives. There simply isn’t much there, but you can’t discount them, either. They’re an important force in the party, and when you’re basically in a tie between the two parties, you can’t write off any part of your coalition. It’s true that we need the enthusiasm of young voters in these races, but we cannot afford to let them dictate the party’s agenda. I think that recognition is seeping through to everybody; it’s one of the lessons from the setbacks of President Biden’s first year. As we saw in the Chesa Boudin race in San Francisco, even the deepest blue cities are turning against this cultural leftism. So if we lose the Congress vote, we’ll be facing this paradoxical situation where we would have lost moderate seats, and so we will have any Democratic Caucus in the House tilted even more to the left.

But the question is: What lessons will Democrats draw from a midterm setback if that’s what we experience, and every indication is that it will be. Once again, we’ll hear the argument from the Left that people don’t have any confidence in centrists because they’ve been running things with the ways of the past.

That’s the argument [those on the far-left] make. They say that more moderate Democrats are basically the same as Republicans; they pursue the same foreign policy. A lot of people are making that argument, especially in the Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi contingent. And this view is very influential and pervasive in the activist left. 

Right, like with this anti-trust bill where left and right-wing politicians are finding common cause.  That’s a phenomenon that does exist.

Come October, I think that the weight of the argument will point not toward left-wing policies that have already proved to be unpalatable to voters, anywhere outside the deepest blue districts but, rather, toward new faces. What this party needs is the next generation, the new Clintons and Obamas: new faces who are going to bring their own unique synthesis and a return to pro-growth economics because that’s what the working class wants. If you look across the diploma divide, as a I encourage Democrats to do, these voters are not looking for government handouts; they’re not looking for socialism; they’re not looking for an expansive welfare state that compensates them for what they can’t get out of private markets. What they want is the chance to get good work, upgrade their skills, and have a path to upward mobility and financial security for their families in the private economy and not be wards of the government. The Democrats keep coming up with these welfare schemes–some of which I support because they are just good policy–but if that’s all you have, if you don’t have an outlook that’s optimistic that speaks to people’s economic aspirations, then you’re at a huge disadvantage.

Democrats used to know how to do that. Jack Kennedy did it when I was very young. Bill Clinton did it in a really great way. There was a sense of optimism in America. We were inventing the Internet, and there was excitement reminiscent of the space race because American technology was leading the world in new directions. We’ve got to recapture that as a party. I think that’s going to require new leaders, new faces in the party. And I understand the wariness with the status quo politician, I really do. Everybody’s feeling it. But the choice really isn’t between moving in a more AOC/Bernie Sanders direction or back to some kind of Clintonism that doesn’t exist anymore because you don’t have the alignment of political forces that would make that happen. You’re going to have to persuade a whole new group of voters that the Democrats are with them on the economy, with them on values and issues, social issues that they care about–not against them. And I just think it’s going to take new faces

Erich J. Prince is the editor of Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on polarization in the United States Congress.

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