Dear Commons Community,
Since the 2016 elections and the impressive victories in the Congressional, state, and local races, Democrats have been on a high. Passionate candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez representing the mosaic of the diversity in this country are invigorating the Party and garnering a good deal of attention from the media. Frank Bruni in his column yesterday sent out a yellow flag to Democrats not to take for granted that they will likely need the support of American corporations and workers if they are to win the presidency in 2020. To make his point, he interviewed Gina Raimondo, the moderate Democratic Governor of Rhode Island. In referring to her, he comments that it takes a lot of spine to be a moderate Democrat and centrist these days. Here is an excerpt (the full column is below.)
“She winces at talk of a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent and cringes at the growing use of “corporatist” as a slur against Democratic politicians deemed too cozy with business interests. She thinks that big companies often need to be prodded forcefully to do right by their employees, but that it’s bad policy and bad politics to paint them as the enemy…
…“At the end of the day,” Raimondo said, “people want a decent job, and I think they thought that I was the candidate who was going to bring that to them and their families.”
And that’s a political reality — and a glimpse into the electorate — that shouldn’t be forgotten as Democrats plot their course. The media attention to full-throttle progressives among newly elected House Democrats is disproportionate to their numbers, and it sometimes obscures a sizable, practical middle. Besides, their more moderate peers are the ones who wrested seats from Republicans in districts that, like America, aren’t deep red or emphatically blue.”
I think Governor Raimondo is giving Democrats good advice.
The Loneliness of the Moderate Democrat
‘It takes a lot of spine to be a centrist in America today.’
By Frank Bruni
January 26, 2019
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — I did it. I found a significantly accomplished, defensibly qualified Democratic officeholder who isn’t flirting with — and hasn’t fantasized about — a presidential run in 2020. I had to take the train to Rhode Island, where we talked over pizza and eggplant parmigiana. We drank wine, too. It helps these days.
Her name is Gina Raimondo. She’s the governor of this state. She just began her second term after being re-elected by a margin of more than 15 percentage points, and you would think that this commanding victory plus her youth (she’s 47), her working-class background, her educational pedigree (Harvard, Rhodes scholar, Yale Law), her role as the chairwoman of the Democratic Governors Association and her situation far from the nation’s swampy and unpopular capital would start chatter about a move there. But no. Crickets.
The most obvious reason? Her relationship to the Democratic Party of the moment. Both stylistically and substantively, she’s out of sync with it.
She can’t tweet worth a damn and the same goes for Instagram. She winces at talk of a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent and cringes at the growing use of “corporatist” as a slur against Democratic politicians deemed too cozy with business interests. She thinks that big companies often need to be prodded forcefully to do right by their employees, but that it’s bad policy and bad politics to paint them as the enemy.
She recalled an exchange with college students not long ago. One of them said: “I get who you are. You’re one of those spineless centrists.”
“And I was like, ‘Excuse me?’,” she said. “It takes a lot of spine to be a centrist in America today. You get whacked from the left and whacked from the right. That’s my life. I get whacked.”
Moderate Democrats have certainly had their day and their sway. In fact the passions of the left arise in part from how much compromise there has been — and here we are stuck with Donald Trump. The rage of less moderate Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is earned and righteous. And Raimondo said precisely that to me.
But Ocasio-Cortez is by no means the whole of the Democratic Party. And is the leftward lurch that she personifies the best and safest bet for 2020? I worry, because there’s no political priority higher than limiting Trump to one term. Raimondo also worries — a lot.
“So many Democrats just assume we’re going to win,” she said. “They underestimate how hard it’s going to be.” And it might be a serious tactical mistake, she added, to nominate any candidate who seems to be at war with capitalism itself or entertains the idea of a guaranteed minimum income.
“We have become the party that is anti-business,” she told me. “We need to be the party of work.”
She acknowledged that “the system we have today is totally broken.” She cited grotesque income inequality. She noted that too many Americans have no economic security and no prospects for achieving it.
“But I fall in the camp of: Let’s fix it,” she said. “Let’s embrace business to come to the table. Someone needs to make the case that it’s in the best interest of businesses and wealthy people to be better corporate citizens. Pay for health care. Help people get their college degree. Pay for job training.”
Along those lines, she recently proposed that companies doing business in Rhode Island be taxed up to $1,500 annually for every employee who is enrolled in Medicaid because he or she can’t get health insurance through a company-sponsored plan. “I hope that they’re embarrassed,” she said.
But, she added, “Where I think we are at risk is if all we do is beat up and crap on businesses.”
That’s an exaggeration of where the party is, but I take her point. And I’m fascinated by her unflashy example and the questions it raises about how we currently accord importance to politicians and how much that really relates to their impact.
Journalists obsess over the most camera-ready emissaries and provocative assertions, and we often outsource our judgment to social media. To go viral is to be relevant. “In the future,” the Politico media columnist Jack Shafer wrote a few days ago, “your news source of choice will contain only stories about Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” Shafer forgot Beto O’Rourke, which is funny, because he once wrote an excellent broadside about how political reporters can’t forget him.
When I checked social media during Raimondo’s re-election campaign, I mostly saw people bashing her, and she wasn’t bothering to engage with that hate. I assumed she was in trouble.
But she won her primary against a progressive rival by more than 20 points, then trounced her Republican opponent in the general election, 52.8 percent to 37.3 percent. (Third-party candidates received the remainder of the vote.) She had ample support in the end. It just didn’t show up on Twitter, where an overwhelming majority of Americans still spend no time at all.
And that support undoubtedly reflects the concrete difference that Raimondo has made over the past four years. With aggressive tax incentives, she persuaded some two dozen companies to expand or establish operations in Rhode Island, creating what The Times’s Katharine Seelye described as a “frenzy of economic and job development.” For most of the year before she took office, the state’s unemployment rate was well above the nation’s; at the end of last month, it was the same — 3.9 percent.
Thanks to her advocacy, Rhode Island is among a minority of states in which community college is free. And thanks to a tax that she levied on large commercial trucks, its awful infrastructure is receiving desperately needed repairs and upgrades.
K-through-12 public education, however, remains a mess. And Raimondo has stains on her record, including the botched rollout of a $650 million public-assistance computer system that wasn’t ready, wreaking epic havoc. To get re-elected, she raised — and spent — significantly more money than her opponents. And many Democrats fairly question whether her corporate giveaways had to be as generous as they were.
But some of them obviously backed her anyway. “At the end of the day,” Raimondo said, “people want a decent job, and I think they thought that I was the candidate who was going to bring that to them and their families.”
And that’s a political reality — and a glimpse into the electorate — that shouldn’t be forgotten as Democrats plot their course. The media attention to full-throttle progressives among newly elected House Democrats is disproportionate to their numbers, and it sometimes obscures a sizable, practical middle. Besides, their more moderate peers are the ones who wrested seats from Republicans in districts that, like America, aren’t deep red or emphatically blue.
“I don’t think the lefties can win a general election,” Raimondo said. But, she conceded, “Who knows? I’m not running in 2020. I could have missed the boat.”