April 12, 2023

President Biden may have received a rapturous welcome in Ireland yesterday, but Democratic strategists in Washington will have taken little notice. With next year’s election looming, they increasingly look like they are stuck with a candidate who most in the party do not want and whose poll numbers remain consistently underwater. And these foreign forays won’t do much for this. While media baths can be helpful, the key challenge for Biden and the Democrats lies not in promoting his leadership profile, but in finding ways to distance the party from the divisive agenda associated with progressive politics.

To an extent, this shift is already taking place, as leading Democrats, from Biden to California’s Gavin Newsom, start to inch away from orthodoxies of 2020. Take the movement to “defund the police”, which, observes former Clinton advisor Bill Galston, “is now over”. Even the increasingly Left-leaning USA Today admits the slogan has little support and that it is particularly resented among Latinos and African-Americans.

Aware of this change, Biden has correspondingly worked to bolster his crime record. He recently dropped his opposition to a Congressional initiative to clamp down on a lenient sentencing bill that would have lessened penalties for property crimes and even carjacking in Washington D.C. — to the great agitation of his progressive media allies. On the southern border, meanwhile, the administration has begun revamping its stricter asylum policies, particularly in border states with large Hispanic populations.

Perhaps more remarkably, the Democratic “post-woke” turn has also extended to climate policy. Of course, the spectre of ecological crisis still obsesses many on the Left. But barely 3% of the broader population consider it America’s most pressing concern, something some Democrats appear to have finally registered. Biden, for instance, recently stopped echoing the extreme predictions of the climate lobby. Instead, he appears more relaxed about fossil fuel development than early in his term — to the chagrin of green activists — and has taken tentative steps to restart the US’s largely moribund nuclear industry. Such changes are critical, notes long-term Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira, to winning over the increasingly diverse working class.

Even in the bluest of states, political reality is reasserting itself. California’s Gavin Newsom has kept nuclear and natural gas operating (in large part to prevent politically unpalatable blackouts) and has even suggested amending the state’s landmark environmental law. Newsom and other Democratic governors are also having to revise their free-spending ways. Faced with an economy weakened by Silicon Valley’s meltdown, Newsom has tried to reinvent himself as a fiscally conscious moderate in the mould of Bill Clinton, making budgetary trims while avoiding the large wealth taxes which could prompt a brain drain from his state.

After all, it is increasingly embarrassing that the two rival states Newsom likes to criticise — Florida and Texas — enjoy large budget surpluses, and that several red states are initiating tax cuts. Aware that disorder in Californian cities is becoming a potent talking point on the Right, Newsom has also abandoned several other progressive shibboleths. Last year, for example, he even vetoed a bill that would have legalised “shooting alleys” — so-called safe drug-injection sites — in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Oakland.

Despite this necessary ideological moderation, it is unclear whether this is anything other than a short-term feint. By and large, there has not been any wholesale change to the party’s approach to education, once a Democratic prop, and now a Republican hammer. The largely Democratic educational establishment continues to defend a system that has produced the first reduction of the average American IQ in 100 years and which has increasingly allowed China to dominate STEM fields. The progressive embrace of critical race theory, overwhelmingly opposed by most Americans, remains unbroken and increasingly threatens Democratic allegiance among aspirational groups such as Asians and Jews. The parental rebellion against race and gender-dominated teaching has instead made stars of its Republican champions, particularly Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Virginia’s Greg Youngkin. The recent election of far-Left union hack Brandon Johnson as Mayor of Chicago, by contrast, suggests that the core urban base of the party is nuttier than ever and will, once 2024 is over, reassert their agenda.

However, for the time-being, moderation will be needed, particularly to win the suburbs and exurbs who will determine the election. On economic and tax issues, in particular, the Democrats may need (at least for the short-term) to temper their redistributionist obsessions. No longer the party of the working class, Democrats now rely on an increasingly gentrified base, who will not want more of their wealth siphoned away. The ultra-rich now tend to be on what passes for the Left, and have consistently outraised and outspent the political Right in recent years by a margin of nearly two to one. These realities could, at least in the future, constrain the Democrats from proposing radical tax increases.

In California, Newsom seems likely to resist progressive attempts to raise the state’s income tax, already the nation’s highest, or add new payroll taxes to pay for universal healthcare. Yet there remains an initiative within the state’s party for a wealth tax that even would apply to some people who move out of the state. In reality, though, California and other blue states may need to lessen, not increase, the tax burden, if for no other reason than to keep their main funders in the state to to pay for pensions, climate change initiatives and maintain basic infrastructure. Newsom seems to recognise this, as do blue-state governors such as New York’s Kathy Hochul and Illinois J.B. Pritzker, who fear the loss of high-income residents. Biden, as President, is not so challenged, but proposals to raise taxes, as are now being contemplated, are not likely to appeal to those who stock the party larder.

To win in 2024, particularly if the opponent is not Donald Trump, the Democrats therefore need to do more than lower their threadbare “woke” colours. A wholesale revision of economic outlook is required, towards a centrist pragmatism that the American middle class can aspire to. The rewards of moderation are clear. Around the country, red-state Democrats — such as Kentucky’s Governor Andy Beshear or Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards — have remained competitive with middle-of-the-road voters by cleaving to a moderate, pro-business course. But in the leading blue states, the party is dominated by diehard progressives, who make up roughly 8% of the electorate. This grouping, which will never vote Republican, might be able to dominate elections in urban centres such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland , Houston and Boston, but it won’t win over the country. For that to happen, a new Democratic agenda is necessary.

What this looks like isn’t too hard to discern. A common-sense politics built on the bread-and-butter issues they used to run and win on: restoring manufacturing to the country, improving basic infrastructure, aiding low-wage service workers, student loan reduction and healthcare coverage. Such a shift in priorities will immediately be shouted down by the party’s vocal progressives. The only question then will be whether the Democrats have the political fortitude to complete the post-woke revolution that is only just beginning, but holds their surest prospects of remaining in power.