Helton: Democrats face two options: big swing or big tent


Bernie Sanders speaks at Hancher Auditorium on Thursday August 31, 2017. Sanders spoke at Hancher during a tour to promote the book. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

In the Pixar film Cars, racing phenom Lightning McQueen is taught how to drift by his mentor, Doc Hudson. McQueen is told he must “turn right to go left” to maneuver a wide bend in the road. While the rookie initially scoffs, the counterintuitive technique proves vital during the championship race.

While the current state of politics is a world away from the 2006 animated movie, the Democratic Party might listen to Doc to regain control in 2018 and beyond. While far-left progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have seen a surge in popularity, Democrats could be more successful adopting a broader message to win back purple states in 2018. This would be business-as-usual for the party, which has been largely moderate for the past several decades. This can be seen in its presidential nomination in 2016 with devout moderate Hillary Clinton defeating democratic socialist Sanders.

However, many in the party seem to have accepted a more leftist stance heading into the next election cycle. Instead of McQueen, they could be following Robert Frost’s famous line, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by …” Moving away from the party’s history might be the way to go in the new era of politics brought about by the current administration.

Two leaders in particular seem to be taking this approach: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. Both were considered moderates only a couple of years ago. But as both are presumed to try to run as President Donald Trump’s challenger in 2020, they have adopted more progressive agendas. According to FiveThirtyEight, Gillibrand has more anti-Trump votes than any other senator, including Sanders. As for Booker, he has shown he’s willing to get uncharacteristically irate with the opposition with his recent trashing of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

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There are still two major possibilities that could stifle this progressive shift. First, Trump and the GOP could easily see a rise in popularity. If their policies on such hot-button issues as immigration and taxes begin to be viewed more favorably, the Democrats will be forced to compensate with more moderate opposition.

Second, the Senate races are still going to be a tough win. Democrats not only have to pick up Nevada and Arizona but also play lockdown defense in deep Trump country, including West Virginia and the vice president’s home state of Indiana. Coming up with a far-left national message that can win in North Dakota sounds as ridiculous as Trump winning his home state of New York in 2020.

Of course, the message doesn’t mean much if Republicans maintain control of either house or Congress as a whole. The Democrats could go so far as to run on a platform of Trump impeachment and universal health care, win back the House and win back governorships nationwide. But if the Senate remains under GOP control, every effort will be shut down if moderate solutions have been written off.

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