Altitude

Journalists love the center. So does the D.C. establishment. But it’s the radicals who end up writing history.

Welcome to Altitude, a new column by POLITICO founding editor John Harris, offering weekly perspective on politics in a moment of radical disruption.

Washington journalists these days are having many conversations with Democratic operatives and veterans of previous administrations that go something like this:

This is insane. Our party has a death wish. We are going to blow this election and give the country four more years of Donald Trump.

These downbeat Democrats are talking generally about what they regard as their party’s dangerous lurch to the left in the 2020 campaign. Most often these days they are talking specifically about Elizabeth Warren. And they are talking even more specifically about her embrace of mandatory “Medicare for All.” By these lights: The plan is wildly expensive, unrealistic, frightening to moderate voters in key swing states who want to dump Trump but need reassurance before empowering a liberal in the Oval Office.

It’s awkward to admit—would you want a loved one to date a “Democratic operative”?—but what these cynics and hacks and bed-wetters say makes sense to me. With the stakes so high in 2020, why wouldn’t Democrats play it safe? With Trump becoming more divisive by the day in positions and rhetoric, why wouldn’t Democrats run as uniters? Why not try to own the center?

There are strong answers to these why-not questions. But it is the questions themselves—the fact that they seem so obvious to someone like me—that are relevant here.