Centrist Democrats’ biggest dilemma: Where are the big ideas?

Moderate Democrats are increasingly wary of their party’s ascendant liberal wing, which has grown louder and more influential since Donald Trump’s election.

But in at least one key way, Democratic centrists say they’d benefit from imitating their progressive counterparts: Coming up with — and then relentlessly promoting — big policy ideas.

In a party desperate to find its way back to power after last year’s electoral wipeout, economic populists in the mold of Bernie Sanders have thus far dominated the conversation, using far-reaching plans such as single-payer health care or tuition-free college to pull the Democrats’ center of gravity to the left.

Their agenda has drawn pushback, but leaders of the centrist Democratic faction say mere objections aren’t enough — they need their own marquee proposals to truly compete for the party’s heart and soul.

“There are a lot of really big ideas and changes, and there need to be more,” said Will Marshall, who runs the new centrist Democratic group New Democracy. “We’re not at the end of this quest. We’re embarking on it.”

Marshall’s group on Friday will host a conference of center-left Democrats in Des Moines, Iowa, where many longtime party leaders and strategists will discuss winning races in red-state territory. With attendees such as former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, it’s the type of event where leaders can begin laying out a vision for the party different than the one espoused by liberal activists.

Centrist Democrats generally differ rhetorically from their liberal counterparts in their focus on economic opportunity instead of economic inequality, on working with business instead of expanding government programs. But the rhetoric, party strategists say, has to be buffeted by serious, attractive proposals that can win converts and drive conversations.

“You gotta have a bunch of big ideas that support your vision,” said Matt Bennett, senior vice president at the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “It’s not enough to say, ‘We’ve gotta tackle opportunity.’ We’ve gotta have ideas to do that.”

Third Way is doing what it can to promote those ideas: In August, it hosted Democratic leaders at a conference in Aspen, Colo., to discuss a way forward for the party. The group also plans in the coming weeks to release a package of muscular policy ideas for centrist Democrats to rally around.

“We as centrists have to make sure the policies cohere into something bigger, the way it does for the left,” Bennett said. “We have to build a network of people that believe it.”

Centrist Democrats say they already have a collection of big ideas that the party can adopt: Third Way, for instance, has promoted a plan that would give every worker a universal private retirement account, which would receive a 50 cent-contribution from employers for every hour worked. (Bennett emphasized that Social Security would be left untouched by the proposal.)

Marshall said his group is promoting a plan to reinvent from top to bottom the public education system. And Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, said he and fellow lawmakers have backed a plan that would make benefits such as health insurance portable for all employees.

These same Democrats, however, concede that big, bold ideas don’t come as easily to centrist Democrats, who by their nature are more circumspect about far-reaching proposals they sometimes view as substantively and politically foolish.

There’s no bigger proposal, for instance, than converting the country to single-payer health care, which would do away almost entirely with the employee-based health insurance system. Himes, for one, said such a sweeping change might be attractive in some ways — but is utterly unfeasible politically in the near future.

“The ideas that are likely to get implemented in the next … two, three years are not going to be romantic, epically transformative ideas,” the congressman said. “We can barely get a damn budget done in the Congress.”

The challenge, he added, was “breaking though” while under those constraints.

“We need to be careful that we don’t overpromise while at the same time painting an aspirational picture,” Himes said. “And that’s really hard. That’s a paradox.”

The battle between the moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party is, in many ways, a continuation of the fight in last year’s presidential primary between Hillary Clinton, who favored incremental change, and Bernie Sanders, who readily endorsed sweeping proposals such as single-payer. It’s also reminiscent of the fights the party had decades ago, when Bill Clinton — both socially and economically moderate — redirected it toward a more centrist approach.

Marshall knows those battles well: He co-founded the Democratic Leadership Council, a center-left Democratic group that helped steer the party back toward a more centrist approach. His new group, New Democracy, is intent on helping Democrats learn to win in conservative-leaning areas.

To do that, he said, Democrats should be wary of adopting the kind of big ideas pushed by Sanders-style Democrats.

“The Washington echo chamber is intoxicating itself with big bold utopian promises that I guess are a left version of what Trump peddled,” he said. “They are things that aren’t really going to help people solve their everyday problems.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty