Let me explain why I think this is wrong, and to do so I'm going to assume (for the sake of this argument) that we do indeed have to run as moderates in order to win. (Notice how I phrased that - “run as” moderates, not necessarily “be” moderates.)
Riddle me this: Is there a recent case where a winnable race was lost because the Democratic candidate ran as a liberal? Has there ever been a case of a race being lost because state committee people or county committee people were too liberal? Does anyone even care about that?
But there are two prominent recent examples of Democrats who lost races not despite their attempts to stake out moderate stances, but in large part because of them – Nancy Boyda and Raj Goyle. Nancy was so focused on distancing herself from the national party that she missed the Obama wave, and Raj was so intent on turning himself into Jean Schodorf that even the Eagle called him out for dissembling. There are three reasons why this approach doesn't really work:
- it turns off the base
- it indicates you don't have the courage of your convictions, and
- if people want to vote for a Republican, they'll do so.
Let's contrast this with the most successful recent statewide Democrat – Kathleen Sebelius. All of us know that she's a liberal, our opponents know that she's a liberal, but she twice won statewide races (we're not talking piddling little legislative districts here). How was she able to pull of this electoral magic? Because she was a good candidate. Yes, she was able to run as a moderate, but that falls into the category of being a good politician – knowing how to talk to the people you're talking to. If people like our candidates, if they talk about the things people care about, if they're friendly and attractive, they'll be competitive, no matter what they privately believe about single payer healthcare.
A big part of what we need to do in preparation for the next cycle is to discover, cultivate, and raise the visibility of individual Democrats – statewide, in the congressional districts, and even in the legislative districts where possible. When we're doing this, we're not in any position to put litmus tests on potentially attractive Democratic candidates, liberal or moderate - nor should we. I think we need to stop even thinking in those terms; it's internally divisive and it causes us to miss good candidates where they might be available. We should be looking for people who are willing to and capable of running as Democrats – and let's leave the adjectives alone for a while.
(Would the focus on left/center Democratic unity damage the potential for center Democrat/center Republican unity? It's a good question. I would hate to give up what makes us Democrats for the sake of chasing after moderate Republicans – I think that's the mistake Kathleen made when she converted Morrison and Parkinson. Moderate Republicans are possible partners in alliance, but they're not the way to build the party. At this stage we need to be who we are the best we can be, rather than trying to figure out how to be more attractive to someone else. Let's put together a compelling message with competent candidates, and moderate Republicans will come to us - especially given the radical alternatives.)