After sprint to left, some 2020 Democrats inch back toward the middle

Beto O’Rourke was nearing the end of his stump speech when he turned to an unexpected subject in the 2020 primary: pragmatism.

The former Texas congressman was outlining a health care plan that, unlike proposals from some of his Democratic presidential rivals, would expand coverage, but allow people to keep their private insurance if they wanted.

“In my opinion, that is the surest and the quickest way to do that,” O’Rourke said, speaking to about a hundred people at a campaign stop in a suburb of Washington, D.C. last week. “It does not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.”

O’Rourke’s message isn’t an isolated one in this primary— at least not anymore. In a campaign where the opening months often felt like an all-out sprint to embrace an aggressive platform of liberal policies and politics, a handful of top-tier candidates are beginning to voice support for a more moderate, incrementalist approach.

Cory Booker, for instance, has spoken recently about the dangers of pursuing policies that strive to achieve “perfection,” but are politically unattainable. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have pointedly declined to back some ideas that count as progressive favorites like single-payer health care and tuition-free college.

And on Thursday, the candidate widely expected to most fervently embrace a pragmatic approach, Joe Biden, entered the race.

“I read in the New York Times today that one of my problems if I were to run for president, I like Republicans,” Biden said back in January, when he was openly considering a run for the presidency. “OK, well, bless me father for I have sinned.”

The shift has helped clarify the makeup of the 2020 contest, separating a more moderate contingent of candidates from leading liberals like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — and is heartening centrist Democrats who had feared the primary was spinning inexorably leftward.

“I do think a sense of realism is beginning to seep into the Democratic field,” said Will Marshall, president of the center-left think-tank Progressive Policy Institute, who contrasted what he sees now with the “radical posturing” at the beginning of the primary.

Even candidates who have crafted an agenda to attract progressives have signaled lately that they plan to adopt what moderate Democrats consider a more realistic path. Booker, for instance, has embraced far-reaching initiatives like a federal jobs guarantee and signed on to legislation to implement a single-payer health care system.

But during a campaign speech earlier this month in his home of Newark, N.J., the senator emphasized that even while he will “fight” for a Medicare for All health care system, he first wants to make more incremental progress, such as lowering Medicare’s eligibility age.

“A real progressive movement refuses to stall out in righteous indignation,” Booker said. “It channels that indignation into the work that actually improves people’s lives. A real progressive movement does not hold progress for communities like mine hostage today for promises that perfection will come tomorrow.”

It’s a message that stands in stark contrast to the one continually pushed by Sanders and Warren, both of whom have continued to advocate for bigger, more muscular approaches to policy and politics. Just this week, Warren called for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, a policy at odds with the wishes of some party leaders, while Sanders broke new ground by supporting the right to vote for imprisoned citizens.

Buttigieg, notably, declined to support a proposal to let inmates vote.

Progressive operatives argue that a more pragmatic message risks alienating the party’s core constituency — even if they say they’re happy that some candidates are no longer pretending to be liberal champions.

“During the early part of this race you had a number of corporate Democrats who were trying to masquerade as progressives because they realized it is the ascendant force in the Democratic Party,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America, a progressive activist group.

He added: “The challenging thing for them is the progressive wing of the party is ascendant and there is a real hunger for a nominee in 2020 who is committed to a bold, inclusive populist vision for the future of this country and not mired in the same kind of corporate Democratic talking points that have lost multiple elections and over a thousand elected seats across the country.”

But centrist Democrats say that, from their perspective, the new tone makes sense in a party they think is less liberal and confrontational than many activists make it out to be. To them, there’s a sea of voters waiting for a different message.

“While there are a few people who want to call Democrats the party of liberal socialists, that’s not the case,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina Democratic operative who has spoken positively of Biden. “There are a few voices in the choir who are singing a little louder, but that doesn’t mean they’re a true reflection of the Democratic Party as a whole.”

Seawright added that he thought candidates on the campaign trail would naturally become more moderate in their approach the more they talked with voters.

“The primary allows for the marketplace of ideas to be debated,” he said. “It gives you a chance as a candidate to evolve and see things a bit differently and reflect the hearts and minds of the voters.”

Adam Wollner contributed to this story.

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.