On a recent primary night, MSNBC host Chris Matthews was comfortably bantering on his program with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock when the conversation suddenly offered a revealing moment about the direction of America’s two dominant political parties.
Matthews didn’t even bother asking Steele whether the GOP was moving to the right on the ideological spectrum, he simply asserted it.
“Moving?” a wide-eyed Steele interjected, triggering laughter all around. Whether they like it or not, most every sober Republican agrees on the rightward trajectory of their party.
But when Matthews posed a similar question to Schriock about the Democrats, there wasn’t an immediate, simple, gut reaction.
“It’s a good question,” Schriock replied, pausing for a few seconds before settling on “no.”
“I think it is … commonsense, middle America with a voice for economic opportunity,” said the leader of the most prominent interest group for female Democrats in the country. “I don’t think that’s taking the party to the left, I think that’s where the Democratic Party is.”
While the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York and the ascendancy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have certainly handed liberals a larger megaphone in the political discourse, theirs remains a minority voice, even within the party.
Card-carrying Democrats and their messengers are still loathe to use the L-word (liberal) and even the most ardent members of the left struggle to make the case the party – as a whole – is moving in their direction.
Sure, there are liberal cultural transformations – like the growing acceptance of gay marriage – that are coursing through the veins of the country. But, if anything, that dramatic change has been spurred by public opinion and at the local level, not a concerted effort by the top of the party of Andrew Jackson. The new liberal litmus test is much more economic-centered, including support for more generous entitlement benefits, higher taxes on the wealthiest and punitive laws that punish nefarious financial institutions.
And despite claims otherwise, Democratic candidates this cycle aren’t centering their re-election bids around their support for the health care law – President Barack Obama’s singular biggest and most liberal domestic achievement. Try to find a television ad in which a Democratic Senate candidate in a competitive race trumpets his or her explicit support for Obamacare.
Perhaps the most glaring evidence that the Democratic Party isn’t truly becoming more instinctively liberal is this simple but glaring fact: It’s difficult to find a party stalwart who will say it is.
“I think it’s a complicated question,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “I don’t think it’s particularly left or moving left.”
Even with all the current advantages the Democratic Party wields on issues, demographics and cultural relevance, “conservative” remains a more politically palatable term than “liberal.”
“You can be conservative in a lot of ways. It could just be being cautious, careful, saving money. There’s a lot of ways it’s a positively balanced word. Liberal has a very political meaning that I think in the current landscape is seen as a more extreme label than conservative,” says Michael Dimock, a vice president at Pew Research who has studied political ideology. “That’s why you see all these groups in Washington using 'progressive' instead of 'liberal.' They see progressive as less of a stark term.”
While it’s true that more Americans are identifying as liberals, the heart of the Democratic Party remains in the middle. In a January Pew Research survey, just over a third of Democrats described themselves as liberal, compared with 63 percent identifying as moderate or conservative.
"It's a centrist party with some progressive roots. It struggles between the center and the left," says former Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., one of the House's most liberal members during his nearly two-decade tenure.
Those ideological numbers flip for Republicans. Conservatives rule the roost with a 67 percent majority in their party, according to Pew. Self-described moderates and liberals make up just 32 percent of the GOP.
This helps explain why conservative challenges to incumbent GOP members of Congress have become far more prevalent than liberal challenges against Democratic members.
“If it were just as simple as moving toward the left, then you’d see the same problem in our primaries that you’re seeing in the Republican primaries. You’d see moderates being taken out,” Lake says.
If the party holds the Senate this year, it will be because moderates such as Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., survived in a cycle when liberals are more prone to stay home.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who won a hard-fought re-election battle in 2012 on an agenda that can fairly be described as liberal or progressive, says he's not judging how 2014 Democrats should run their campaigns, but thinks a strategy pegged on hugging the center is foolish.
"There's this view that independents are ideologically in the middle and the way to appeal to them is to move to the center and be cautious. That's not how people think in the world," Brown says.
That's likely a minority view in Brown's Democratic caucus, which is struggling to hold its six-seat majority this year by defending seats in a half dozen states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012.
Brown won't even entertain the question of whether his party is becoming more liberal because he claims that's not how regular voters operate.
"I think it's meaningless," he says. "Voters don't use an ideological spectrum when thinking about politics, they think about, 'Whose side are you on? Are you authentic?' I just don't think what matters is left or right."
Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council that shaped former President Bill Clinton’s centrist domestic agenda and author of “The New Democrats and The Return to Power,” says it defies logic and math to argue that Landrieu and Pryor could run the same way as Brown or Warren do.
He doesn't sugarcoat his view of liberals' sway: "They're aren't enough of them. Liberals make the noise, and that's fine."
But, for the most part, centrists still run the party. And they’ll likely continue do so into the near future.
Take front-running 2016 presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton.
The Beltway media has developed a popular narrative that a liberal insurgent – potentially Warren – would pose the biggest threat to a Clinton nomination.
But a May CNN poll found, in fact, that more Democrats would prefer their presidential nominee to be more conservative than Clinton, as opposed to more liberal. Furthermore, Clinton is scoring well with liberals – far better than she did in 2008. Yet there’s hardly a Democrat who believes Clinton would pursue a more ideologically liberal presidency than Obama.
“We know what we’re going to get with Hillary, more or less. We got it with Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton took the Democratic Party to the right,” says Ray Donaldson, a retired IBM employee from Columbia, Maryland, who counts himself as a dyed-in-the wool liberal and fan of Warren.
Donaldson recently attended The New Populism conference – a gathering of liberal activists and academics on Capitol Hill – to urge Warren to consider national office. She politely rebuffed his request.
Donaldson expected as much, but says he’s distressed about the country’s direction, even during a period with a Democratic president and a Democratic U.S. Senate.
Asked if his party is moving to the left, he replied incredulously, “No, it’s moving to the right.”
In interviews, other attendees echoed Donaldson’s lament.
“I’d like to see it become more liberal,” says Frank McEvoy, a writer from Arlington, Virginia. “I don’t see that.”
Roger Hickey, co-founder for the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future, contends that while the base is lurching leftward, party leadership is less comfortable with the path.
“The structure of the Democratic Party [is] trying to figure this out,” he says. “There are the timid Democrats who don’t want to threaten their possibility of getting money from Wall Street. There’s a lot of them, including Hillary Clinton.”
The innate pressure of keeping up with Republicans on the money front is a constant concern, Democrats will admit.
Bonior, who rose to be the No. 2 Democrat in the House, says even those best-intentioned lawmakers who come to Washington heralding liberal values are prone to become overwhelmed by the impact money has on the system. "Progressivity gets lost in a system that is corrupt and broken," he says, citing the gradual but consistent loosening of campaign finance laws. "It’s very difficult. You have to be a very strong leader to overcome that."
Therefore, as one left-of-center Democratic consultant puts it, “everything from prosecuting Wall Street to a more robust estate tax ain’t happening.”
“It’s the green,” he says.
There is also a harsher assessment about the inherent steeliness of the party. Since Democrats are intrinsically programmed toward cooperation and compromise, they are more likely to give in, grumble those itching for a fight.
“The only people who give any credence to Republican Senators’ rhetoric is Democratic Senators,” said former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, years ago in a line now revered and often cited by those in the liberal flank.
From, the DLC founder who still holds former President Bill Clinton up as the template for a “progressive” Democrat that champions economic opportunity and mobility, says liberals will only be able to achieve their goals if they are seen as credible on growing the private economy among all income brackets.
“The essential prerequisite for being a party of opportunity and upward mobility is you’ve got to be able to grow the private economy. You grow the private economy, then you can redistribute,” From says. “It’s fun to be out there with your pitchforks, but at some point you want to have broader backing in the country. The American ethic is equal opportunity and not equality.”
Liberals hear that type of language and conclude that laissez faire orthodoxy is just more pandering to the rich – and precisely why the economy has ended up in such a precarious position for the middle class.
It’s a low-boil ideological divide among Democrats – hardly as simmering as the Republican fight – but it’s one that the establishment is winning. Their power subsists partly due to political practicality, but also partly out of loyalty to an embattled president who already has his hands full fending off caustic criticism from the right.
Since Democrats control most of the levers of power in Washington, there’s less incentive for a full-throated clash.
Pew’s Dimock says one event that could change that dynamic is a monumental loss of power.
“You could imagine that happening among the Democrats if they were to lose in 2016,” he says.
In other words, for liberals to win, the party might have to lose the White House first.