Democrats have to come to the center to get Georgian votes

                        FILE -- Stickers for voters in the Georgia primary election in Atlanta, March 12, 2024. Vote history data in Georgia supports the polling that’s showing President Joe Biden doing well among highly engaged voters but lagging overall. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

FILE -- Stickers for voters in the Georgia primary election in Atlanta, March 12, 2024. Vote history data in Georgia supports the polling that’s showing President Joe Biden doing well among highly engaged voters but lagging overall. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

In 2016, I could not conceive that Republican nominee Donald Trump could win the presidency. This was someone who had said, on tape, that he liked to sexually assault women. He threatened to lock up Hillary Clinton, his political opponent, and at his rallies. He threatened legal penalties if women had abortions. He publicly encouraged Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, to help his campaign. He showed no regard for rule of law or our U.S. Constitution, and even in 2016 suggested that the election might be rigged against him.

I was so stunned when he won that I left my tenured job at a university and ran for Congress. I endured five consecutive tough campaigns to flip a Republican-held seat.

Through all this time, I have been astounded at how blind the Democratic Party is to where most voters are. Democrats interpret victories against unfit candidates as a mandate for progressive political ideas. Rather than seizing the pragmatic moderate center — wide open for the taking — they move farther left and “double dog dare” voters to vote for Trumpian candidates — or, now, Trump himself.

In the dark winter of 2021 when I was sworn in to Congress, the coronavirus was rampant and Democrats had lost 13 seats in the House. Running as a moderate who supported fiscal responsibility and fixing health care, I was the only challenger to flip a Republican seat. My early briefings were somber. The Senate would be held by Republicans and the House by Democrats, but only with a four-vote margin. President Biden had barely squeaked by, and there were election challenges all over the country.

Carolyn Bourdeaux. (Alyssa Pointer/

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

But then Georgia delivered two Senate seats in a special election, giving Democrats a one-vote majority in the Senate. Suddenly the mood changed from gritty pragmatism to wild ebullience. Georgia Democrats eked out a victory in part thanks to Trump undermining his own party, but Democrats in Washington saw a mandate. Progressives urged the new president to be like Franklin Delano Roosevelt: We need a new New Deal. Go big or go home!

The Biden administration swiftly put on the table the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, followed by a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better social spending bill, which included pretty much every progressive policy wish in a single package.

In August that year, with these policies having passed or on the table, the Biden administration conducted its disastrous exit from Afghanistan, inflation started to spike, and the president’s popularity began a plummet from which he hasn’t recovered. Internal Democratic polling showed a possible catastrophic midterm election. Voters were not happy with the Democratic agenda.

With some effort, moderates pulled the Democratic agenda back to the pragmatic and often bipartisan center during the 117th Congress — and a good deal of important legislation passed. Aided by the U.S. Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, Republican election denial and terrible Republican candidate quality, the midterms were not as bad as Democrats had feared. Democrats held the Senate and only lost a few seats in the House, giving Republicans the narrowest of majorities.

Meanwhile in Georgia, Stacey Abrams and, by extension the Democrats’ statewide ticket, went into 2022 badly mispositioned. Abrams had spent the years since her narrow 2018 loss building her brand as a fierce advocate for social justice and voting rights — all very helpful for raising money from progressive donors and for firing up the Democratic base, but not for a statewide race that required moderate centrist voters. Gov. Brian Kemp claimed the mantle of a centrist who had stood up to Trump and who was bringing significant clean energy jobs to the state. Dobbs and the state’s six-week abortion ban notwithstanding, the Democratic ticket lost. The only exception was Sen. Raphael Warnock, who barely won against a severely flawed candidate.

You would think Democrats would adopt a vision broadly appealing to the pragmatic center and lean in to wedge issues for Republicans. Instead, in the past few months, the Biden administration has put out an extraordinary wave of regulatory changes and executive orders from changing Title IX, which reopens the debate about gender identity and women’s sports, to mandating that car companies produce only all-electric or hybrid cars and light trucks by 2032, to expanding deficit-financed student-forgiveness after royally screwing up the student aid application process, to labor law changes that will increase wages but could be challenging for small businesses. I’m listing these not because I am unsympathetic to many of them but because these are progressive priorities that can be hard to sell to moderate voters.

There might be broad enthusiasm for a government standing up to overweening corporations, particularly around issues such as drug prices, junk bank fees and hidden airline charges. But Democrats are not selling a narrowly tailored set of reforms with a thematic commonality; they are hitting voters with an avalanche of proposals that looks like a Build Back Better of regulatory changes — bold stuff for a president with a 40 percent approval rating.

It looks to me like Biden and his advisers are again doubling down on progressive interest group agendas and daring voters to vote for Trump. I worry that, like me in 2016, they simply can’t wrap their heads around the idea that voters just might call their bluff and actually elect Donald Trump.

Carolyn Bourdeaux is a former member of Congress from Georgia’s 7th District. She is a contributor to the AJC Opinion page.