After losing a presidential election it thought it had in the bag, the Democratic Party is still very much in soul-searching mode. While progressive members of the party have been extremely vocal that the party should shift to the left, a quieter, moderate section of the party is urging caution in that move. Former senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) recently hosted a gathering of moderate Democrats in Denver to find a way to insert themselves into the Democratic-rebirth conversation. The Fix talked to Begich after the gathering. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
THE FIX: So, what was the takeaway from this Denver meeting of moderate Democrats?
BEGICH: It was a very healthy discussion. I first thought, honestly, we’d all come together and be griping about the world, which anybody in politics can do any time. But it didn’t turn out that way. You saw people motivated and interested in figuring out: How do we keep our values under what progressive want? Not to take away from their values, but in red states, we have to look at things a little differently.
What’s your pitch to the liberal wing of the party to let you guys have that conversation?
I’m an oil-and-gas, gun-supporting Democrat. I support gay rights, I support pro-choice, but I’m also focused on the economy and a deficit hawk and a defense spender. So does that fit or not fit with the Democratic Party? The answer is: It should. For the Democrats to be the majority party in any of the categories — from statehouse to governor to House members to Senate and so forth — you have to win some of these red states.
Okay, so how do Democrats win some of these red states?
We have to shift from just dictating what we think are the right answers to engaging with people at all levels within the Democratic Party, including the independents.
I think the 2016 election really highlighted the need to talk about four principles [we came up with in Denver]: security, opportunity, results and compassion. I think those four issues do not conflict at all with anybody in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And we have to put it in a more concise, direct message that I think we missed during the 2016 elections.
You must be very cognizant that progressives are arguably the loudest wing of the Democratic Party right now.
We like to call ourselves more centrists than independent Democrats. What we represent is an independent thinking within the Democratic Party, but we’re not pulling away from the values of the Democratic Party.
I think what happens in Washington is it’s always either that side or the other side, and they say:”You must be against progressives.” And the answer is: No, we just have a different approach.
What do you mean by different approach?
I’m a hardcore climate change believer, but I’m also a believer in oil and gas development. When I talk about climate change, you may not hear me talk about a lot from the emissions standpoint, but you’ll hear me talk about the economic benefits dealing with climate change could have.
On tax policy, you might see me emphasize small and independent and mid-size businesses. You may have progressives focused on what you do to lower the tax rate for a low-income individual. Neither of those are independent of each other.
After November, liberal icon Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the party’s failure to reach out to white working-class voters was “an embarrassment.” Where do you diverge from him?
I would say talking to the working class is very important, and I think that’s what we missed in 2016. We didn’t talk about growing the economy, about small business being the backbone of this country.
Minimum wage is important, but what’s more important is a good job so people don’t have to work three different jobs to make ends meet. That’s the real missing link. It’s great to talk about the minimum wage, but at the same time, if we’re not talking about how to create jobs, increasing the minimum wage is irrelevant if you don’t have jobs.
It feels like 2018 could be a test case for your ideas, given ten Democratic senators are running for reelection in Trump states.
The 2018 map is tough for Democrats in today’s world right this second, but you know the way politics works. I have a button that says: “Every week in politics is a lifetime.”
I’ll use Alaska as an example: People would say “Alaska is red.” Well, we won the statehouse under Trump, the first time since 1992. We have a first-time-ever Alaska Native as the speaker of the Alaska House. The mayor of Anchorage is a Democrat. Our governor is an independent. We have slowly in the last two years built what people said can’t happen. So politics today can radically change.
Speaking of changes, do you have any interest in running for public office again?
We’ll see what the future holds. I like what I’m doing right now.
Correction: The Fix originally mis-heard Begich’s description of the heritage of Bryce Edgmon, speaker of the Alaska House. He is an Alaska Native.