Introducing This Moderate Democrat
Doug Davidoff is The Moderate Democrat. Here, he relates his history and his family, and how this has shaped his views on politics heading into the 2024 presidential race.
I am a liberal Democrat in a progressive Democratic world.
I am a liberal in the FDR-HST-JFK-LBJ-Carter-Clinton-Obama sense.
I am a liberal moderate Democrat who came of age in the politics of razor-thin Democratic victory margins that often happen in the Midwest.
Today, all this makes me a centrist and moderate Democrat.
I’m a long way from being a Republican, so don’t get me wrong. I’m also a long way from being an independent. I am loyal to my party.
I’m in favor of some principles of Libertarians. I am in favor of one idea that should be favored by Democrats, Libertarians, and Republicans: namely Universal Basic Income for all Americans.
I am in favor of economic wealth for the middle class.
I am in favor of sensible tax and spending policies.
I am in favor of a robust foreign policy and a strong military.
I am in favor of incentivizing growth of new industries, when linked to jobs, of course.
I am in favor of a clean environment. I have been a fan of electric vehicles for decades.
I treasure our nation’s natural resources, beauty, mountains, coastline, and national parks.
I love New England, the Southeast, the Midwest, and Alaska.
Among my favorite Democrats have been: Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of New York, Gov. Wilbur L. Cross of Connecticut, President Harry S. Truman of Missouri, Gov. Adlai Stevenson II of Illinois, Gov. W. Averell Harriman of New York, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of Georgia,. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts, Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy of Massachusetts, Senator Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy of New York, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy of New York, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, President Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas, Senator Abe Ribbicoff of Connecticut, National and State Party Chair John Bailey of Connecticut, U.S. Rep. Don Irwin of Connecticut, congressional candidate Paul Davidoff of New York (my uncle), party activist Linda Greenberg Stone Davidoff of New York (my aunt), former U.S. Rep. Andrew “Andy” Jacobs Jr. of Indiana, U.S. Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, U.S. Rep. Julia M. Carson of Indiana, U.S. Rep. Peter “Pete” Visclosky of Indiana, U.S. Rep. Frank McCloskey of Indiana, U.S. Rep. Philip R. “Phil” Sharp of Indiana, Gov. James B. “Jim” Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, City Councillor Miriam Preston Block of (Raleigh) North Carolina, National Party Chair Joe Andrew of Indiana, U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Party Chair Robin E. Winston of Indiana, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, U.S. Rep. Mike Mansfield of Montana, Marion County (Indianapolis) Party Chair John Livengood of Indiana, State Rep. Dennis Avery of Indiana, State Sen. Ed Gomes of Connecticut, Mayor Isabella Cannon of (Raleigh) North Carolina, Mayor G. Smedes York of (Raleigh) North Carolina, Mayor Winfield Moses of (Fort Wayne) Indiana, Allen County (Fort Wayne) Party Chair Brian Stier of Indiana, Mayor P. Pete Chalos of (Terre Haute) Indiana, Mayor Roger Parent of (South Bend) Indiana, Mayor James P. “Jim” Perron of (Elkhart) Indiana, Mayor Mike Harmless of (Greencastle) Indiana, Mayor James Riehle of (Lafayette) Indiana, Mayor Bart Peterson of Indianapolis, Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, President Barack Obama of Illinois, President William J. “Bill” Clinton of Arkansas, President James E. “Jimmy” Carter of Georgia, Gov. Dannel J. Malloy of Connecticut, Mayor Martin J. “Marty” Walsh of Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Indiana, U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and …
… and two more: U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts and my mentor and friend, Gov. Frank Lewis O’Bannon of Indiana.
I now understand people who complain, “I didn’t leave my party. My party left me.”
I like the people I just named and pictured above. But do they or would they like today’s Democratic Party’s progressive takeover and take-no-prisoners mindset? While many would, I strongly suspect others would object.
I am in favor of loving anyone and being loved by anyone. But I feel my part is ravaged by identity politics. We don’t talk about the economy or policy anymore.
How did I get this way? Why am I The Moderate Democrat on Substack.
Here’s my story.
My City of Origin: New York
My father’s family was and remains progressive.
My great-grandfather Jake Davidoff was a socialist pharmacist who emigrated to Manhattan from Odessa, Ukraine, during the pogroms of the late 19th Century.
My mother’s family — Jews from Poland and the Baltics — was more moderate.
My maternal grandfather, Allen Robert Taft had a talent for generating press clippings. He practiced law in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., the borough where he was born. He also wrote novels. These generated reviews and clippings as he spoke around New York City and environs on publicity tours for his books.
In just about every clipping, Allen noted that he was a member of the Brooklyn Democratic Club. He was reared and worked in Brooklyn. He was also a member of the Queens Democratic Club because he lived in the Belle Harbor section of Queens. I never asked, but I imagine that Allen was a “regular” Democrat and a friend to New York’s Tammany Hall patronage machine. He might have needed this to keep his largest client, the New York City Firefighters Pension Fund.
Literally, last night, I came across one of Allen’s news clippings mentioning that he was running for New York City Council from Queens. I need knew that! (He either never made it to the ballot, or he lost.)
My parents, Jerry Davidoff and Denise Ellen Taft Davidoff, were children of FDR’s presidency and World War II. They were practical reformers.
Vassar wooed Mom to become a political science major by arranging for her to serve New York Gov. Harriman as a “go-fer” at the 1952 Democratic Convention in Chicago. She also set up the reception room at the Blackstone Hotel for Carmine DeSapio, the midcentury boss of Tammany Hall.
But Tammany was on the way out. This was the goal of reformers in New York City. They had consequential help from upstate Dutchess County. Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady of New York State as well as the United States and doyenne of Dutchess, went to war with DeSapio over statewide candidates, not incidentally including her son. Her challenges were a big step on the road to ending Tammany patronage in New York City forever and liberalizing New York State politics.
My parents met working on the successful 1954 reform NYC mayoral campaign of Robert F. Wagner II, who also later broke with Tammany.
Growing Up Democratic in Westport, Connecticut
The Connecticut Turnpike (Interstate 95) opened in 1958. Suburbanization was coming. The next year, my parents and I moved to Westport, Conn. I was age two. From that year forward, Westport was my childhood home.
Dad was a lawyer in town and ran for the Connecticut House in 1962. (He lost.) Mom opened an advertising agency in Fairfield, east of Westport. She was successful in a man’s world of business. My dad championed her and championed women’s liberation. I was taught by my father — you read that right — to be anti-sexist. Mom was an adwoman in an era when ad people where admen, like on Mad Men.
Westport was hardly a cookie-cutter town. After World War II, Westport became a locus of the New York arts community, especially in the summer at homes close to Compo Beach. Wealthy professionals from New York — lawyers like my father, corporate C-level executives, and lots of ad and marketing execs — raised their families in Westport and its superlative public schools. Over decades, the town, like Connecticut itself, shifted from Republican to Democratic.
My parents were involved in local and state campaigns. My mom, the advertising copywriter, held Saturday meetings at our dining room table during campaign seasons. With twice-weekly editions of The Westport News and other local weekly papers, the dominant Republicans and the we-try-harder Democrats fought out their policies in long full-page ads that changed every week. Thanks to my mom and her creative team, the Democrats had the better ads. Thanks to inertia, the Republicans won — but not always and not forever. My parents had many Democratic friends, and also many Republican friends. I learned how to be bipartisan in my personal friendships.
My grandparents, who also lived in town, sent me to Temple Israel, a reform congregation, to attend Hebrew School and learn about Judaism, Hebrew, Israel, liturgy, music, and the history of my people. I also went to Sunday school at The Unitarian Church in Westport. My father joined the church, followed some years later by my mother. There I learned about music, liturgy, ethics, anthropology, mythology, participating in worship services.
For a long time, my Democratic parents supported U.S. Rep. Stewart B. “Stew” McKinney, R-Conn., because he was a better candidate than any candidate presented by the Fourth District Democrats. Stew was one of Connecticut’s best public servants.
I grew up reading The New York Times in the morning, The Bridgeport Post in the afternoon, and The Hartford Courant, which arrived in the mail two days late. Plus the local non-daily papers.
In 1969, there was a town wide protest against the Vietnam War. I marched to downtown from Long Lots Junior High School. There was a huge rally with lots of famous speakers at the main intersection of town. That night, the town packed The Unitarian Church. In a somber service, we lit candles and read the names of 500 Connecticut residents who had died in Vietnam. I wasn’t comfortable with unruly protests. But I was against a war that I barely understood.
I was the center of a clash between the God-centered liberal Judaism of the temple and the reason-centered liberal Unitarian Universalism of the church. (I have neglected to mention these houses of worship stood next door to each other!) I was preparing for a bar mitzvah. Eventually I chose the church, seeing more loving spirit there.
I went to Rabbi Byron Rubenstein in his wood-paneled book-lined study to tell him I did want a bar mitzvah. He told me he had known all along. I decided I would be both Unitarian Universalist and Jewish but I would stop my Jewish formal education. I saw no theological conflict.
It worked for me and continues to do so.
My parents were also instrumental in the first program to bring predominantly African American children from the industrial declining city of Bridgeport to the mostly white schools in Westport. My parents continued to be anti-racist the rest of their lives. Again, I learned from them.
Being thoroughly conflict-adverse thanks to the battles between my parents and grandparents over my religious upbringing, I chose a career that skirted the reality of conflict. I would be a journalist and cover conflict, writing about it in newspapers. But I would not be part of conflict. I would eschew conflict in my personal life.
Durham and Raleigh, North Carolina
I went to Duke University in 1975 and immersed myself in the student daily newspaper, The Chronicle. I wrote a lot, edited a lot, took photos, and pasted up cold type to get the paper ready for press every night. During my junior year, I served as managing editor. The paper was liberal, but I was there to manage the straight news. I occasionally wrote an op-ed column, but generally I was afraid of my own opinions.
I was married. I worked in North Carolina for The Cary News, The Raleigh Times, and The (Raleigh) News & Observer, all owned by editorially liberal Daniels family of Raleigh. I liked it.
We moved to Indianapolis. I worked for the afternoon Indianapolis News. It and its larger sister paper, the morning Indianapolis Star, were owned by the editorially conservative Pullman family of Indianapolis. I liked this, too.
I had two wonderful children, now ages 32 and 28.
I left the paper and worked a year for Hudson Institute, a New York think tank that had moved to Indianapolis. (It’s now based in Washington.) Under the leadership of a well-know conservative writer and philanthropy expert, Les Lenkowsky, Hudson projected itself as a right-wing powerhouse that tolerated contrarian and even Democratic viewpoints. Like all think tanks, it battled for thought leadership almost before the term was invented. It wanted influence in ideas, in op-ed pages of the best newspapers, and in legislation. I was among the Democrats who joined Hudson. I edited and placed op-eds for shining intellects I sometimes disagreed with.
I let my hidden Democrat become alive. But I did not like Hudson. It was too demanding and too confusing. I left.
I went to see a wise lawyer at his office right on Monument Circle in downtown Indy. He asked if I had ever thought of becoming involved in politics. Two very different men, firebrand Indy Mayor Steve Goldsmith (R) and a quiet moderate, Lt. Gov. Frank O’Bannon (D) of Corydon in rural Southern Indiana, were lined up to run for governor in 1996. The attorney knew both men. He asked if I could see myself working hard for either man. I said yes — yes I would very much like to work for Frank O’Bannon. I knew Frank from my days as a newspaper reporter when I hung around the Indiana Statehouse. I liked his staff and his political circles. In some ways, he was similar to my father. The attorney told me to tell Frank that I wanted to work for him. I did just that.
In 1994, I went to work for the Indiana Housing Finance Authority, a quasi-state agency whose board of directors was chaired by Lt. Gov. O’Bannon. I learned the complex, morally agreeable, and very satisfying work of financing affordable housing for Hoosiers. And I was now inside the O’Bannon tent.
In 1996, Frank was elected governor. His predecessor, Evan Bayh, was elected to the U.S. Senate. Democrats rocked in Indiana. Steve Goldsmith went on to do impressive work in government technology and teaching at Harvard Kennedy School. He is regarded today as a founder of the school of conservative policies for Republican big-city mayors.
But meanwhile, I was learning the secret to Democratic success in Indianapolis, then one of America’s reliably GOP cities, and to Democratic success in Indiana, a state with competitive elections that Republicans won and won and won.
The secret was not being scary. Move to the middle. Propose policies that made sense. Campaign hard. Organize. Walk through carefully selected precincts and knock on carefully selected doors. Ask for votes. Work very hard against the entrenched GOP machine based in Indianapolis. Indy was the state’s largest city and the state capital. It was the center.
As Gov. O’Bannon faced re-election in 2000 against a charismatic Republican congressman, Rep. David McIntosh of Muncie. He was a Yale Law graduate and had co-founded The Federalist Society while at Yale, I was recruited to join the Indiana Democratic Party as communications director. It soon became apparent that to beat McIntosh and win re-election, we needed to bloody McIntosh with an intensive opposition campaign. In the days of fax machines, we sent out weekly reports on numbskull anti-Hoosier policies McIntosh supported with his votes or comments in Washington. These faxes became daily as the campaign progressed.
I worked from a huge storehouse of opposition research. My mentor, Indiana Democratic Chair Robin Winston, kept close tabs on me and encouraged me to find every newsworthy avenue to attack McIntosh. Our goal was to show that Frank’s policies as governor fit inside the Hoosier mainstream. Our goal was to show that David McIntosh was out of touch with Hoosiers.
This is quite a trick in conservative Indiana. Robin and my colleagues at the state party office as well as thousands of volunteers from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River developed the moxie to beat back the Republican machine. From door to door, they showed folks that ordinary Hoosiers supported Frank O’Bannon. Gee, all you centrist Hoosiers, couldn’t you also stand with Frank O’Bannon?
They did. In 2000, Frank won re-election. We were triumphant. The notion of concentrating on a volunteer-centered ground campaign proved as effective as the TV commercial air campaigns then generally favored. We had energized the Democrats. Unfortunately, that was the high mark. In the past 23 years, no Democrat has won the governor’s office in Indiana. Republicans control the Legislature. But Democrats serve in Congress, as county sheriffs, and as mayors. Joe Hogsett, now mayor of Indianapolis, and the Democratic elected leadership of Marion County, whose seat is Indianapolis, govern from this centrist tradition. It still works. Victory is possible, even in red-state Indiana.
Frank suffered a stroke and died in office in 2003 at age 73. By then, I had established a public relations practice in Indianapolis and I was an active volunteer in Democratic politics. Frank’s stroke triggered a severe depression for me. My life went through years of depression, fatigue, and unhappiness.
I initiated a marriage dissolution. My wife was caught by surprise, which I regret. To clear my head, I moved to Chicago, where my brother lived. He set me up in a good job. I liked Chicago. Yet my depression interfered again.
I liked the style of Chicago Mayor Richie Daley. He supported Democratic economic goals, especially the union platforms, and also cultivated good relationships with business. He grew up on the South Side near the Whie Sox stadium and maintained decent relationships with African-Americans. When I lived in Chicago for three years, it was a well-functioning city.
I fell in love again and moved with her to her new job in the Boston area. I entered into Massachusetts politics as a volunteer and became a neighborhood representative in my Town Meeting. I learned that I was not as progressive as some of the Massachusetts Democrats. I supported a moderate for governor.
I returned to Connecticut eight years ago. The next year, I fell in love again — and I’m still with her. I opposed Donald Trump with certainty, but not vehemently. Mostly, I was saddened at the increasing polarization of America. Egged on by social media, voters were running into opposite corners, staying there, and shouting across the ring where campaigns ought to be fought. It was as if there was no more mainstream in either party’s politics.
Democrats Now and Joe Biden
But there was. The huge field of Republicans in the 2016 presidential primary elections included moderates. The Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was a moderate. In 2020, the huge field of Democrats in the presidential primary elections included moderates. One of them was Joe Biden. I lazily supported him. He won the nomination and the election.
But Joe Biden, like the party, has become beholden to the Progressive Democrats. They have lost sight of the mainstream I learned to love as my political sweet spot in Indiana. Many moderate Democrats were elected to Congress. But Progressives endanger election viability for moderate Democrats. In many ways, Trump threatens to do the same to the Republicans. The polarized ends won’t meet in to middle.
Articles in this Substack publication will build a case against Democrats renominating President Biden in 2024. I will write about what is wrong with Joe Biden — whom I voted for!. I will write about who I’ll back in 2024 and why. (Spoiler alert: She’s a senator from Minnesota, perhaps with a running mate who is governor of Kentucky.) I’ll try to envision Democratic victories from my moderate Democratic perspective. I want to win from the mainstream middle, the way we won in Indiana. To me, that’s the only sure way to win, not just in the battleground Middle West, but in Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and across the United States.
My name is Douglass T. Davidoff. I am The Moderate Democrat. I have values learned in the liberal Northeast. I have political instincts forged in fiery competitive campaigns of the Ohio Valley. I learned that Democrats win when they appeal to the moderate mainstream of American voters. I advocate for moderate Democrats who stick to the mainstream because that’s how Democrats will win,
I hope you will join my community on Substack. We’re going to talk about what works to engineer Democratic victories. You can subscribe to get this Substack delivered to you in email. I plan to write periodically but regularly. You can follow me on Substack in your web browser or in your mobile phone or tablet app.
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