Could Washington's centrist dream help Trump win a second term?

Biden: 2016 stroked our darkest emotions
Biden: 2016 stroked our darkest emotions

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Biden: 2016 stroked our darkest emotions 02:31

(CNN)The history of the 2016 presidential election is still very much in its draft stage, but there is at least one line -- from New York Sen. Chuck Schumer -- that is sure to feature in the final accounting.

During a live interview hours before Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in Philadelphia, he was asked if Donald Trump's blunt appeal to white working class voters could turn the Midwest red. Schumer, the unwavering optimist, offered allies this soothing equation:
"For every blue-collar Democrat we will lose in western P-A, we will pick up two or three moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia," he reasoned, "and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin. The voters who are most out there figuring out what to do are not the blue-collar Democrats. They are the college-educated Republicans, who lean Republican, or independent and in the suburbs."
It is a remarkable riff, and not only for the sheer tonnage of faulty assumptions the now-minority leader manages to pack into such a tidy space. Schumer clearly possesses an abiding belief in the power of the political center -- that there is no populist swell the establishment cannot divert, manage and make to find its level.
    This particular hubris is not his alone. In 2016, most Democrats (Republicans too), the Clinton campaign and the pundit class seemed to be working off a similar analysis. All but a few lonely observers missed out on the uprising that would deliver -- if only just -- Trump to the White House a few months later.
    Enter here former Vice President Joe Biden and the Republican Party's leading Trump-skeptic elected official, Ohio Gov. John Kasich. It was announced on Tuesday that the men will share a stage later this month at the University of Delaware, home to the Biden Institute, for a "moderated discussion" on "how to bridge the many political and partisan divides that exist in Washington, DC."
    This sounds nice enough in the abstract. Two grizzled political warriors, with more than six decades in Washington between them, coming together to amicably chew over ways to reroute gridlock. In yet another mark of their seriousness, both men have in the past few weeks and months taken shots at their own parties. Kasich this past weekend even told CNN's Jake Tapper he would be willing to leave the GOP if it continued its Trumpward drift.
    "If the party can't be fixed, Jake, then I'm not going to be able to support the party -- period," he said. "That's the end of it."
    Kasich hints at leaving GOP if it's not fixed
    Kasich hints at leaving GOP if it's not fixed

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    Kasich hints at leaving GOP if it's not fixed 01:55
    Biden has never threatened to leave the Democrats, but he has been critical of both Clinton's 2016 campaign strategy — saying it neglected the concerns of lower-middle class and blue-collar voters — and the party's rabble-rousing, ascendant progressive populist wing. In a late September blog post on the Biden Institute website, the former vice president sought to drive his stake into the middle ground.
    "I know some want to single out big corporations for all the blame," Biden wrote in an unsubtle jab at the rhetoric of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. "It is true that the balance has shifted too much in favor of corporations and against workers. But consumers, workers, and leaders have the power to hold every corporation to a higher standard, not simply cast business as the enemy or let industry off the hook."
    He then pledged to set about identifying "strategies for economic growth that put work first." The effort would begin with a speech to CEOs in Washington, followed by a return to Delaware, where Biden planned to "lead a panel discussion with national leaders in business, labor, non-profits, and government."
    "My goal," he said, "is to learn from their successes and find common ground to help leverage and scale them."
    Though Biden is obviously keen to set himself apart from Clinton, their ideology is almost identical -- technocratic hearts in thrall to market wisdom. Both are dedicated to mapping out paths of least resistance, rather than running the risk of alienating entrenched interests by, in the Sanders vein, seeking to clear the way with a bulldozer.
    In this regard, Kasich and Biden, contra the implicit sales pitch, make for the most ordinary of bedfellows. Together, they proudly represent a receding brand of centrism their respective parties' rank-and-file regard with increasing or outright hostility. By its very existence, their effort to bridge the "divides that exist in Washington, DC, today" doubles down on the conviction that, for all the upheaval in American culture and politics, voters are simply thirsting for a more decorous status quo.
    What follows from there is simple, and familiar, because Clinton's campaign banked on it, too. It says -- like Schumer did on that Thursday afternoon in July 2016 -- that those same voters will cross party lines to back a responsible alternative to the irresponsible Trump. And that the promise of restoring the hallowed norms Trump now shreds for fun is a workable antidote to the tribalism that would make such quick partisan rearrangement improbable. (And even if the Goldilocks crowd did seek to reorder themselves, the political parties of today, locked in to a primary system that tends to reward the most devoted, are more beholden to their idealists and true believers than any band of centrists.)
    More than three years out from the next general election and with Trump not yet at the quarter pole of his term, predicting the proverbial "mood of the electorate" in the fall of 2020 is a fun, but futile parlor game. For now, the fundamental things apply: Trump's core support is firm and animated by its visceral rejection of a political class that prizes the norms and niceties being peddled by Biden and Kasich.
    So a bet on either, with Ohio governor re-cast as an independent or Democrat, or any centrist aspirant in their image, would suppose that millions of voters are plotting an abrupt U-turn -- with no evidence to back it apart from a sniffing sense that progressives are ready to compromise on their dreams and the right would forswear power for better manners.