The natural inclination of Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans is to confront President-elect Donald Trump’s radical ideas with radical arguments, a hectoring tone and extreme measures. And make no mistake, Trump is a radical:
Trump is a one-man norm shredder — an anti-conservative “chaos candidate” (in the apt words of Jeb Bush) who’s now on his way to becoming a president who spreads that chaos throughout the executive branch, American political culture, and even the international order itself. He shows every indication of intending to disregard many of the formal and informal constraints that impinge upon any president’s behavior, hem it in, and direct it into moderate channels. That will leave Trump (a man with a long track record of immoderate impulses and judgments) remarkably free to determine for himself how to comport himself in office.
Responding in kind with vitriol and radical proposals from the left may make many despondent progressives feel better, but it is a recipe for losing over and over again at a time they control nothing — not the White House, the House, the Senate, most governorships or most statehouses. The alternative to matching extremism with extremism — and losing — is to confront Trump’s radicalism with unflinching moderation.
We are in full agreement with writers such as Peter Wehner, who cautions:
Moderation does not mean truth is always found equidistant between two extreme positions, nor does it mean that bold and at times even radical steps are not necessary to advance moral ends. Moderation takes into account what is needed at any given moment; it allows circumstances to determine action in the way that weather patterns dictate which route a ship will follow.
But there are general characteristics we associate with moderation, including prudence, the humility to recognize limits (including our own), the willingness to balance competing principles and an aversion to fanaticism. Moderation accepts the complexity of life in this world and distrusts utopian visions and simple solutions. The way to think about moderation is as a disposition, not as an ideology. Its antithesis is not conviction but intemperance.
Moreover, moderation (in the sense of bipartisan buy-in) is the only way to ensure that immediate gains are not wiped out when the current crew loses power. Operating by fiat, as we saw in the Obama era, leaves one with a fragile legacy. Moderation is also the ultimate means of respecting diversity. Trump won the election and says he can do better. That assertion and the people who support it need to be given a chance to demonstrate it is possible — but not over the objections of the majority who didn’t vote for him or at the expense of those who now depend on it.
Aurelian Craiutu, whose book “Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes” Wehner cites, asserts that “moderation, in its many faces, is a fighting and bold creed grounded in a complex and eclectic conception of the world.” He explains, “A great advantage of the latter is that it can be shared by diverse actors on all sides of the political spectrum (not only in the center!) in their efforts to promote necessary social and political reforms, defend liberty, and keep the ship of the state on an even keel. Because it rejects ideological thinking, moderation implies a good dose of courage, nonconformism, flexibility, and discernment.” Moreover, he says that “as a tolerant and civil virtue related to temperance and opposed to violence, moderation respects the spontaneity of life and the pluralism of the world and can protect against pride, one-sidedness, intolerance, and fanaticism in our moral and political commitment.”
We also argue it is the only means of halting Trumpism and its immoderate, anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies. In practice, how does “moderation” tackle Trump’s extreme agenda?
Let’s take repeal of Obamacare. If one thinks, moderately, that tens of millions of people should not lose health care and any alternative must be equally or more effective (and meet GOP promises that it be cheaper and offer more individual choice), then courageous moderation is required. Democrats and reasonable Republicans should be unflinching (moderation is not for the timid): There is no repeal without a feasible plan both to keep insurers in the exchanges during a transition and offer a comprehensive alternative plan.
Moderation does not mean insisting Obamacare is perfect. Moderate politics is not promoted by calls to the barricades or vilification of the entire GOP and decades of political history. It does mean — and it can be successful — in building a coalition of 51 senators to oppose repeal without the transition and alternative plans. (GOP Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine and now Kentucky’s Rand Paul have all voiced concerns about repeal with no immediate replacement.) That approach not only makes sense but also appeals to Trump’s own voters, who may think Obamacare in theory is a bad idea but face loss of insurance coverage if it is repealed with only the nebulous promise of something better.
Moderation in this instance, then, consists of robustly making the case to voters that repeal without an alternative is reckless, unfair and cruel. It means making the case to Republicans that it is political suicide to take away Obamacare and face the voters in 2018 with no alternative in place. It requires private and public efforts to appeal to those Republicans (including some who already have spoken out about a repeal-and-dawdle approach) who will be essential to block “repeal with nothing.”
Moderation above all is a reality-based philosophy. We are where we are, and neither moral retribution nor self-doubt can get in the way of critical steps to prevent great harm to the republic and to fellow Americans. (Between us, whether they are or not, Americans like to think they are being moderate, so marching under the banner of moderation already gives one an advantage.) That means, because of the election results, both Republicans and Democrats. We hope Democrats are discerning enough to see this is the only viable approach and enough Republicans cling to the essentially conservative virtue of moderation. Otherwise, we’re really up a creek.