This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee’s name.
The media and political class find it easy to distinguish between the group of progressive candidates in the Democratic presidential field (e.g., Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts) and the “moderates” (e.g., governors who aren’t in the race). The distinction isn’t very helpful and indeed misleads voters.
Every Democratic contender that I am aware of is for gun safety, green energy, a tax code in which the rich pay more, some form of universal health care, immigration reform, abortion rights and Wall Street regulation. The differences are largely matters of degree or strategy. (Do we raise more revenue from the rich by a 70 percent marginal tax rate or by raising the tax on capital gains? Do we enact Medicare-for-all by fiat, or do we make bold changes to get to universal health care coverage?) Warren, supposedly on the far left, proclaims that she is a capitalist, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, supposedly in the moderate camp, opposes watering down Dodd-Frank.
Indeed, some who take a more gradual approach on health care (e.g., former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg) take a very emphatic stance on climate change or guns.
Throw trade into the mix, and it gets really confusing. Does mimicking President Trump’s trade protectionism make one a moderate or a progressive (or simply wrong)?
I prefer to think of the field, indeed all politicians, as divided into two political styles.
There are the practitioners of passionate politics, who see leadership as the art of emotional connection in service of inspirational goals. When Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) speaks about social justice or Warren talks about the rigged system, they are seeking to inspire and mobilize the country. We’ve had effective presidents who fall into this category (e.g., Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy). The danger is that these pols get carried away, can’t answer the tough implementation questions and scare off voters outside the base.
Then there are the transactional politicians. They may have the exact same goals as the first group, but they are there to tell you “I don’t agree with, ‘When they go low, we go low,’ but I do agree that when they go low, we have to respond” (Klobuchar), or “to replace the entire private system where companies provide health care for their employees would bankrupt us for a very long time” (Bloomberg). We’ve had very good presidents who have followed this approach (e.g., George H.W. Bush). The danger for these pols is that voters don’t want to be told to go eat their spinach; no one likes a scold or downer.
Certainly, all politicians provide a mix of these two styles, but for Democrats in particular, they need the second group’s perspective to keep them from going off the rails. The pols who say “are you sure you can afford that?” or “you get more flies with honey” are often the pols who get elected in red states (e.g., Steve Bullock of Montana) and do the hard work of dealmaking (e.g., Vice President Joe Biden). Their calm, reason-driven approach is essential to good governance and to coalition-building.
The notion that everyone in the transactional camp is a mushy moderate simply isn’t so. Bloomberg is second to none in his passion on the environment; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a pro-tech and pro-growth Democrat, is as well. The 2020 presidential field needs more candidates from the transactional camp, even if they don’t nominate one. These candidates keep them grounded, force the field to define their objectives and remind the party they are looking to win over non-Democrats.
So bring on the governors (John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Bullock), the Midwesterners (Klobuchar) and more mayors. (Is Mitch Landrieu still around?) Democrats don’t need wet blankets, but they are in dire need of a splash of cold water now and then.