The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fantasy politics for Democratic moderates

Democratic candidate for president Joe Biden speaks to Iowa voters at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa, in August. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

There’s a popular fable among a number of Democratic candidates for president: A moderate agenda has a better chance of passing than a more ambitious one. Former vice president Joe Biden, for example, made his ability to work with Republicans a central part of his election plank. “I’ve worked across the aisle to reach consensus,” he said when he announced his run for president. He’s stuck with that talking point ever since. The problem, in Biden’s view, is Trump and Trump alone. “With Trump gone, you’re going to begin to see things change,” he claimed a few months back about Republican politicians.

Then there’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who raised more than $1 million immediately after she attacked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during the October debate, and her ambitious legislative agenda, arguing “the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.” The same is true for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is also the recipient of renewed attention. And Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)? “We can fight a losing battle for Medicare-for-all,” he said on Monday. “We can continue to not address the fact that when the economy grows it only grows for the top 10 percent. We can continue to live in a country where the education system reinforces the income inequality rather than liberating people from it. We can continue to live in a state of climate denial. Or we can actively go to work on behalf of the American people.”

Please. All of this is the definition of wish fulfillment as politics. Think of it as fantasy politics for moderates.

In the United States, we deeply believe in a moderate center — or I should say, at least the supporters of one party believe in it. A Gallup poll from earlier this year found a majority of Democrats wanted to see their party take more moderate positions. A majority of Republicans, on the other hand, preferred their side to move even further toward the positions of their base.

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Thus our politics are frozen, not because Democrats are catering to their base but because Republicans are prioritizing theirs to the exclusion of all else, and have been for more than a decade. When the Republican congressional leadership — led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — all but refused to work with President Barack Obama for the entirely of his term, they were not only not punished for that decision, they were rewarded for it by voters, over and over again. And when Donald Trump became president, Washington Republicans didn’t seek to make peace with the Democrats. Instead, they used the courts and an arcane and little known law — the Congressional Review Act — to do away with masses of Obama-era regulations, including a host of environmental and consumer financial protections.

So why doesn’t this call for moderation get called out for the fantastical thinking it is? Well, in many cases it reflects the conventional thinking in Washington and in elite circles, where — despite everything — the moderate dream lives on. Medicare-for-all is deemed unrealistic by many, but somehow talk of buttressing and improving the Affordable Care Act — “We have to protect and build on Obamacare,” Biden said this past summer — often ignores the existential threat of sudden death the entire legislation is under, courtesy of a Trump-administration-supported court challenge. But that’s somehow okay.

Yet moderates refuse to admit a fundamental truth. The legislative and policy fixes they propose have little more chance of getting enacted in this environment than legislation proposing sweeping changes. Should one of the candidates selling the go-it-slow cooperative line make it to the White House, they will likely end up with a lot of explaining to do to voters when it turns out getting along and making deals with the other side wasn’t as easy as they made it sound.

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