Will progressives and moderates feud while the country burns? Or will these natural allies take advantage of a historic opportunity to strengthen American democracy, defeat both Trumpism and an increasingly radical form of conservatism, and create a broad alliance for practical, visionary government?
Judging from the tone of the Democratic primary on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, feuding seems to be winning. Some of this contention is inevitable; each of these candidates wants to win. The danger lies in fostering the idea that the divides between progressives and moderates are more important than their intense and shared opposition with President Trump and a right-wing version of Republicanism that seeks to undo our nation’s advances since the New Deal. The triumph of this view would be — let’s not mince words — a social catastrophe.
The Democratic campaign was destined to entail an argument about the party’s direction for the next decade. Is this election about restoration, after the madness of Trump’s time in office? Or should the accent be on transformation, to grapple with the underlying problems that led to Trump’s election in the first place?
E.J. Dionne Jr. writes about politics in a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. This essay is adapted from his book, “Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country.”
Thanks to his personality, background and experience, former vice president Joe Biden is the premier restorationist. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) both represent what Warren, in her oft-repeated promise, has called “big structural change.” Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) stand somewhere in between. They are closer to Biden philosophically but, as new voices in the national conversation, have a chance to argue that they represent a break with the past. And looking past the early contests, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg clearly falls into the restorationist camp.
Like so many of the binaries in politics, the restoration/transformation optic captures something important but is also a false choice. The country can’t simply pick up where it left off before Trump took office. The radicalized conservatism that dominates the Republican Party will not go away even if he is defeated. The inequalities of class and race that helped fueled Trump’s rise have deepened during his presidency. You might say restoring the norms that Trump threatens requires transformation. And the majority that opposes Trump is clearly seeking a combination of restoration and transformation. They want to bring back things they believe have been lost as a prelude to moving forward. What they want most to restore is progress.
Progressives and moderates need to realize that at this moment in history, they share a commitment to what public life can achieve and the hope that government can be decent again. They reject overt appeals to racism that have been Trump’s calling card and an approach to politics based on dividing the nation. Together, they long for a politics focused on freedom, fairness and the future.
What should bring moderates and progressives together is an idea put forward long ago by the late social thinker Michael Harrington: “visionary gradualism.” The phrase captures an insight from each side of their debate: Progressives are right that reforms unhinged from larger purposes are typically ephemeral. But a vision disconnected from first steps and early successes can shrivel up and die. Vision and incremental change are not opposites. In our nation’s history, the two have reinforced each other — for example, in protecting the environment, achieving social security for the elderly and assistance to the unemployed, protecting civil rights, and expanding health insurance coverage. This lesson will apply for any new Democratic president, no matter which wing of the party she or he represents.
Lurking beneath the arguments about tomorrow are disagreements about yesterday — specifically, how to judge whether earlier Democratic presidents were shrewd pragmatists or unprincipled sellouts.
It has been a long time since Democrats were willing to revel unreservedly in the success of one of their own. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt stands as a Democratic icon in the manner that Ronald Reagan still serves as a Republican idol. And even FDR has come under sharp scrutiny in recent decades for largely turning a blind eye to racial injustice in the South for fear of disturbing his party’s alliance with segregationists.
Harry S. Truman is seen far more fondly by most Democrats than he was in his own day, although some on the party’s left still reengage old battles over his Cold War policies. Since Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and, more recently, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have all been cast as failing the progressive cause in important ways.
In the face of such skepticism, I would insist that it’s important to recognize both the Clinton and Obama presidencies as successful. Doing so does not mean ignoring frustrations over the degree to which both men continued to operate within the Reagan consensus, failed to create durable electoral legacies beyond their own times in office and left behind deep economic inequalities that Democrats ought to be in the business of reversing. But it does require a balanced view of their times in office that would allow progressives, moderates and reformers of all stripes to move forward.
Affection for Obama still runs deep in his party, reflected in “I miss Obama” bumper stickers. They speak to how much more thoughtful, ethical, responsible, eloquent and competent he was in office than Donald Trump. After a round of debates in July 2019, Democratic presidential candidates — Biden was the exception — came under criticism from many quarters for spending more time criticizing Obama’s legacy than standing up for it. They engaged in a strategic correction in a September debate, competing over who could praise Obama more lavishly. As for Clinton, there were reasons he received such a rapturous reception at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. He was, after all, the man who ended 12 years of Republican control of the White House. And the 1990s really were years of exceptional economic growth — and relative peace.
The positive assessments reflect the fact that both Clinton and Obama solved the immediate problems they inherited — remnants of an economic downturn accompanied by rising deficits in Clinton’s case, a wholesale economic catastrophe in Obama’s. Both left behind thriving economies. Both pushed against rising inequality, in contrast to Republican administrations since Reagan that aggravated the inequities in our economy with large tax cuts tilted heavily toward the wealthy. (President George H.W. Bush was an exception to this pattern.) Moreover, some of the failures of the Clinton and Obama years reflected the constraints both faced during six of their respective eight years in office when Republicans controlled Congress. The GOP resisted reforms that might have gone beyond what they were able to enact in their first two years.
At the same time, neither tried to overturn the broad assumptions that had governed U.S. economic policy since the 1980s. In Clinton’s case, he pushed these assumptions further along with a broad deregulatory program for banks and the financial industry, genuinely damaging limits on the entitlement for welfare and an enthusiastic embrace of free trade.
Obama inherited an economic disaster created by the irresponsibility of Wall Street and the world of finance. In cooperation with other national leaders, he righted a global economy in free fall (an achievement for which he still gets too little credit). But he repaired the system without challenging the institutions and structures that led to the disaster in the first place. At the end of the Obama presidency, the overall economy was humming again. But the damage of the 2008 crash was still being felt in many parts of the country — and many of those places produced substantial electoral swings from Obama to Trump in 2016.
Was the country better off because of what both Clinton and Obama did? Yes. Did they leave behind serious social and economic imbalances they should have done more to right? Also, yes. That is why their presidencies present such conundrums to progressives.
Let’s start with the obvious: Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern that led to his impeachment came under renewed and even harsher scrutiny after the rise of the #MeToo movement. This has affected overall assessments of his presidency, more so as the years have gone by. His legacy would be received differently if his time in office had been followed by a successful Al Gore presidency. As it was, George W. Bush’s policies further aggravated inequalities, and the economic crash on his watch was a disaster for the already vulnerable.
Clinton and his advisers also had reason to argue that the social bargain they struck with the financial world — eliminating the deficit, and letting both Wall Street and the tech economy rip — was a reasonable deal for everybody else. Economic growth in the late 1990s was exceptional, disadvantaged groups enjoyed strong income gains, and government (through programs such as an expanded earned-income tax credit) sought to redistribute some of the largesse the economy was producing. The country’s strong fiscal position left room for further redistribution efforts. It’s also important to remember that Clinton won reelection in 1996 in part because of his success in resisting Republican cuts to “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment,” his battle cry that helped stop Newt Gingrich’s “revolution” in its tracks.
On the other hand, beyond the role that financial deregulation played in opening the way for the calamities of 2008, Clinton’s trade policies — not only the North American Free Trade Agreement but, perhaps more importantly, China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, pushed by Clinton and formally realized under George W. Bush — sped along deindustrialization that had begun in the 1970s and 1980s. The brunt of these policies hit hardest in the historically industrial states that moved to Trump in 2016. Trade was by no means the only driver here. Automation and technological change were as important, but promises of relief for those hurt by foreign trade never materialized in a substantial way. And confidence that an economically expansive China would move toward democracy proved entirely misplaced.
With these problems came the death of an idea, summarized well by New York magazine writer Ed Kilgore (who acknowledged that he had long been “a loyal foot soldier” in the New Democratic movement). The Clinton-era belief was that “the best way to achieve progressive policy goals was by harnessing and redirecting the wealth that a less-regulated and more-innovative private sector alone could generate.” What Kilgore called the “create-then-redistribute model for Democratic economic policy” effectively passed away after the financial crisis in 2008.
It shouldn’t be hard to understand that Obama was so fearful of a comprehensive economic collapse during his first months in office that he resisted putting pressure on the financial sector. Still, he could have done more to hold it accountable once the emergency passed. The Dodd-Frank financial reform was certainly a major step forward — important enough that the Trump administration set to work dismantling large parts of it — but it was less far-reaching than it could have been.
The irony is that the most enduring and politically helpful Obama policies were those that most risked accusations of radicalism. The most “socialist” and, at the time, controversial of Obama’s policies — the bailout of the auto industry involving massive government subsidy and large-scale federal intervention — was one of his most successful ventures, substantively and politically. The auto industry came back, and none of the fears of the program’s critics were realized. And there is little doubt that Obama’s support for rescuing the industry and Mitt Romney’s opposition to it were key to Obama’s 2012 victories in both Michigan and Ohio.
Similarly, Obama’s resistance during his first months in office to austerity policies — they were very popular among conservatives in Europe, as well as the United States — was undoubtedly the right call. And his stimulus was decidedly progressive in moving money to Americans with the lowest incomes and investing in clean energy.
His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, reflected what might be seen as the classic Obama synthesis. It took ideas from conservatives (the health-care exchanges, insurance subsidies, the mandate to buy insurance) to produce far-reaching social change. But there is, again, the paradox of centrism: The plan might have been even more popular — and Obama’s party might have been saved from its current divisive health-care debate — if the proposal had included a public option alongside private insurance. That feature was killed in part because of opposition from moderate Senate Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans.
Obama’s fundamental caution also kicked in as Washington’s elite consensus — egged on by the rising tea-party conservatives — pushed him to a rhetorical embrace of budget-balancing far more quickly than the circumstances justified. This made a second, much-needed stimulus package even more politically difficult than it already was. As the economics writer Noam Scheiber noted in his book, “The Escape Artists,” Obama “spent much of his first term more taken with the case against deficits than with the case for jobs.” It was, in the oldest sense of the term, a conservative preoccupation.
Obama’s crack at balance brought him criticism from both right and left. Many among the wealthy condemned him as a socialist who did not appreciate the heroism of entrepreneurs (whom he had in fact helped rescue). Progressives saw his administration as more interested in nursing Wall Street back to health than in curtailing its excesses. The financial sector emerged as powerful as ever and, in the Trump years, began the process of dismantling the reforms Obama had signed into law and the regulations he had put in place. Obama was caught in the middle of all this — “middle” being the appropriate word in many respects.
In sum: Both Clinton and Obama achieved a great deal, but neither upended the Reagan legacy. Pete Buttigieg underscored the costs of this by noting that throughout his own lifetime, “Reagan supply-side conservatism … created the terms for how Democrats as well as Republicans made policy.” This bottled up enormous pressure on the left. It was bound, eventually, to explode.
In 2016, it did, in the form of Bernie Sanders’s campaign and the reappearance of democratic socialism as an energetic force in American politics.
Even outside the ranks of Sanders supporters, the steady rise of inequality and the hollowing out of both inner-city and old factory town economies were changing minds and revising assessments of the Clinton and Obama years.
Jake Sullivan, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 policy adviser and a defender of her husband’s record, argues that wherever one stands on the legacy of the Clintonian New Democrats, “the economy looks different today than it did in the 1990s.” He cites the developing views of Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers to argue that “even apolitical economists looking at the ‘widening inequality, financial crisis, zero interest rates, rising gaps in life expectancy and opportunity’ over the past two decades would move to the left, because their analysis would inevitably lead them there.”
You might say that reality itself has moved left since 2008, not to mention 1993.
This was brought home to me when I traveled to Charleston, S.C., for a June 2019 meeting organized by Third Way, a group, as its name suggests, that is devoted to moderate Democratic policies. To put matters gently, Sanders and the Third Wayers don’t like each other very much. Yet the group’s president, Jonathan Cowan, the co-author of a recent Post op-ed highly critical of Sanders, was emphatic last summer in insisting that his group was not offering “a warmed-over 1990s centrism.” Cowan’s critique of what were, after all, the years of Clinton’s presidency was not hedged: “Back then,” he said, “we placed too much trust in the market’s ability to provide a reliable and realistic path to prosperity for most Americans. In the last 30 years, we have seen the impact of globalization and automation on our workers. And it is clear that a rising tide will not lift all boats.”
Later, Matt Bennett, Third Way’s executive vice president, said flatly: “We have to own some of the mistakes of the New Democrats.” Among them, he said, was underestimating the effect of trade liberalization on a significant number of blue-collar workers and “the speed and ferocity with which technology would decimate certain sectors of the American workforce.” A particularly negative effect of this was the “concentration of opportunity” in certain regions as large parts of the country were left behind. “We need to be working to tame capitalism at this moment, because it is not functioning well,” Bennett told me. “We need to do in this century what the progressives and New Dealers did in the last century.”
None of this will make the current, principled arguments between Sanders supporters and Third Wayers disappear, but the fact that even centrists have moved as far as they have points to the quest for a new synthesis based on a redefinition of how moderation should be understood. The political center can no longer be a halfway point between Democrats and Republicans because the GOP has veered so far to the right. The New York Times’ David Leonhardt described the new terrain well:
Most voters don’t share the centrist preferences of Washington’s comfortable pundit class. Most voters want to raise taxes on the rich and corporations. They favor generous Medicare and Social Security, expanded Medicaid, more financial aid for college, a higher minimum wage and a bigger government role in job creation. Remember, Trump won the Republican nomination as a populist. A clear majority of Americans wants the government to respond aggressively to our economic problems.
Which means the next decade provides a dramatic opportunity. At such a moment, moderates should welcome, not fear, the left’s boldness. A vibrant left has always been a central component of any successful era of social reform. By offering plans and proposals on what Harrington called “the left wing of the possible,” socialists, social democrats and left-liberals have redefined the political playing field.
Consider that when Warren proposed a wealth tax on fortunes of $50 million or more, moderate voices responded by saying her idea was too radical or unworkable — and then urged an increase in the capital-gains tax or other approaches to taxing large fortunes instead. She had redefined the intellectual playing field; “moderation” now entailed ideas that were once seen as “leftist.” As Robert Borosage noted in the Nation, Warren’s proposal underscored a fundamental unfairness in the American system: that while the “primary source of wealth for most middle-class families — their homes — is taxed each year in the property tax,” the “primary source of wealth of the very rich — their investments — is only taxed when sold or transferred, if then.”
This was a conversation few were having before Warren put forward her initiative. And she would use the proceeds from the tax — she estimates it would raise $2.7 trillion over a decade — to finance ambitious social initiatives. This was a policy twofer. Warren simultaneously underscored just how much money is sitting at the top of the economy and then showed how much could be done to lift those at its lower rungs without resorting to broad-based tax increases. There were legitimate questions raised about how her wealth tax would work and whether it could be effective in a world in which capital can be moved around so easily. She certainly generated a backlash among billionaires, and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination was a response both to Warren’s rise in the polls and Biden’s perceived weaknesses. But Warren had by then already altered the discussions of how government should raise money in the future.
Similarly, the popularization by Sanders of Medicare-for-all as a central demand on the left underscored the degree to which the Affordable Care Act was a moderate initiative, not some form of socialism, as Republicans had long charged. Warren’s struggles over the details of a single-payer plan showed how problematic this approach is as an immediate next step. But it is testimony to the room the idea opened in the policy debate that Post opinion writer Paul Waldman was able to say this of Biden’s health plan, which includes a public option: “In 2009 when the ACA was being a debated, a plan like this one would have been considered almost radically leftist.” Not anymore.
It took conservative policy innovation and even policy radicalism in the 1970s and early 1980s to push the political debate to the right. The innovations on the left that are now part of the mainstream conversation are similarly transformative. They are part of an effort to restore the idea that only public action — represented in the past by bold programs such as the Homestead and Land-Grant College acts, Social Security and the GI Bill — can solve persistent problems that have torn at our social fabric for a generation. Moderates who think of themselves as problem solvers should welcome the left’s initiatives as part of a process of legitimizing the very act of public problem solving. Only when this happens can a real contest begin over how fast and how far we can move at any given moment.
History moves along crooked paths. One telltale sign that a political debate is turning in a new direction is the adoption of the rising side’s ideas by its adversaries. Democrats and liberals in the 1980s ratified the new Reagan disposition by beginning to speak its language and offering policies consistent with its objectives. That both Clinton and, to a lesser degree, Obama operated within this consensus is precisely why their legacies are complicated.
For the most part, Republicans have resisted altering their course. Only a decisive defeat will open the space needed for a larger GOP reformation. But quietly, leading conservatives and libertarians are acknowledging contemporary capitalism’s problems and adopting critiques that originated on the left. Thus did Sen. Marco Rubio (R- Fla.) issue a remarkable report last year arguing that business was underinvesting in their own workers because of a shift in corporate behavior toward valuing the interests of shareholders over all other stakeholders. “This theory,” Rubio argued, “tilts business decision-making towards returning money quickly and predictably to investors rather than building long-term corporate capabilities, reduces investment in research and innovation, and undervalues American workers’ contribution to production.”
Reproaching the idea of shareholder primacy is central to both progressive and center-left critiques of contemporary capitalism, and in the summer of 2019, business leaders themselves weighed in. In a statement on the purpose of the corporation widely interpreted as a direct response to growing discontent with capitalism, the Business Roundtable explicitly broke with this limited view of the modern corporation’s obligations, emphasizing that they extended to other “stakeholders.” Proper corporate goals, the chief executives declared, included “investing in our employees,” “supporting the communities in which we work” and promoting “a healthy environment.”
In the meantime, the most provocative new Washington think tank on the center-right is the Niskanen Center, a haven for onetime libertarians who have had enough of hard-right ideology and are championing a new moderation in politics. The work of two of its leading figures, Jerry Taylor and Samuel Hammond, aroused great interest because it faced up to what has long been true — and explicitly rejected what had long been conservative dogma: Many “big government” countries (in Scandinavia, for example) are also among the freest nations on Earth. It is time, Hammond argues, to blow up the “ideological axis” that runs from “‘small government’ libertarian” to “‘big government’ progressive.” This, of course, means blowing up the axis that conservative politics built.
Even if the shifts by conservative politicians such as Rubio are seen as largely cosmetic, their felt need to adjust their rhetoric is a marker of a transition in the public conversation in the direction of progressives.
It makes little sense, either substantively or politically, for progressives and moderates to disown the legacies of Clinton and Obama. They both chipped away at the Reagan consensus even as they lived within it. In particular, each put the lie to supply-side economics by raising taxes on the wealthy and in the process fostering two periods of exceptional growth. The economic growth Trump likes to brag about was set in motion by an Obama who faced down an economic collapse. And the Affordable Care Act and the rescue of the auto industry are large achievements, monuments to the good that creative government can do. Moreover, Obama’s eloquent arguments for racial justice and interracial peace — his 2015 speech on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., will long stand as the definitive argument for America’s capacity to change — are an antidote to the divisiveness of the Trump era.
But recognizing the good these two presidents did does not mean being hamstrung by the assumptions they lived with or the compromises they felt forced to make. FDR honored the tradition of the Progressive Era but moved well beyond it. It is time for another historic leap. And it is the task of both progressives and moderates to make sure we take it in 2020.
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