It is a common error to associate a “moderate” politician with a wimpy one or one willing to split the difference on every issue. One interesting byproduct of the Democratic presidential campaign is to demonstrate that moderate (or “pragmatic”) pols are not milquetoast. Indeed, some of the toughest, feistiest contenders in the race are the less ideologically extreme candidates.

Appearing on “Meet the Press,” former vice president Joe Biden showed some of that feistiness we remember from his 2012 vice presidential debate with Paul D. Ryan. Asked about former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s massive spending, Biden shot back: “Sixty billion dollars can buy you a lot of advertising, but it can’t erase your record. There’s a lot to talk about with Michael Bloomberg. You all are going to start focusing on him like you have on me. … From stop-and-frisk to the way he talked about [Barack] Obama.” Unlike some other contenders Biden is also willing to throw a punch at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

BIDEN: The ideas I have, Chuck, are big and bold. I mean this idea that I’m not the progressive in the race. I mean my lord, if, if I get elected president of the United States with my position on health care, my position on global warming, my position on foreign policy, my position on the middle class, this will go down as one of the most progressive administrations in American history. But what we’re — what you’re up against is things that are almost fanciful. Like, you know, Medicare-for-all. Thirty-five, 30, 40 trillion dollars. Even Bernie’s now saying, ‘Well, how much is it going to cost?’ “Well, who knows. We’ll find out.' I think that’s the phrase he used — or 'we don’t know.' I mean, part of being president is not just the idea you have. Can you get it done? Have you ever done anything big? Have you ever been able to put together coalitions that bring along Republicans and all the Democrats to get things done? And the idea, I mean it’s almost fanciful sometimes.
CHUCK TODD: I know, but isn’t that Bernie’s strength, though? Everybody knows — one thing about Bernie. You know where he stands. …
BIDEN: I mean, he’s been talking about health care, Medicare-for-all, universal health care, for 35 years. Nothing’s happened. I helped get passed Obamacare. I helped move it forward. I got the votes. I’m in a position where I take something that I promise you, I’ll get done. We take Obamacare. We allow people — like out here in Nevada, what’s going on? Bernie requires, and Elizabeth’s plan requires you to give up all private insurance. These folks have broken their necks, the culinary union and others, to get the most comprehensive health care that’s out there. And they’ve given up wages for it. Now they’re being told you’ve got to give it up, you can’t, you can’t keep it, and it’s going to cost $30 trillion or more, and I can’t tell you who’s going to pay for it. I mean come on. This is — I mean, I think people are so tired of the lack of straightforwardness out there. Now, if I’m wrong, I’m going to be dead wrong, but I really believe that you have to lay out why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you’re going to get it done.

Biden also slammed Sanders for not doing enough to reel in — or “disown” — some of his thuggish, abusive supporters. (“I invite anybody to go and take a look, the things they said, the vicious, malicious, misogynistic things they said. The threats they put out,” he said, referring to the threats to the culinary union that opposes Medicare-for-all. “And to say ‘I disassociate’ is one thing. Find out who the hell they are, if any of them work for me. Fire them. Find out. See what’s going on.”)

That’s the sort of ethos and message that Biden, as well as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, will need to hammer: Just because they are not rigid ideologues does not mean they are not remarkably progressive — or that they do not know how to fight.

Buttigieg has also been hitting Sanders on health care, pointing out that the Vermont senator’s Medicare-for-all would take away union health-care plans negotiated over decades. And Buttigieg is not shy about slamming President Trump in ways that will come in handy in the general election, as he did in this exchange on CNN’s “State of the Union”:

DANA BASH: Rush Limbaugh, to whom the president recently awarded the nation’s top civilian honor, described you as a 37-year-old gay guy, mayor of South Bend, who loves to kiss his husband on the debate stage. Now, there has been bipartisan criticism of him for those remarks. I wanted to give you a chance to respond, if you would like to.
BUTTIGIEG: Well, I love my husband. I'm faithful to my husband. On stage, we usually just go for a hug, but I love him very much.
And I’m not going to take lectures on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

In a similar vein, Buttigieg on “Fox News Sunday” slammed the ludicrous claim from White House counselor Kellyanne Conway that Bloomberg’s past comments were worse than Trump’s language about women. “For a representative of this White House to speak about misogyny, to speak about sexism, to speak about racism is comical,” Buttigieg responded, “and you’re right, I think it amounts to trolling.”

And Klobuchar has certainly shown how formidable she is on the debate stage. Asked about Bloomberg’s ad tsunami, she told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “I think what needs to happen here is that he needs to go on shows like this, which he hasn’t done. He just can’t hide behind the airwaves. He has to answer questions. And of course, I think he should be on that debate stage, which eventually he will be, because I can’t beat him on the airwaves, but I can beat him on the debate stage.” She certainly was not shy about contrasting her outlook with Sanders on the debate stage. (“I was the one on that debate stage, when asked, ‘Should we have a socialist leading the ticket?’ I was the only one that raised my hand, even though I get along with Bernie,” she told Todd.) Whether it is Trump or Bloomberg, she is more than able to throw some populist rhetoric against rich guys:

I don’t think that people look at the guy in the White House and say, ‘Oh, let’s get someone richer.’ I think my background, where Donald Trump got $413 million from his dad in the course of his career, and my grandpa saved money in a coffee can in the basement to send my dad to a community college as he worked in the mines his whole life, you can’t fit $413 million in a coffee can in the basement. I would also add the Midwest is not flyover country to me. I live there, and the people that live there are not poker chips in a bankrupt casino, since I’m in Vegas, of President Trump to me. They are my friends and neighbors. That’s the area of the country that we need to win and that’s also a strong case I’m going to have against Michael Bloomberg.

Klobuchar is so formidable I seriously doubt that if she is the nominee, Trump will be willing to debate her.

The media calls these candidates “moderates” but do not let that mislead you. Democrats should be pleased to see there is more than one pugnacious candidate who cannot be painted in the general election as a socialist nut and who is more than capable of putting forth a bold agenda.

Read more: