Giving the Moderation Obsessives a Fair Hearing

by Neil H. Buchanan

I admit up front that calling the subjects of today's column "moderation obsessives" would seem to undermine my claim that I plan to give them a fair hearing.  Yet it is difficult to think of a more accurate description, given that many somewhat liberal Democrats and former Republicans seem to think that moderation is the be-all and end-all of winning elections.

More to the point, even though I am amused by their single-mindedness, that does not stop me from trying to find where they might have a good argument and where we might actually agree.

In any event, today I am going to use New York Times op-ed columnist David Leonhardt as a leading example of a moderation obsessive.  That does not mean, however, that he is addicted to centrism, and he is even willing to say obviously true things (such as "Donald Trump should be impeached" -- even before the redacted Mueller report was released) that make many wimpy Democrats blush.

He is not, in other words, generally in the business of trying to prove that he thinks that Democrats can win by being even more accommodating to the increasingly out-of-touch Republican Party.  That makes his repeated claims that Democrats are committing the political sin of too much leftiness especially puzzling and worth exploring.

Leonhardt calls himself a centrist and readily admits that he loves "technocratic market-based policies," which makes him frequently agree with right-wing neoliberal policy wonks.  He thus casually claims that "market-based policies ... have the potential to be more efficient than direct government benefits (which is why policy wonks like me and Ip [a Wall Street Journal writer whom he "admires"] like them)."  That is at best muddle-headed, but at least he is clear.

As I explained in a column last month, there is a category of centrist market idolators who have finally woken up to political reality.  That column focused on Berkeley economist Brad DeLong, but Leonhardt clearly now sings from the same hymnbook.

What makes Leonhardt a leading example of a moderation obsessive, then, is not that he is politically naive.  It is that he continues to act as if Democrats are moving too "far left," which is simply not supported by the facts.  Among my many columns discussing various aspects of this false narrative about Democrats becoming immoderate lefties, see my recent two-part series on Verdict, with Part One published on April 4 and Part Two published today.

In a recent column, Leonhardt makes the case that Democrats are in danger of seeming to be too far to the left.  This claim is apparently sensible (almost trivial), yet it requires some careful parsing.

It is a fact of life that Republicans are going to call Democrats -- all Democrats -- commies and socialists.  Red-baiting is their go-to move, and Democrats who think that they can moderate their way around that fact are fooling themselves.  Even so, that does not give Democrats absolute carte blanche to say and do absolutely anything.  "They're going to slime us as Stalinists, so we might as well act like Stalinists!"  There are undeniably limits to what the Republicans’ careless smears allow Democrats to do.

However, the key point that I have been trying to make for years (including in the recent two-part Verdict piece) is that the Democrats are already the party of moderation.  If the Democrats ever needed to be told not to go too far, it is certainly not now -- even with Bernie Sanders and the new wave of people who call themselves democratic socialists taking the spotlight.

Look at their policies and find something that is actually extreme.  Please.  Leonhardt comes up with reparations, which seems like one of those things that centrists accuse lefties of favoring when in fact no one even understands what reparations means.  Non-Fox-cultist Americans on average probably dislike the idea of direct money payments to people on the basis of skin color, but they probably also understand the notion that racism is still systemic.  But in any event, if this is the proof that the party as a whole has gone off the rails, it is pretty weak.

Leonhardt also claims that forced Medicare-for-All is potentially problematic, because some people are said to "like" their current health insurance.  I continue to be skeptical that anyone cares about their health insurer to the point that they would rebel at the thought of losing a personal relationship with Blue Cross.  Even so, Leonhardt surely is right that it would be a mistake for Democrats to seem to be inflexible about the path to single-payer.

What strikes me as a red herring, however, is Leonhardt's claim -- captured in the title of his piece, "Left, Left, Left … That’s Enough" -- that Democrats are in danger of moving too far left.  They are not.  They are, as I have written in various places, moving to the left only as an average matter, because the old Blue Dogs and other Clinton-era triangulators are dying and losing elections.  The spread of the Democrats' views has narrowed, but the left end of their spectrum is pretty much unmoved.

But even if I am wrong about that, Leonhardt wants to claim that the "twitter Democrats" are pulling the party to the left of where "actual Democrats" feel comfortable.  He cites a Times piece that shows various polling results contrasting "Democrats who do not post political content to social media sites" with those who do.  The shocking results, apparently, are that more of the non-twitter people call themselves moderates and conservatives, think "political correctness" (as if that term means anything) is a problem, "don't follow the news much," and are African-American (although the significance of that last bit, with African-Americans being only 11 percent of Democrat twitter users and 24 percent otherwise, is hardly obvious).

Nothing in that analysis tells us anything about the actual policies that Democrats are proposing, nor does it tell us how these self-identified moderates and conservative Democrats feel about those policy proposals.  I have recently quoted Paul Krugman to the effect that the Democratic Party "is, if anything, to the right of the general public on major policy issues."  Nothing Leonhardt or his sources say comes close to denying that fact.

At most, then, we are left with Leonhardt's anodyne concluding paragraph:
"Coming across as moderate isn’t simply, or even mostly, a matter of a candidate’s policy positions. It’s a matter of presentation. A large group of Americans don’t want to vote for a candidate they consider to be radical. Democrats would do well to spend more time thinking about how to appeal to these voters. Doing so could help not only in the general election but in the primary too, surprising as that may sound."
I am honestly not sure what he is saying here, at least in terms of what he thinks other Democrats need to do.  Yes, "I am a scary radical" is a bad campaign slogan.  Are there Democrats who are not "thinking about how to appeal to" voters are who scared of radicals?  Are there Democrats who, even more bizarrely, do not understand that politics is "a matter of presentation"?  If there are, then sure, they should listen to the moderation obsessives.

What I can say for certain is that there are plenty of Democrats who are screechingly reinforcing Republicans' narratives about the supposed radicalization of their party.  Leonhardt's "that's enough leftiness" claim communicates this to the tender voters to whom he thinks Democrats should appeal: "You're right that some of my fellow Democrats are scary."

But Leonhardt knows full well that they are not scary in substance, and he should know that being perceived as scary as "a matter of presentation" is mostly a matter of how people with media platforms describe and interpret the presentations.  The people who think that Democrats should win are lying if they are saying that Democrats are now too far left, and they are fools if they think that they can trash-talk their fellow Democrats and not do damage to what they claim to want to achieve.