In Defense of Alleged Moderates

Before we get started, we have to define some terms. There are moderates with a record of doing something and those without one. Beyond that, I have to wonder if the moderate really exists. For example, did someone passionately believe that civil unions were the solution to the question of gay marriage or was it someone who believed in gay marriage being tactical? I suspect most so-called moderates are simply choosing different tactics.

Maybe there are really a few people out there who intensely like the death penalty only in cases of terrorism, who don’t see it as either totally OK or not. Maybe there are really a few people who intensely, deeply feel that it makes a big difference whether you have an abortion in the first trimester or the first day of the second.

I suspect, at the end of the day, in the majority of cases, the difference comes down to the person’s relationship with the opposition (and therefore democracy itself) or their examination of the political landscape. It is all too tempting to believe that when a country elects a Democratic president that it’s ready for a massive political revolution. Maybe that’s true on a certain level, but within our constitutional framework, it’s contingent on that support spreading to Congress, like it did in 2006-2008.

The progressives and the revolutionaries in today’s debate seem to think that doing anything half ways is corruption. But when things are accomplished, it helps actual people. When it does so in a way that both sides can grudgingly accept, that’s democracy.

So, the moderate with a record of success deserves our thanks. The one that fails, or who gives up too much ground, however, deserves a critical review.

But the ideologue held to this same standard will likely fail. The Ralph Naders and Bernie Sanders of the world have been good at making people hold progressive ideals. They have been terrible at translating those ideals into progress. Since I am skeptical that many people are “intensely moderate” and most people have up-or-down beliefs about most things, it’s good to get people to those up-or-down beliefs through persuasion the way people who build movements like Sanders can do. Convincing people that health care is a right is great work. Being sad that not every person that holds that belief is headed for the ramparts to get it is not.

The truth is, we need both, but the fill different roles in our politics. The movement leaders change minds; the elected officials have to put those ideals in action. A rare few people have been both.

Martin Luther King lead the movement, but it took a wily political operator like LBJ to get civil rights enacted. Such partnerships are there throughout history if you’re willing to look.

One alleged moderate hated by today’s progressives is Bill Clinton. But when Clinton came to office, he led with two rather revolutionary policy initiatives: gays in the military and universal healthcare. It was the Democratically controlled Congress that stopped both of them. Then, in 1994, when the Republicans came in, it was a miracle he got anything done at all.

Another alleged moderate that today’s progressives are more shy about hating is Barack Obama. But when Obama came to office, he led with a revolution in health care reform that passed by the skin of its teeth through a Democratically controlled Congress and it was in doubt until the very last vote, in doubt until the Supreme Court finally, barely, let it stand. Yet somehow, Obama needed to enact single payer? Then, in 2010, when the Republicans came in, he bargained harder than many give him credit for (including myself at the time) and won substantive improvement for many people’s lives.

I am very inclined to hear arguments that our system has very serious flaws, including far too many veto points (though I imagine myself eating crow on that one if Cruz or Trump are elected) but an argument for systematic change isn’t and can’t be an argument against someone who did what they could in the existing system.

And the reality is, massive Constitutional change isn’t popular at the moment. Maybe someone should start a movement about that.