A recent magazine cover featured a close-up profile image of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand Democratic congresswoman from New York City, darling of the far left, with these words:
“Read my lips: Yes, new taxes. Lots. Big ones, too. Plus, Medicare for all. And free … ” One infers that meant “free tuition,” but the Bloomberg Businessweek cover parodying her rhetorical style was designed to run off the bottom of the page.
The subheadline described her as the “nightmare of the right.”
Hardly, I thought. It might be just the opposite.
In a recent edition, the New York Times led its print front page with a story about the Democratic feud over Medicare for all.
“I reject the idea that single payer is impossible,” Ocasio-Cortez said in the article.
But the story said that Nancy Pelosi, the shrewd Democratic Speaker of the House, is reluctant to put Democrats from Trump-friendly districts on the spot by putting Medicare for all up for a vote.
The story also quoted a Democratic congressman from the New Democratic Coalition, a moderate group. “Most people receive health care from their employer,” Scott Peters of California said. “They do not want to replace it with an untested government system.”
Instead, many moderates want to repair damage inflicted by Republicans on the Affordable Care Act and work within its framework to deliver on the pledge the party made in last year’s campaign to improve health care.
As President Trump busies himself smearing John McCain, the deceased U.S. senator whose legacy he apparently so envies, the national press is defining the crowded Democratic presidential primary as a choice between a passionate and impatient far left and those damn boring moderates.
This rift is further exemplified on the issue of impeaching Trump. Pelosi angered many when she said recently that impeachment hearings would be “so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path.”
Some on the far left howled, but a recent poll showed 86 percent of Republicans oppose impeachment hearings, so there appears little chance of actually removing Trump. Instead, the risk is that his base would only be energized for the 2020 election.
Sadly, that’s what happened in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court. Progressives regarded the Kavanaugh interrogation as fully justified, and saw him as an entitled, aged frat boy defined by allegations of sexual assault, but polls showed his grilling helped Republicans in November by enflaming the GOP base.
And yet, most of the time, it is the fire-and-brimstone left that is portrayed as courageous; moderates are squishy and pliant. Take, for example, the print subheadline on that New York Times story about health care: “A push for bold change vs. a more cautious approach.”
Wow, I’d take bold over cautious every time. The headline could have cast the choice as between the “unachievably radical” and the “potentially attainable,” but those words would not have fit, literally or figuratively.
Here’s the thing.
It is primarily the moderate Democrats running for president or politicians from Trump-leaning congressional districts who genuinely are the “bold” politicians. It is they who will dictate whether the Trump nightmare ends next year.
If this were a war, those Democrats would be engaged in front-line combat, fighting to convince ordinary Americans across large swaths of the country that they understand their economic and cultural anxiety and are not backing far-left policies that are unlikely to win for the foreseeable future in such a divided nation.
To extend this metaphor, one might argue that Ocasio-Cortez and many others sit safely far from the front lines; in her case, in a deep, deep blue district in the Bronx and Queens, demanding policies that threaten Pelosi’s ability to maintain a fragile majority in the U.S. House.
Consider what’s happening in Wisconsin.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is no one’s idea of a far-left progressive. He was derided in the 2018 campaign as rhetorically cautious, even boring and old.
But look at him now.
He is fighting to improve health care, infrastructure and education. And, hugely, he stands in the way of unconscionable GOP gerrymandering after the next census. Evers is bringing science back to the Department of Natural Resources and endeavoring to make the state income tax system more progressive, among many other initiatives.
To do all this neat progressive stuff, he first had to win, and he knew he could only do that by running as a moderate technician, the anti-Trump both in moral compass and ego.
The far left will howl that only by energizing new generations of voters with hugely ambitious promises will Democrats prevail. But if you understand the Electoral College, you know presidential elections are decided in states across the rust belt, not in New York’s boroughs or in other coastal urban areas.
I suspect the far left is unenthusiastic about presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator who talks about improving the Affordable Care Act as doable and free tuition as unaffordable.
On “Meet the Press” recently, she was asked what she tells people who insist Medicare for all is the answer. “I tell them that we have had some major successes with the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “We have made sure kids get on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26. We have stopped people from being thrown off their insurance for pre-existing conditions.”
In my view, her approach is the one requiring political courage. A path of timidity, especially in a Democratic primary, would be to demand Medicare for all and free tuition.
Klobuchar and other moderate Democrats running for president will sort themselves out in months to come. Pundits will jabber incessantly about which can survive the gauntlet to occupy the moderate “lane” as the primary narrows to two or three choices. That candidate will likely be guided by a political realism and a sense of the temperament across the entire electorate, not just its fringes.
That, to me, sounds “bold.”