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Perversity! Futility! Jeopardy!

The vain electoral battle cries of the centrist pundit

Suppose you were a person who didn’t want to think too hard; and suppose you were a centrist pundit for one of the nation’s leading newspapers. But I repeat myself.

Your assignment at this point in the political cycle—still a year away from next summer’s nominating conventions—is to survey the field of candidates and find them all lacking. The reason? None of them are saying just what you think they should be saying. Your gut tells you that the ideal candidate is one who resembles that paragon of calm reason and moderation: the centrist pundit!

You will see, as early as it is, a distinct threat on the horizon. There are candidates competing to lead the Democratic Party who want to pull the party to the far left. You must sound the alarm. These candidates will commit to stances that will scare away moderate voters. As they pander to the activist wing of their party, they are hurting their chance to win the general election next November. Being a seasoned political observer, you are well aware that this often happens in Democratic primaries: candidates veer left to get the nomination, and then pivot to the center for the general. But you also know this: it’s not going to work. Too many responsible moderates, such as yourself, will worry the candidate is still harboring those leftist plans. You don’t want someone who is going to bankrupt the nation.

The column writes itself.

You could gather examples of this kind of standard punditry from the archives, feed them into a computer, and produce this year’s batches through artificial intelligence.

The Democratic debates in June (and the internecine debates among congressional Democrats) set off a chorus of such columns, all making the same point: we do not like what we’re hearing. On the New York Times op-ed pages alone there were: 1) a Bret Stephens complaint in which he channeled the impressions of “ordinary people” (i.e., white nativists) and concluded that the Dems were off to “a wretched start”; 2) a Maureen Dowd column in defense of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, featuring former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel assailing the left flank of the Democratic Party with the challenge, “Do they want to beat Trump or do they want to clear the moderate and centrists out of the party?”; 3) Thomas Friedman confessing that he was “shocked” by some of the rhetoric he heard in the debates; and 4) David Brooks, under the title “Dems, Please Don’t Drive Me Away,” warning that “the party is moving toward all sorts of positions that drive away moderates and make it more likely the nominee will be unelectable.”

And now, just in time for the next round of Democratic debates, Dowd has returned with a second defense of Pelosi’s “pragmatism,” while deriding progressives as “modern Puritans,” while also blaming Democrats for spending too much time “knifing one another.” Her stated motivation was anger that Left Twitter roasted her recent Washington soiree, which was attended by Pelosi. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel summarized the column as “the Democrats will lose if the left keeps making fun of my parties,” but it was even worse than that—Dowd was insisting that because Nancy Knows Best, any “puritan” push for impeachment reflected not just the nastiness of the left but its stupidity.

You could gather examples of this kind of standard punditry from the archives, feed them into a computer, and produce this year’s batches through artificial intelligence. You’d have to plug in new names, but not new ideas.

In the 1980s, the candidate who sparked pundit-panic was Jesse Jackson. The Chicago-based civil rights leader ran in the Democratic primary in 1984, and again in 1988. That first race was especially instructive. Imagine: an angry black man running for president, and in a year when the overarching mission for Democrats should have been to deny Ronald Reagan a second term. Obviously, Jackson could not win against Reagan, so what was the point? 

From the op-ed page of the New York Times, William Safire surveyed the field in June of 1983 and saw Jackson “marching out with the blacks,” as well as other emerging threats to the Democratic Party establishment’s preferred candidate, former vice-president Walter Mondale. Illinois congressman John Anderson, who had run as an independent in 1980, was considering another run (he decided against it). California senator Alan Cranston was campaigning for a freeze on nuclear weapons production. Cranston was winning the “greens,” according to Safire, “who make nominatable whomever they rally behind and make unelectable whomever they help nominate.” Safire saw a parallel in the landslide 1983 reelection of Margaret Thatcher in Britain: even if Reagan didn’t run for reelection in 1984, he surmised, “any Republican candidate would win, as Mrs. Thatcher did, on the dangerous kookiness of a far-left government.”

As it turned out, of course, Mondale won the nomination and ran as a conventional middle-of-the-road Democrat. He went on to win thirteen electoral votes (Minnesota and the District of Columbia) to Reagan’s 525. Good times.

Jesse Jackson ran again in 1988. In both of his campaigns, he put a heavy emphasis on registering new voters—going into African American communities but also reaching out in 1988 to white rural farm towns—urging them to “keep hope alive.” But even New York City Democrats were unnerved by his campaign, according to one-time New York Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, who by 1988 had been put out to a pasture where he generated a gaseous, cud-chewing op-ed column called “On My Mind.” Rosenthal produced a classic of the genre in April of that year, just as Reagan’s vice president George H.W. Bush was being challenged by Kansas Senator Robert Dole for the GOP nomination. Rosenthal saw Jackson and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis as the two leading candidates on the Democratic side—and both were causing New Yorkers to think back to George McGovern’s lopsided loss in 1972 to Richard Nixon. “They say Mr. Dukakis’s foreign policy, or lack of one, or vagueness about one, or whatever, makes them think of George McGovern and that the very thought gives them a terrible rash. Same goes for Mr. Jackson’s policy, only a much bigger rash.”

The “they” in this case were the people Rosenthal socialized with. “You meet them at every dinner party in Manhattan. They dislike the idea of voting Republican, but confronted with a choice between Senator Robert Dole and Governor Dukakis, say, they might have gone for Mr. Dole.”

Dole faded, Bush won the GOP nod, and Dukakis led the Democratic ticket, famously declaring “this election is not about ideology, it’s about competence.” Bush and his hatchet man Lee Atwater made it about ideology, though. Dukakis was battered as being soft on crime and suspiciously ambivalent about the Pledge of Allegiance. He improved on Mondale’s performance by winning ten states and D.C. But the Electoral College verdict was Bush 426, Dukakis 111.

The foundational fallacy of most mainstream campaign punditry is that presidential elections are decided on some kind of left-right binary axis. It happens to be the belief of most of the operatives and funders of the Democratic Party establishment, as well. Their first principle is: if voters see policy proposals that seem to be coming from the American left, they will choose a conservative like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush as the safer alternative. It’s remarkable that so many veteran political columnists and political “pros” seem to think it works this way. But that they cling to this article of faith in the third year of the Trump presidency is not just curious—it’s perverse.

Even if it was mostly due to a series of freakish accidents that Trump found a narrow path to the presidency, does anyone believe his policy proposals ensured his success? That somehow American voters considered the details of the immigration issue, for example, and decided “yes, let’s build a wall and require Mexico to pay for it.” Or that perhaps he was correct in saying that Obamacare should be dismantled for some unspecified Republican approach to health care? 

It would be pretty to think that America’s course is decided by rational voters who closely examine the policy choices in front of them.

You could list any number of factors that are more decisive in a presidential election than what’s in a candidate’s policy papers. It’s unfortunate, but one of the most determinative factors is how well a candidate performs in front of large audiences, especially on television—that is, does the candidate have what are essentially acting skills: looking good, speaking with confident facial expressions, attracting viewers instead of turning them off? (In television infotainment and newscasts, there are attempts to measure this appeal by “Q Scores.”)

In a more general way, being able to move voters emotionally obviously has more relevance than where a candidate comes down on any particular policy proposal. Take the matter of what kind of health care system is best for the United States in the coming decade. Our centrist pundits are gnashing their teeth because several Democrats are willing to discuss the idea of universal health care. Any Medicare for All proposal is going to be too scary once voters realize it means “getting rid of private health insurance.” Supposedly the Republicans will have a field day by rallying people to the cause of corporate insurance. If you get a Democratic candidate who believes that and tries to deflect the charge with detailed explanation of how the system would gradually evolve— that if you like your employer-sponsored health insurance you can keep it, etc. etc.—you are on the losing side. But if you tap into what many people feel—that is, that big insurance companies are not your friend, and that the business model of most private insurance is to wriggle out of paying for health care and to saddle you with as much cost as possible . . . why not rescue people from the clutches of profit-driven insurance companies? These are businesses that, until it was disallowed, insisted they would not cover people with “pre-existing conditions.”

It would be pretty to think that America’s course is decided by rational voters who closely examine the policy choices in front of them. Who can believe that in the age of Trump? Here’s a counter-theory then: in most presidential elections, the vast majority of voters will choose the Democratic or Republican based on ideology or partisan loyalty. The remaining small sliver of “persuadable voters” are responding to something that is not necessarily a preference or rejection of conservative or liberal policies. Often it is just a vague sense of which candidate seems more plausible in offering hope for a better politics, or a better economy, or a better country, or a better deal for people like them. When Jimmy Carter won in 1976, people hoped for an end to the Nixon-Ford era. By 1980, it was clear Carter couldn’t deliver on much of anything people hoped for. If he won in 1976 because he ran as a centrist Democrat, did he lose in 1980 because he governed as a centrist Democrat?

Mondale in 1984 and Dukakis in 1988 weren’t able to find a way to inspire hope. Clinton in 1992 benefited from a tired and uninspiring opponent in George H.W. Bush, just as Obama in 2008 benefited from running against John McCain when people realized eight years of Republicanism had gone badly. But Clinton and Obama explicitly ran on hope and change and found enough voters who were willing to take that small leap of faith.

The reflexive judgment of today’s mainstream pundits that Democrats must reject all new bold thinking on the left is an example of what Albert O. Hirschman called “the rhetoric of reaction.” The argument is always that serious attempts for social justice or equality or reform will cause unintended setbacks (what Hirschman called the perversity thesis) or that they will never succeed (the futility thesis) or that they will require unacceptable costs (the jeopardy thesis). This is the very mentality that cripples the ability of Democratic candidates to inspire. There is already a built-in cynicism due to the weak track record of the modern corporate-friendly Democratic Party. After all, how much “hope and change” did the very cautious, centrist—and in some ways, conservative—presidencies of Clinton and Obama leave us believing in?

Using the rhetoric of reaction to guide Democrats is as likely ensure another Trump victory as any supposed tilt to the left. You need something strong to hold up against Trump’s rhetoric of racism. Trump himself is offering a kind of hope to his own cultish followers: the hope that the power and influence of white people can be restored to some imagined time when America was great. The job for whatever Democrat emerges from the primary is to offer something magnetic to those who don’t see the appeal of racism and anti-immigrant cruelty—as well as denial of climate change, and voter suppression, and loading the federal courts up with right-wingers, and all the rest.

All the arguments of our centrist pundits suggest, instead, a Caspar Milquetoast to run against Trump. As Tom Friedman put it,

This is not complicated! Just nominate a decent, sane person, one committed to reunifying the country and creating more good jobs, a person who can gain the support of the independents, moderate Republicans and suburban women who abandoned Donald Trump in the midterms and thus swung the House of Representatives to the Democrats and could do the same for the presidency. 

Notably missing from that program is “someone who can gain the support of those who need the Democratic Party to be on their side.” Moderate Republicans and comfortable suburbanites will live with their own shame if they can’t bring themselves to vote against Trump. But they are not the only key to stopping Trumpism. As a New York Times data team reported last year in a report on “The Missing Obama Millions,”

Our analysis shows that while 9 percent of Obama 2012 voters went for Mr. Trump in 2016, 7 percent — that’s more than four million missing voters — stayed home. Three percent voted for a third-party candidate.

Friedman sees the solution as perfectly simple, but it is not. The challenge is to use stances to attract both “moderates” and younger more radical voters and the disenchanted people who might tune out and stay home and people who might at least momentarily glimpse a reason to believe in a better politics because the candidate inspires them to believe. And to bring it down to the street level, if the election in November of 2020 is close, the result may depend on what kind of turnout the candidates inspire in only a few places: maybe Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona, for example. Is it really “not complicated” to find a candidate who can forge a strong bond with Milwaukee and Green Bay, Detroit and Flint, and Phoenix and Flagstaff? 

Using the rhetoric of reaction to guide Democrats is as likely ensure another Trump victory as any supposed tilt to the left.

Leaving aside that just about anyone in American politics is more decent than the current president, Friedman’s ideal “decent and sane” Democrat sounds a lot like Friedman’s fellow Minnesotan, Walter Mondale. The Mondale of the current cycle is clearly Joe Biden, who recently reassured an audience of wealthy donors and financiers that even though inequality is a problem, “nobody has to be punished” under a Biden administration. “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change,” he said, according to Wall Street Journal reporter Ken Thomas.

In an election that will come down to Republican efforts to use fear and racism to drive their turnout, our centrist pundits would have us believe that a Biden candidacy will be able to inspire the necessary excitement among potential Democratic voters with a “nothing will fundamentally change” appeal. That’s right up there with Hillary Clinton’s battle cry: “America is already great!”