The Misguided Attempts at Democratic Centrism
Earlier this week, two-term Montana Senator Jon Tester took out full-page ads in local newspapers to welcome to the state President Donald Trump, who was there for a rally in support of Tester's opponent Matt Rosendale. Now, the fact that Trump was coming there specifically to support Tester's opponent might have been a clue that any attempt at a ceasefire was in vain, but Tester took the play-nice approach anyway. The ad featured a grinning double-chinned Tester wearing a rugged-looking jacket, immediately below an all caps "thank you President Trump." The smaller text that followed read "[thank you] for supporting Jon's legislation," going on to explain Tester's primary policy pushes and list every Tester-backed bill that had been signed into law.
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So how did Tester's cordiality pay off? Exactly how you would expect – Trump mentioned that he was a "liberal Democrat" (to a chorus of boos), and slammed Tester for pushing back against Ronny Jackson, the White House physician who Trump had nominated to be the secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. He of course played all the hits, reminding everyone that a vote for Jon Tester was "a vote for Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and … Maxine Waters," following it up with all the things Tester voted on that didn't quite align with Trump's views.
From Tester's point of view, there's a way you could talk yourself into such a ploy. He's in a state that Trump won by a landslide in 2016. It was just noncommittal enough to placate both sides. The 'thank you' bit was the part that would get all the headlines like 'Democrat Thanks Trump' while still keeping focus on Tester's upcoming re-election bid. It was a smart hedge, one that put faith in the fact that Republicans in his state would see those kinds of headlines, and initially-outraged Democrats would do the homework to see the context. And it might still pay off – there are plenty of Republicans who have defected for a Democrat that meets just enough of their values. But most of those are never-Trumpers; the Trump folks have been conditioned to believe that Democrats are equivalent to Russians.
The Tester ad is the latest example in a long line of appeasement techniques that (for some reason) Democrats keep employing. The New York Times has done several features on the minds of Trump voters, trying to see how they think when that is all common knowledge. Television news always moderates panels with equal representation from both sides in an effort to appear balanced. Red-state Democrats vote for controversial Trump cabinet appointments (like Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State) to show how they supposedly give people a fair shot, the same logic they might use to potentially confirm Trump's second Supreme Court pick. Left-leaning lawmakers have gone out of their way to avoid supporting plans like Medicare-for-all, or the abolishing of ICE. But it's all stupid.
No Trump voter will appreciate the New York Times as a legitimate platform for serious journalism (or anything beyond fake news) because they published some letters from people who voted red. No Trump voter will switch from FOX News because they see a conservative talking on Don Lemon. No Trump voter's opinion on a Senate candidate will hinge on whether that candidate voted for something as inconsequential (to them) as a cabinet appointee. Regardless of whether your position is reform ICE vs. abolish ICE, or single-payer vs. public option, or banning bump stocks vs. assault weapon bans, it's all the same across the fence. No matter what the nuance is, it'll be characterized similarly – Democrats want open borders, they support the death-spiraling Obamacare, and they want to repeal the Second Amendment. Capitulating to the Trump effect is something that Republicans do so they can ride the accompanying wave of Trumpism. Republican voters embrace Trump-style candidates like Katie Arrington (South Carolina) and Corey Stewart (Virginia), who among others have successfully primaried (and defeated) establishment candidates. Pandering to Trump works when it's coming from the right. It doesn't work – and has the potential to anger your supporters – when it's coming from the left.
Quick Tangent: Here's my proposed experiment to create a more educated American voter – remove the party affiliation next to each candidate on voter ballots. For the big ones (president, governor, maybe even senator) most voters will be acutely aware of which candidate belongs to which party. For those who think that having just a name is too minimalist, each candidate can also have a blurb of 100 words or less. Naturally they can't include any information about party, or policy positions (e.g. women's right to choose) that provides an obvious identification. So you're either blindly guessing, or more likely you're going to abstain considering the risk of giving the wrong person a free vote. There are ways to circumvent this – more party marketing, or even writing a cheat sheet beforehand – but that at least shows some level of effort than just circling the name next to the 'D' or the 'R' (or the 'L' if you're stupid). And it might (at the very least) make you more likely to read or learn something.
The good-faith, reach-across-the-aisle centrism has been dying a slow death. It started with the Affordable Care Act, which was a severely watered-down version of what Barack Obama actually wanted – a law which Republicans were allowed to help develop despite the Democrats' super-majority in Congress. It continued with the nomination of Merrick Garland, a center-left judge who would have quite possibly been the court's ideological median once Anthony Kennedy eventually stepped down. And those two attempts were met with demonization – the ACA was derogatarily branded as Obamacare, and Merrick Garland was banished to a footnote in history textbooks. It's evident every time someone starts off a gun debate with "I support the Second Amendment, but…". It was continuously attempted when Democrats were in power, and it is still bafflingly attempted when Democrats don't have a shred.
Like most things these days, the path we took to get here leads back to the 2016 election, which resulted in a massive overcorrection for the side that barely lost. The election – which was 2 million votes in Clinton's favor – hinged on a combined 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (which Trump won by 0.2, 0.7, and 0.8 percentage points respectively). Sure, upwards of 60 million people did vote for Trump, but a non-negligible portion of that was a combination of Obama-related backlash (blacklash?), possible (but actually proven) Russian interference, an FBI director's higher loyalty, sexism, and a cocky candidate who thought she could cruise to a win. If just those votes had swung the other way for a Democratic (and Clinton) win, there would not have been a post-mortem analysis. There would have been no soul-searching as to why all those people voted for Trump. Even if the Democrats had just won the Senate and hampered Trump's legislative agenda, we would have sidestepped all of this let's-capitulate-to-the-other-side discussion. Instead, there is a newfound respect for the other side, a longing to just hear them out, give them a platform, and recognize all of their views as valid before spouting off your own.
Quick Sports Analogy: It's like when the owner of a team sets the season-long goal of making the playoffs. If the team misses the playoffs by just one game, that shouldn't be reason enough to fire the coach. Sure, you can still fire the coach, but you should only do that if you think that he's a bad coach. One game out of eighty-two shouldn't be the deciding factor. This season, coach Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors was fired after leading his team to the best season in the franchise's history, but losing to the lower-seeded LeBron James in a four-game sweep. No matter that LeBron's team was considered the favorite. If the Raptors had won one or two games but still lost the series, Casey's job might still be intact. That was the difference.
Remember when the government shut down a few months ago? Democrats were accused of caving – which they did – to end the shutdown after barely a day. Their worry was that shutting down the government over supporting DACA and the DREAMers wasn't a political winner, so they didn't do it. At the time, the Republicans were worried about being blamed for the shutdown and deemed incompetent, yet the Democrats *still* caved to an empty Mitch McConnell promise to bring up an immigration bill, something still hasn't happened to this day. Another chance at exercising leverage, thrown away for the greater good or something. Except it's not the greater good, it's for the good of the opposition.
It's a mentality that misses the fundamental point of Trump-era politics. You win elections to pass this kind of legislation to help people. You don't avoid passing this kind of legislation that could help people just at the possibility that it might help you win an election. And in this specific situation, that shutdown (which you probably did forget about) was a full ten months before the midterm elections by which time a ton of other issues would (and have) become far more important. There was a second, even more forgettable government shutdown that lasted just a few hours, where Democrats caved once again without getting anything back (even the first time, they at least got some funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program) except for more assurances about an immigration bill – an effort that had already fallen through with the shithole (shithouse?) comments made by the president. In November, no one will think of how the Dems courageously put aside their personal priorities to keep the government open. In a vacuum, there is nothing wrong with party leaders like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi – in fact, Pelosi has been the most effective Democratic speaker in history (and the only since Tip O'Neill in the 80s) in terms of passing legislation. But their offensive strategy is outdated in this iteration of political gamesmanship.
Catering to centrism is a built-in tendency when trying to argue a progressive policy position. Progressives advocate for progress, something that is by definition challenging the status quo. There's a natural reflex to try an explain why the status quo isn't bad – because there are surely people who like certain things the way they are – but then to try and explain why this other new shiny thing would be an improvement. A true progressive can be painted as un-American, someone who wants to dramatically reshape the landscape of what is considered by its inhabitants as the greatest country in the history of the world.
There will be a time for good-faith centrism to rise again. But it will come at a cost – a Supreme Court justice pick, the restoration of the individual mandate, and much more. Until then, there is no advantage to playing at it. There is nothing to be gained, no minds to be changed, and no courtesy that will be reciprocated. And until further notice, no elections to be won.