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Moderation in the Trump era? Democrats, it’s futile

What’s the point of careful issue proposals when Trump will just bellow that they’re coming for your cars, air conditioning and straws?

The careful issue proposals of prior Democratic nominees like Hillary Clinton no longer represent the route to political safety, Shapiro writes. (Brian Ach/Getty Images file photo)
The careful issue proposals of prior Democratic nominees like Hillary Clinton no longer represent the route to political safety, Shapiro writes. (Brian Ach/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — The tone of the letter from the Columnists’ Guild I’m expecting any minute now will be as stiff as the old-fashioned stationery it’s printed on. It will note that I am “derelict in your duties” and “an embarrassment to the profession of opinion slingers” because I’ve failed to write a single column loudly lamenting the Democratic Party’s lurch to the far left.

We have all read versions of this column written by skittish liberals, nervous centrists and panicked never-Trump Republicans: “Don’t the Democrats understand that many voters like their employer-provided health care plans and will rebel over being forced into a rigid ‘Medicare for All’ system? Eliminating criminal penalties for crossing the border illegally would be an invitation for immigration chaos. And do Democrats really believe that Americans will sacrifice their lifestyles to comply with the extreme provisions of a Green New Deal?”

These Democrats-in-disarray columns invariably point out that only with sensible moderation can Donald Trump be defeated in 2020. As for Democratic congressional candidates, particularly first-term House members elected in the 2018 Democratic sweep, their political futures are jeopardized by the extreme antics of “the squad” and the unreasonable demands of these left-wing activists with safe seats.

These are fine arguments — and I would probably accept them in a normal political climate. I remember the wipeout years for the Democrats, like 1972 and 1984, when the party was crushed by veering too far from the center in an increasingly conservative political environment.

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I also appreciate the political artistry of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign as the then-Arkansas governor tried to neutralize the arguments that Ronald Reagan had used against the Democrats in the 1980s. So Clinton the candidate wanted to reform welfare, put 100,000 cops on the beat and balance the budget.

But that was a different era when objective facts still mattered and hyperbole rather than outright lies still ruled political discourse. Clinton could run as a New Democrat because mainstream Republicans could not get away with claiming that he was the candidate of “amnesty, acid and abortion,” to borrow a GOP attack line from 1972.

But Trump’s contempt for anything resembling truth has erased this traditional political equation.

What’s the point of the 2020 Democratic nominee offering a nuanced policy on immigration if Trump, regardless, will loudly bellow that his opponent not only supports open borders but also wants to invite the entire population of Honduras to move to Kansas?

Where are the political benefits of carefully talking about adding a public option to Obamacare when the Republicans will claim that all Democrats want to take away your doctor and make you wait long hours in a government clinic to see anyone?

Any Democrat talking about global warming and America rejoining the Paris accord will be accused of wanting to confiscate your car and turn off your air conditioning. In fact, the Republicans may even claim that there is a Democratic master plan for a gulag for those who have ever used plastic straws.

If you think these are exaggerations, take a look at the way that Trump has affected Republic rhetoric at every level. Last week, for example, the NRCC, the campaign arm of the House Republicans, sent out dozens of press releases with subject lines like, “Spanberger is deranged.”

[Unlike Joe Biden, I was a pro-busing Democrat in 1972]

Why is Abigail Spanberger — whose sanity must have passed muster when she worked for the CIA before she was elected to the House last year — now worthy of being consigned to the loony bin?

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The NRCC press release helpfully explained, “The socialist Democrats’ deranged hatred of President Trump reached a new pathetic level today, with Abigail Spanberger voting to circumvent the rules of the House of Representatives to allow Nancy Pelosi to call Trump a racist.”

If that is all that it takes in politics today to be considered “deranged,” I am dying to know what conduct the NRCC deems worthy of being called “criminally insane.”

The larger point is that the traditional rewards for Democrats to move toward the center to appeal to swing voters have vanished in an era of Trumpian trampling on truth. If merely wanting to roll back part of the 2017 tax cuts is now attacked as socialism, then the careful issue proposals of prior Democratic nominees like Hillary Clinton no longer represent the route to political safety.

Over the past quarter century, the Republicans have been the party of conservative and now nationalistic excess, while the Democrats have mostly offered centrist caution. Even the inspiration that surrounded the 2008 candidacy of Barack Obama was far more prompted by his persona and his life story than by his policy plans.

So even if I do not agree with eliminating private health insurance and setting unrealistic goals under a Green New Deal, I do understand the political allure of dreaming big.

[Running for re-election the Trump way — with half the country against you]

More than anything, we live in an era when politicians are rewarded for being true to themselves rather than cloaking their real beliefs in tepid earth tones. We are a long way from the days when Al Gore in 2000 played down his environmental passions because they did not poll well.

It is often forgotten that a political campaign is more a dreamscape than a detailed legislative agenda. So let the 2020 Democrats express their vision of a better world — for idealism plays better in contemporary politics than calculating, gimlet-eyed caution.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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