The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
–– William Butler Yeats,
Eighteen months can be an epoch in politics. Situations and fortunes can change so quickly.
In March 1991, for example, after a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, nearly nine in 10 Americans gave President George H.W. Bush high marks. But by August 1992, almost two-thirds disapproved of the job he was doing.
What changed was a recession, which helped the Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, told his team.
But it wasn’t only the economy.
On opening night of the 1992 Republican National Convention, the conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan declared what he called a “cultural war.” He denounced “abortion on demand” and “the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women.” He and other speakers railed against environmental protection, discrimination against funding for religious schools and denounced the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but didn’t mention the racism and police brutality that sparked them.
President Bush may have wanted a “kinder and gentler nation,” but the hardliners who scoffed at his civility were ascendant.
In 1990, Donald Trump ridiculed President Bush, telling Playboy that “if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist.”
Decades later, President Trump demonstrated an unkind and brutal approach to politics. His strategy was to divide and conquer by turning white suburban residents against people of color, blue-color workers against immigrants, evangelical conservatives against secular liberals, the affluent against those needing public assistance, and vaccine skeptics against people trying to protect their families from the deadliest virus in a century. He made scapegoats of antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters while calling on paramilitary groups with AR-15s to “Liberate Michigan” and other states from public health mandates. And he cast doubt on journalists and scholars while spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Trump’s reign of error culminated in the American carnage of Jan. 6, 2021, when the domestic terrorists he had summoned to Washington as part his failed attempt to overturn his lost election smashed their way into the Capitol, battled police, and hunted down members of Congress and the vice president with murderous intent.
It was an insurrection led by a narcissistic demagogue who would have become a tyrant if given a second term — and who may yet return to power unless Americans awaken to the danger our democracy faces.
I’ve been thinking about William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …
We were spared four more years of the rough beast by the unlikeliest rescuer, Joe Biden. The elder statesman had retired after half a century in public life and had no intention of running for president a third time. But then Charlottesville happened, and Biden heard Trump say there were “fine people on both sides” after one of the white supremacists drove his car into a crowd, killing a civil rights demonstrator. That got Biden’s hackles up, and he knew he had to take this guy out. The “soul of America” was at stake, he said.
Biden looked around and knew he was the only one who could do it. He was the only Democrat in the race that everybody knew, and the other 26 candidates were too liberal to attract enough voters in the middle, including moderate Republicans, that any Democrat must have to win the White House and gain control of Congress in what is essentially a center-right country.
A strategy that seeks only to excite the Democratic Party’s base of progressive activists and bring more inactive voters to the polls is destined to fail. It always has. There simply aren’t enough liberals to make a majority.
According to a 2021 Gallup poll, only 25 percent of Americans call themselves liberals, while nearly three-quarters consider themselves moderates or conservatives. Even among Democrats, those who identify as moderate or conservative make up about half of the total.
Although progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders can win congressional races in deep blue enclaves of the country, it was centrist candidates, such as Conor Lamb and Abigail Spanberger, who took back the House of Representatives in 2018 by winning in conservative districts. And red-state moderate Democrats like Jon Tester, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are the reason Democrats are tied with Republicans for control of the Senate.
Still, the netroots and party activists who dominate the candidate selection process and define the Democrats’ message can’t seem to figure that out, or they just don’t care.
This year in Pennsylvania Democrats rejected Lamb, who would have been an ideal candidate to win a general election for the Senate, and instead chose John Fetterman, an ultra-left candidate who will probably lose the seat to Trump’s pick, Dr. Mehmet Oz.
It’s almost certain that Democrats will lose their 10-seat House majority in November. If they lose the Senate, too, which they control now only because Vice President Kamala Harris can break a 50–50 tie, their agenda is finished for at least two years and probably longer.
The Democratic Party has had some successes. Biden was able to get his $2 trillion COVID relief package passed. The president and congressional leaders also were able to negotiate a $1 trillion infrastructure deal, but unbelievably, progressives threatened to hold it hostage until they could get a gargantuan Build Back Better grab bag. The leftists finally relented and took the win. Recently, conservatives Manchin and Sinema have agreed to a smaller climate change and social spending package that also includes some deficit reduction provisions. It isn’t the $3 trillion package progressives wanted — it’s closer to $300 billion — but it’s still a big deal.
A national emergency like the coronavirus pandemic is a legitimate reason for deficit spending, and both the Republicans and Democrats ran up large deficits to deal with the partial economic shutdown. The price tag has been costly, and government spending on the rescue and recovery has contributed to inflation, though it is not the main reason for it.
But here’s the thing. Americans didn’t vote for Biden to be the Second Coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Nor did they give congressional Democrats a mandate to run up trillions of dollars in debt on a wish list of things that aren’t urgent. They voted for things to return to normal and to bridge the chasm in our culture.
Those voters who gave Democrats the winning margin in 2018 and 2020 tend to be in the middle on both social and economic issues. Most Americans now support same-sex marriage, think abortion should be legal in some cases, and favor reasonable gun control measures, such as expanded background checks and red flag laws. But most of us also favor significant restrictions on abortion, are alarmed by proposals to make semiautomatic guns illegal and believe that religious freedom requires there be protections for people who hold traditional Christian beliefs on sexuality.
Rhetoric about de-funding the police and abolishing immigration enforcement, describing expectant mothers as “pregnant people,” advocating for democratic socialism, removing Abraham Lincoln’s name from schools because he wasn’t progressive enough by 21st century standards, and teaching children that racism is the defining theme of American history won’t make Democrats more popular among voters.
Let’s face it, Republicans don’t have an agenda right now for dealing with the country’s needs. Grievance is all they’ve got. But it’s working for them. Why add fuel to their fire by talking about things the vast majority of Democrats, like the vast majority of Americans, don’t support?
Last month, a New York Times/Siena College poll found that 64 percent of Democratic voters preferred another presidential candidate for 2024 instead of President Biden. His 33 percent job approval rating is the lowest in half a century for a president at this point in his first term. The only bright spot for Democrats is that in a rematch against Trump in 2024, a slight majority favor Biden, 44 to 41 percent.
The main concern about Biden is that he’s too old. He would turn 82 during the first year of a second term, and at the end of it, he would be closer to 90 than 80. But considering everything that is at stake, do we really want to change horses in midstream?
What I’m afraid of is that Biden may be the worst choice for the 2024 Democratic nomination — except for all the others. The names we most often hear mentioned are Democrats who are even more liberal, such as Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Gavin Newsome. And while many Republicans say they would like to have someone other than Trump, those they mention are just as right-wing crazy as he is, including Rick DeSantis and Kristi Noem.
Why don’t both parties consider candidates who are closer to the vital center and would have more cross-party appeal, such as North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper for the Democrats and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin for the Republicans?
After seeing the results of the Aug. 2 Republican primaries, however, I’m not convinced Republican voters will choose reasonable candidates for the White House or Congress this year and in 2024.
In Arizona, Trump-endorsed hard-right candidates won every major race on the ballot against better, mainstream Republican candidates.
The GOP nominee for secretary of state, Mark Finchem, not only believes the lie that Biden didn’t win, but he was also part of Arizona’s fake-elector scheme to steal the vote and wants to allow state legislators the authority to overturn electoral votes. Finchem was part of the Jan. 6 protest in Washington, has close ties to the Oath Keepers, an extremist armed militia, and is a Q’Anon conspiracy theorist.
Democrats have been spending millions of dollars on advertising to support the most extreme candidates in the Republican primaries because they think the extremists will be easier to defeat in the fall. But they’re playing a dangerous game. Like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Josh Hawley, these candidates could be elected.
Not only is this strategy risky for Democrats, but it’s also shameful.
Democrats call for bipartisanship, but when an honorable Republican, Peter Meijer of Michigan, did the right thing and voted to impeach Trump, they meddled in the GOP primary and caused him to lose the nomination to John Gibbs, a 2020 election denier backed by Trump. They’ve done the same thing to other good Republicans in other states.
Our country faces a clear and present danger from Trump and his toxic politics, and from other authoritarian populists. It is only by emphasizing country over party and building a moderate, bipartisan coalition of center-left Democrats and center-right Republicans that we may still save America.
If the center cannot hold, I fear that this may be the end time for our democracy.