How “moderates” are bolder than the left

The left is also not as bold as it thinks

by Anne Kim, Vice President, Domestic Policy | Progressive Policy Institute

Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently drew big cheers at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this month when she dissed the views of political moderates as “misplaced.” “Moderate is not a stance. It’s just an attitude towards life of, like, ‘meh,’” she told a standing-room only crowd. “The ‘meh’ is worshipped now — for what?”

Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks reflect an old line of attack from the progressive left: that moderates are “mushy” — timid, if not cowardly; that they value incrementalism over true progress; and, worst of all, that they are guilty of “triangulation” — the unprincipled pandering to swing voters by pushing off both left and right.

In truth, the only thing today’s Congressional moderates might be guilty of is failing to amass the same kind of social media following as Ocasio-Cortez and other left-wing political celebrities. But that’s because they have been too busy working to get things done — in spite of the sound and fury and Twitter chatter from the left.

For instance, while liberals have been calling for a single-payer health care system that would destroy the system of private insurance relied upon by 176 million Americans and has no chance of becoming reality, members of the “moderate” New Democrat Coalition have devised a far more practical plan for shoring up the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which has extended coverage to nearly 20 million previously uninsured Americans since its passage in 2010.

The ACA itself, keep in mind, is a “moderate” achievement, modeled on the Massachusetts’ health insurance exchange instituted by Republican then-governor, now senator Mitt Romney. Though liberals at the time complained of the ACA’s reliance on private coverage over government-run health care, there’s no question the legislation has worked — ACA exchanges reduced the ranks of the uninsured to an historic low in 2016, and it is only because of the Trump Administration’s systematic dismantling of the law that uninsured rates are ticking up again. There’s also no question of the ACA’s transformational impact. Among other things, the legislation utterly revamped the failing individual market for health insurance — a “bold” reform if there ever was one.

Liberals stake their monopoly claim to “bold” ideas on several faulty assumptions. First, they equate “boldness” with the unfettered expansion of government, which is the common thread uniting all of the left’s “big” ideas. The “Green New Deal,” for instance, proposes uprooting large swathes of the economy in its quest for a carbon-neutral economy by 2030, including as it does a guaranteed jobs program for all Americans as well as support for single-payer health care. Ideas like “free college,” championed by former and current presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, and “universal child care,” recently proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would both involve the creation of massive new entitlements.

There is nothing bold or particularly creative about proposing to spend more government money or to expand the exercise of governmental power. In fact, the most traditional and least innovative approach to solving any problem is to throw more government at it.

What is truly “bold” is to radically re-envision the role of government and to question long-held assumptions about what government should support and how it should support it. One example, for instance, is the transformation of public education through charter schools, a movement that’s been largely championed by “moderate” policymakers. In places such as New Orleans, Denver and Washington, D.C., the use of charters — public schools run by independent organizations — has led to any number of breakthroughs in providing high-quality education to some of the nation’s poorest students. Charters break with the old model of centralized, bureaucratic control of schools in favor of school-level autonomy, parental choice and innovation. The result is successes like the well-known KIPP academies, which boast 92 percent graduation rates and college-going rates above the national average despite an overwhelmingly low-income student body.

A second fallacy among liberals is to underestimate the big impacts that seemingly small changes can have to improve Americans’ lives. “Free college,” for instance, is liberals’ answer to the very real problems of higher education affordability and the need for all Americans to have a chance to improve their skills. But not only is it too expensive and impractical, free college won’t solve the problem of whether someone will have the skills that employers want — a “free” degree is meaningless if a graduate is unemployable.

A more “moderate” but far more effective solution is to end the federal bias against career and technical education. Of the roughly $139 billion the federal government spends each year to subsidize higher education, just 14 percent goes to career education. Expanding the availability of federal Pell grants to cover high-quality short-term programs in fields such as health care, IT and building trades would not only help employers close ongoing “skills gaps” but help more Americans gain valuable skills at a much lower cost. Expanding Pell is also arguably a much bolder solution to the problem of helping workers adjust to a changing economy than such ideas as “universal basic income” or “guaranteed jobs,” which basically throw in the towel on Americans’ ability to adapt and innovate.

The third mistake liberals make is to assume that “boldness” requires confrontation with no room for conciliation. This yearning for combat against a demonized other is in part what drives liberals’ hardline crusades against “big business,” “greedy drug companies,” “the wealthy” and so on.

In truth, partisan clashes rarely result in meaningful legislation — rather, Congress’s most enduring legislative achievements have been bipartisan. A case in point is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which after months of behind-the-scenes cajoling by the consummate dealmaker President Lyndon Johnson passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. More recently, Congress has passed bipartisan legislation to combat the opioid epidemic as well as the landmark First Step Act, a bipartisan effort to begin unwinding the impacts of mass incarceration. These two new laws, though relatively unheralded, will ultimately benefit millions of Americans and will furthermore be immunized by their bipartisan heritage from future challenge.

In contrast, the highly partisan tax bill passed by the GOP-led Congress and Donald Trump in 2017 is unlikely to endure in its entirety if Republicans lose the Senate next cycle and Democrats maintain their majority in the House. The same would be true in reverse of any legislation rammed through Congress by Democrats without bipartisan support.

Progressives are right that Americans tired of gridlock are looking for “bold” ideas to move the country forward. But as Americans consider whom to support in 2020, liberals should not mistake bumper stickers for boldness or eschew progress for the allure of naïve ambition. True boldness can and often does come in unexpected guises and from the quiet work of responsible — moderate — governance.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store