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  • Max Stearns

The “M” Word

Based on social media comments, including some on this blog, “Moderate” connotes unprincipled, spineless, lacking commitment, ignorant, disingenuous, or even strategic. I am persuaded that these characterizations are misguided and politically harmful, threatening to undermine Democratic 2020 prospects even after the remarkable events that have thus far followed the Democratic partial victory in the November 2018 midterms, with Democrats taking control of the House, yet leaving the Senate more firmly in Republican hands.

Keeping pace with the whirlwind news cycle in the Trump era demands superhuman vigilance. In this short time frame, three members of Donald Trump’s cabinet, plus one temporary replacement, are either gone or scheduled to leave: Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General; Matthew Whitaker, Acting Attorney General; John Kelley, Chief of Staff; and Scott Pruitt, Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency. There have been equally rapid developments concerning legal investigations surrounding, or closely related to, Donald Trump, his campaign, and 2016 Russian election interference. The Paul Manifort plea deal is undone; despite apparently full cooperation, Mike Flynn's sentencing recommendation of no jail time has not been well received, and the process is now delayed pending further cooperation; and Michael Cohen has flipped, been sentenced to three years, and remains threatening. Even the Trump charity is dissolved amid investigation.

Robert Mueller, who, thus far, has leveled criminal charges against no fewer than 30 individuals and 3 Russian entities, appears to be tightening his grip on an increasingly unstable President within an increasingly unstable White House. Trump’s orbit now more closely resembles a black hole. There is credible evidence that Trump might have committed or directed a felony, even though under Department of Justice policy, sitting presidents may not be indicted, and with the present composition of the Senate, pursuing impeachment, at least for now, is apt to be a fool’s errand.

Although this all might appear as great fodder heading into the 2020 general election, it is far from obvious that Democrats are well poised to take political advantage. In a very real sense, it is unclear that the Democratic party has any conceptual core. Nancy Pelosi will be House Speaker, following a deal setting a four-year limited term, which itself underscores the growing tensions between an aging old guard and a rising set of new challengers, some committed to the ascendant Democratic Socialist wing. All things anti-Trump does not itself provide for a coherent political vision, and it is past time for some 2020 foresight. I am increasingly persuaded this demands reclaiming the “M” word.

Moderates can be, and often are, genuinely committed to set of important and coherent core principles. Moderate does not imply gravitating toward any middle position simply by virtue of its placement between opposing extremes. Nor does it mean viscerally preferring the path of least resistance. Moderation and pragmatism are related yet distinct. Dedicated moderates embrace their world view with the same intensity and commitment as those identifying as liberal, progressive, conservative, or libertarian.

Moderate implies being insistently open to the myriad issues or dimensions implicated by hard policy choices. It means appreciating that, more often than not, relevant concerns do not uniformly point in a single direction, and that those who insist otherwise are frequently uninformed or disingenuous. It means recognizing that even desirable policy objectives can become counterproductive if pushed too far. It means recognizing that although hard policy decisions should not imply paralysis, the choices often demand forming broader coalitions, coupled with a willingness to sacrifice some admittedly important objectives in favor of other, higher-valued objectives. For moderates, such policy decisions do not imply an abdication of principle, but rather, a commitment to making inevitable, and, yes, principled, tradeoffs. Moderate means willing to change one’s mind when confronted with actual and meaningful contrary data, as opposed to discrediting information inconvenient to one’s world view. Moderate demands careful attention to prioritizing and sequencing, recognizing that very often decision-making processes can be as important to the legitimacy of outcomes as the substantive policies themselves. Dedicated moderates eschew extremism on the right and left, which tend to evince stronger commitments to abstract philosophy or to specific policies than to longer term goals associated with the inherently difficult project of collaborative governance in an imperfect, increasingly polarized, and ever more dangerous world. Moderates disfavor hubris in favor of deep learning, experience, nuance, and, when necessary, accommodation. Moderates recognize that although only one party holds power at a time, the United States functions better when genuine bipartisan coalitions form over major aspects of public policy. Although I lean left, and I am a life-long registered Democrat, I consider myself a dedicated moderate. Hard numbers are hard to obtain, yet I am persuaded that moderates include many Democrats and Republicans, who, with the right candidate and platform, are sufficient to tip the scales in the 2020 election.

Moderates appreciate that liberals and conservatives tend to hold divergent framings, or “priors,” and seek solutions that work, whenever possible, within these competing frameworks, with the goal of forging bipartisan coalitions. Liberals and conservatives most obviously divide in their appreciation of private and governmental markets. Whereas liberals tend to favor regulatory interventions for seemingly problematic market outcomes, including environmental harms, problematic wage structures, and deficient access to health care, conservatives tend to distrust regulatory solutions as prone to inefficiency, distortion, or capture. Liberals tend to overlook the possibility that some seemingly problematic market outcomes are features not bugs, just as conservatives tend to overlook or explain away actual market failures for fear that recognition will justify regulatory intervention. Although liberals sometimes exhibit naïve confidence in the capacity of government to bring about desired change, thereby overlooking problematic political processes, conservatives likewise hold an inverse excess confidence in competition to eliminate, of its own force, discriminatory patterns related, for example, to race or gender. In doing so, they often rest on intuitions from models bearing limited resemblance to observed, non-competitive, market behaviors. Absent a willingness to form coalitions across these divides, we will continue to witness ongoing, and costly, policy swings that thwart genuine reliance interests among those who mistakenly assume that hard-won political battles produce gains that transcend the particular administration in which they took place.

Moderates understand that markets are the true engine of economic growth and that without the societal wealth robust markets produce, other vital regulatory objectives are often unachievable. Moderates nonetheless also recognize genuine instances of market failure. These include, for example, the challenge of pooling those with differing risk profiles to generate a functional health insurance market, a serious problem that bears no correlation whatsoever to the forced purchase of broccoli. Moderates appreciate that in seeking to curb dramatically dangerous trends associated with global climate change, US involvement, indeed US leadership, is essential. Such leadership is vital even even if other nations, including China and Russia, and by some accounts, even Canada, fail to make appropriate reciprocal commitments. Moderates appreciate that even if the US is projected to fare better than other nations around the globe, our attention to this singular issue is the moral imperative of our time. Moderates understand that the minimum wage might not be a livable, but recognize that there are limits beyond which such minimums no longer allow markets to function effectively. Moderates seek creative solutions, including eschewing the binary policy choice of welfare versus work, and recognizing that different regions might require different minimums, so that what prevails in Manhattan or Los Angeles does not drive what is required in Midwest farmlands or in the rural South. Moderates from both parties appreciate that the hype about criminals coming across the border is just that, that a border wall is misconceived, and that specific sectors in our economy are, in fact, reliant on undocumented workers from Mexico and elsewhere. Moderates recognize that rather than demonizing such workers, a better solution might include documented migrant-worker status, with temporary stays, improved record keeping, tax revenues, and legal access to social services for such workers and their families. Moderates read the entire Second Amendment, including the prefatory clause, and recognize the vital need for reasonable gun control measures that will reduce the available stock of guns over time to reduce the never-ending cycle of the most dangerous of weapons too often failing into the wrong hands no matter how responsible those who purchase them initially claim to be.

Most of all, moderates appreciate that ideological commitments, however strong, cannot make the very real problems of governance go away. Come 2020, one party is going to be better situated than the other to convey to voters the importance of eschewing extremes, of governing toward the center, and of being effective in these increasingly challenging times. Although our two-party system is baked-in, existing party coalitions are not. Wise Democratic party leaders would take this to heart. After all, if the split 2018 midterms proved anything it is this: the median US voter might well be left of center, but it is not very far left.

I welcome your comments.

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