LIFE DURING WARTIME
There’s No Centrist Superman to Save You
Why these nice little arguments about how, with the right leadership, we’d all just get along are total fantasies.
You’re all well familiar with Kubler-Ross’s famous five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Here are Tomasky’s five stages of watching a Republican debate: mockery, rage, double rage, boredom, despair.
I start, as I’d reckon most liberals do, with mockery, which was easy Wednesday night when most of them said in essence that their greatest flaw was that they cared too much (in fairness, Hillary Clinton had earlier said something similar). Then one of them says something unforgivably idiotic—and yes, there’s such a thing as forgivable idiocy—like Carly Fiorina pretending that the characters “401k” were handed down to the human race from God on Sinai and not created by the very federal government she was in that selfsame sentence traducing, and it’s rage time. And so on and so on.
But I end with despair, because the previous two (if we’re lucky) hours have revealed to me that these candidates and the citizens cheering them on just live in a totally different universe than the one I and most of my friends inhabit, and while there can be an occasional meeting of the minds on certain small matters, the sad fact is that we are going to be stuck with the current polarization for a long time yet. I think at least eight more years.
People in my position aren’t supposed to say things like this. We’re supposed to keep telling your sort that bipartisanship is in sight, shimmering in the gloaming just beyond the poppy fields. Now it’s true that Congress did just pass that budget on a bipartisan basis, but that of course is an aberration. And you know it and I know it, and everyone who writes sentences like “Perhaps this will usher in a new era of blahblahblah” knows it too.
I was reading David Brooks the other day, his column fantasizing about “a sensible Trump.” This hybrid ubermensch with “impeccable outsider status but also a steady temperament, deep knowledge, and good sense” would, in Brooks’s telling, bring together the leaders of both parties. He would sit them down and explain to them that we need to help people in the lower half of the income distribution, and that the answer is sitting right there in some research by a Harvard team led by the economist Raj Chetty.
Following the Harvard team's example means doing some things Republicans like and some things Democrats like, so both sides get a little something but give up something too; but if we can do this, argues Donald the Reasonable, we will have started to solve our two greatest problems, stagnant wages and partisan dysfunction.
I happen to be familiar with the research of which Brooks speaks, and I’d be delighted for Raj Chetty’s work to serve as model for federal government action. But there is, unfortunately, no reason to think in real life that anything like this could happen.
Why? Because before he got elected, Donald the Reasonable would have to take a position on abortion. He would undoubtedly try to find some kind of nuanced lane, to use the au courant word, somewhere in between the standard Democratic and Republican positions. But this of course would just dissatisfy both parties. And as the Republicans appear to be moving toward a position that doesn’t even acknowledge the traditional three exceptions, any deviation from that by D the R will brand him just another baby killer.
He will have to take lots of positions, this fellow. On same-sex marriage. On whether insurers should be compelled to cover contraceptive services. On immigration and citizenship. On who his model Supreme Court justices are. On free trade. On a minimum wage. On how much he’s willing to mix it up with Putin. On whether Hollywood and the universities are ruining America. On climate change. He can’t run for president saying, “Well, sure, all those things are important, but what I’m really all about here is implementing the ideas of Raj Chetty.”
In other words, partisan choices are utterly inescapable. I don’t celebrate this, but I don’t necessarily lament it either, the way a lot of centrist pundits do. These are important things. They’re all worth fighting over, and for. There are plenty of compromises that Democrats and liberals should, and I’m pretty sure would, be willing to make in the climate-change fight, for example. A carbon tax vs. credits, how much fracking and drilling, the mix of renewables, the amount we should contribute to the UN fund—all these and more can be debated by two parties that have different views on the urgency of the problem and the proper role of government in addressing it. But when one party just denies the consensus of 97 percent of the scientific community, you can’t compromise with it. You just have to defeat it.
The hope, if there is one, is this. Hillary Clinton wins. That constitutes the GOP’s third loss in a row (and, in popular-vote terms, sixth out of the last seven). Maybe then the GOP takes a look in the mirror and at the data, which will show them if they study it honestly that they lost, again, because they failed to carry purple states that as a party they’d simply become too conservative to win.
The Ted Cruz “we weren’t conservative enough!” wing will still argue its position. And of course the Republican-led House (or House and Senate, the GOP retains control) will start out by blocking President Clinton in every way it can. But she’d probably win re-election in 2020, simply because most incumbents do, and then the Republicans would be looking at 16 straight years of being locked out of the White House, and the country will be that much more Latino, and Clinton will take Georgia and come close in Texas, and finally they’ll run up the flag. So in 2024, we might have a choice between a liberal-moderate Democrat and a conservative-moderate Republican, which the Republican would probably win, and the party’s conservative wing would be somewhat tamed.
That’s the only hope for the country, really. There are extremists. They need to be defeated enough times so that their less extreme comrades can outmuscle them and guide their party back to a place where we’re all at least agreeing on basic evidentiary propositions. There is no Donald the Sensible who can save us.