F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” He was actually too lenient — even a second-rate mind should be able to handle a little nuance. Here’s an example:
Donald Trump’s weekend remarks about those four left-wing Democratic congresswomen — Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, who call themselves “the Squad” — were viciously racist. But if the “Squad” becomes the face of their party in 2020, as Trump clearly hopes to make happen, that would be a political disaster for the Democrats.
This may shock you, given the preposterous amount of media attention that has been lavished on those four women, but the truth is that they in no way represent the broad sentiments of grassroots Democrats nationwide — or even the sentiments of most House Democrats. In fact, the largest ideological group within the House Democratic caucus is a centrist, moderate group called the New Democrat Coalition. The coalition’s members (including Pennsylvania’s Susan Wild, Madeleine Dean and Chrissy Houlahan) predominantly hail from swing suburban districts — the same districts that went blue in 2018, toppled the GOP House majority and put the Democrats in charge.
The truth, which is rarely noted in the press coverage, is that the overexposed “Squad” members could never have been elected in those pivotal purple districts. Ocasio-Cortez won in a Bronx-Queens district that is 29 percentage points more Democratic than the national average. It’s so blue that a potted plant with a Democratic bumper sticker would win it. The only reason that AOC currently has such a prominent platform, presuming to speak for Democrats everywhere, is because Nancy Pelosi, the occasional target of her ire, successfully fashioned a midterm campaign strategy that put those moderate districts in play.
Trump’s obvious re-election strategy, be it canny or instinctive, is to caricature the Democrats by giving disproportionate attention to “the Squad,” creating the false impression that it speaks for the opposition party, opening up the electoral middle by assailing the quartet’s left-wing pronouncements as “socialism.” The longer he can keep his fight with “the Squad” in the news, the greater the risk that he will succeed. And rest assured, the “Squad” will continue to take his bait.
Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago and top aide to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, is warning that disaster looms for Democrats in 2020 if they veer — or allow themselves to be depicted as veering — too far left. He points out: “Roughly half of self-identified Democrats describe themselves as ‘moderate’ or ‘conservative.’ Even as ‘the Squad’ grabs the spotlight, moderate Democratic lawmakers such as Conor Lamb (Pa.), Lauren Underwood (Ill.), Mikie Sherrill (N.J.) and Abigail Spanberger (Va.) are primarily responsible for today’s Democratic majority in the House.”
And it’s the moderate suburban voters in those kinds of districts — in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (all of which swung narrowly for Trump in 2016) — that the Democratic presidential nominee will need to win over. Emanuel rightly observes that “there aren’t enough voters on the far left, on their own, to elect a president or maintain a majority in Congress. The only two Democratic presidents to win re-election since Franklin D. Roosevelt won the White House by reaching out to the center…Our party needs to reject the choice between all or nothing. Whatever disagreements we may have with one another, nothing is worth the cost of extending Trump’s tenure.”
But if we’re talking about Democratic screw-ups, “the Squad” has plenty of company. Bernie Sanders, who did so much in 2016 to undermine Hillary Clinton and help pave the way for Trump, is still doing his worst. Yesterday, he gave another speech trumpeting government health insurance for all, which would (a) eliminate Medicare for seniors as we know it, (b) eliminate private health insurance for the roughly 200 million people who currently have it, and (c) impose new middle class taxes to help cover the price tag of $30 to $40 trillion over 10 years.
If Democrats want to alienate the swing voters they won in 2018, and alienate the Obama-to-Trump voters and Republican-leaning independents who are looking for a reason to vote blue in 2020, Bernie and his pipe dream — which is wholly or partly endorsed by many of his rivals — would certainly do the trick. So would the proposal, endorsed by (among others) Elizabeth Warren, to decriminalize illegal border crossings. So would the proposal, endorsed by many presidential candidates, to provide health insurance to undocumented immigrants. And no swing voters want to hear the Democrats replay the forced busing debate of the 1970s.
Talk of a left-wing revolution, as envisioned by AOC and Sanders and others on the party’s left flank, is a luxury we can’t afford in this election cycle. We’re mired in a national emergency, with a president whose trashing of our institutions will only accelerate during a second term. As the columnist Thomas Friedman wrote this week, “If the fear of that doesn’t motivate the Democratic party’s base, shame on those people. Some elections are a vote for great changes — like the Great Society. Others are a vote to save this country. This is the latter.”
Liberal Democratic activists have no interest in taking advice from anti-Trump Republicans, but Chris Truax, a California lawyer and member of the GOP, is worth listening to: “Please stop telling fellow travelers like me to mind our own business…The next president of the United States is everyone’s business, and we can’t afford to screw it up. Again. Democrats’ first thought in the morning and their last thought when they fall asleep at night should be, ‘How will this play in Erie, Pennsylvania?'”
Voters in the middle — where Truax positions himself — “can see what Trump is, and will happily vote for a reasonable alternative…Talk about fixing and expanding Obamacare, if you want. Talk about universal pre-kindergarten. Talk about guaranteed parental leave. If it’s OK with those voters in Erie, it’s OK with me.” However, “if progressives manage to mess this up by insisting on hard-left positions and ideological purity, they will own Trump’s second term.” Beating Trump is all that matters, and “that will require compromise from all of us.”
Beating Trump, yet compromising on issues — that would surely meet Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence.