There are a lot of people on the left who are very silly. In fact, I have to work very hard in conversations with liberals not to constantly correct them about things they have wrong. But I understand that being a liberal or a conservative is mostly a tribal thing. And their votes in elections are mostly a matter of their approach to governance, not specific policies. This drives me a bit crazy, but what am I gonna do? People are the way they are and they aren’t going to read a dozen economics blogs each day.
But far more annoying than the vast expanse of low-information liberals are the Very Serious Progressives. I run into them all the time on comment threads. They say that they believe in progressive policy, but the people just don’t want it. The Democratic Party has to pitch a message that will resonate with the moderate voter. We can leave aside the hubris these people show in their claims to know what such moderates think. The truth is, these moderates don’t seem to think much of anything at all — they bounce around with the larger political landscape. The vast majority of people are reliably partisan.
There are more fundamental things that go on in elections. In 1980, most liberals were thrilled that the Republicans had nominated Ronald Reagan for president. He had so much baggage and was so extreme that they thought he would lose. But he didn’t. And he didn’t for the reason that has determined every presidential for the last four decade: it’s the economy, stupid! (The only exception is Ford-Carter, where Ford had the slightest of economic advantages, and undoubtedly Nixon made the difference.)
I bring this up because a couple of weeks ago, Peter Fegan wrote, What’s Really Wrong with America’s Political System. He made some excellent points. For example, Ralph Nader lost Gore the 2000 election. But it is important to note (for the purposes of my model), that Gore won anyway and the Supreme Court simply gave Bush the presidency. But without Nader, it wouldn’t have been close enough to be an issue. What’s more, he’s right about Ben Nelson in Nebraska: Democrats in conservative areas have to be more conservative. It was never fair to compare Nelson, who was an excellent part of the Democratic Party, to Joe Lieberman, a conservative Democrat from a liberal state, who seemed to delight in disloyalty.
But national elections are different. Fegan scoffed at the idea of Elizabeth Warren being the Democratic presidential nominee. He wrote, “Republicans would instantly become the prohibitive favorites to win the White House.” Uh, no. The 2016 election is going to come down to the economy — just like always. The only way it won’t is if one of the parties nominates someone who is really unqualified. If the Republicans nominated Sarah Palin, they would almost certainly lose. (Note: almost certainly.) But would they lose if Ted Cruz were nominated? I’m not at all certain of that. It wouldn’t take much of a recession to assure his win.
Fegan makes the same mistake on this front that he accuses other progressives of: he thinks that policies and “messages” are what determine elections. Many progressives think, “If only people had a real progressive, then they’d vote for the candidate.” Fegan is saying, “If only people had a moderate who didn’t scare the center, then they’d vote for the candidate.” In a hypothetical race between Warren and Cruz, he wrote, “Maybe Warren would be able to articulate her vision for the country better than Cruz and win, or maybe she would be seen as the flip side of the same rotten coin and lose.” Again: no. The voters already have their “vision” of the country. It isn’t fair, but most people vote the same way every time. What swings the mood of the country is the economy.
But then, Fegan complained about Zephyr Teachout’s primary campaign against Andrew Cuomo. According to him, “[T]he fact that progressives would actually run the risk of possibly losing an otherwise safe state house, speaks volumes about their lack of judgment.” No, it really doesn’t. It speaks volumes about how unsatisfied New York Democrats are with Cuomo. And they made the reasonable calculation that the minor chance of Rob Astorino beating Teachout in a general election in a liberal state was worth it to get rid of Cuomo.
What Fegan should have taken away from the Cuomo-Teachout primary is that the New York Democratic Party should have generated more qualified candidates to take on Cuomo in a primary. But Fegan’s idea that sticking with Cuomo just because he’s a sure thing is madness. This is what has allowed the Republicans to now run against establishment Democrats who are more conservative than Republicans were four decades ago. That’s got to feel good for Republicans: knowing that even when a Republican loses, they’ll still get conservative economic policy.
Fegan seems to think it will simply be obvious that Clinton is the best candidate, “If Hillary Clinton is the best the Dems put up in 2016, progressives best play will be to bite down hard and swallow.” What does that even mean? Isn’t that what primaries are for? If we did what Fegan seems to be suggesting, Clinton would have been the nominee in 2008. After all, no one knew if North Carolina would vote for a black man. So Fegan can’t actually mean there shouldn’t be a primary — that Clinton should just be anointed.
That means Fegan’s article is really only saying that the Democratic Party should rally around Clinton when she wins the nomination in 2016. I’m not sure who Fegan is arguing against. I don’t doubt that there are a smattering of liberals around who claim they will not vote for Clinton in a general election. They are lying. In the end, everyone will get behind Clinton. I know a lot of progressives who are still kicking themselves for voting for Nader in 2000. That won’t happen again any time soon.
In the end, I think that Fegan is quite confused about what he wants to say. Some of his statements are shockingly illiberal — even authoritarian. But I think what he’s really getting at is that he is the Very Serious Progressive. And just like all Very Serious Whatevers, he wants to command the world to do the “pragmatic” thing. And who determines that? Why the Very Serious Progressive, of course! He will know who the best candidate will be by — What? — the South Carolina primary? And then the rest of us best get behind the “electable” candidate. (BTW: isn’t that what we did with Kerry?) All this means is that the world is more to Fegan’s liking than it is to, say, mine. It isn’t unreasonable to risk moving two steps backwards when the “pragmatic” choice is to move one step backwards. But regardless, I will completely support whatever Democrat is nominated.
Update (13 October 2014 12:50 pm)
I don’t want to be too down on Peter Fegan. The fact is, I don’t know his work that well. But it did just occur to me that in his article, he defended Thomas Friedman and David Frum. These are both men who are economically conservative and socially liberal. I don’t actually see this in Fegan’s writing. But I think Fegan probably is the flip side of me. I’m both socially and economically liberal. But I would jettison the social side of this for gains on the economic side. (Sadly, things are so bad in this country that many social issues have huge economic aspects, but let’s leave that.) I think Fegan simply cares about social issues more than I do. I would accept much expanded gun rights in exchange for the Federal Reserve increasing its inflation target to 4%. But it is important that we realize we are all on the same team, even when we don’t agree on everything. And that includes tactics. Fegan clearly thinks that a sure thing “better than a Republican” is a clear winner over an uncertain “better than a New Democrat.” That doesn’t mean that either is wrong. Regardless, supporting Warren in a primary is not the same as voting for Nader in a general.