The great danger of milquetoast liberalism

Democrats are getting double-crossed by centrists again. Will they ever learn?

Ralph Northam and Doug Jones.
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Political conditions are looking extremely favorable for Democrats. In special and off-year elections across the country, they have drastically improved on Hillary Clinton's margin almost everywhere — most astoundingly in Virginia, where Ralph Northam won the governorship by a comfortable 9 points, and in Alabama, where Doug Jones knocked off Roy Moore for the open Senate seat.

But over the weekend, both victors revealed the danger of milquetoast centrist liberalism at this moment in history. In an interview with The Washington Post, Northam seemingly discarded his campaign promises to push for the ObamaCare Medicaid expansion, suggesting that it needs to have Republican-style means tests and work requirements instead. Jones, meanwhile, suggested that he might vote with the GOP, and said that it was time to put President Trump's numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations behind us.

If the Democratic Party is to hang on to power, they must purge themselves of this appalling, failed ideology.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Jones' statements are at least fairly inconsequential. It is morally odious to dismiss the charges against Trump, and political malpractice given that he just won an election on the exact same grounds. And only a complete idiot could possibly believe that there are meaningful opportunities for bipartisanship in this Congress.

But it is cherry-red Alabama, after all. I would bet $5 million that unless Jones ends up running against another child molester, he is going to lose the Alabama election in 2020. While this kind of fake moderation won't help his case — if anything, it's only going to demoralize the white liberals and black voters he would need to have a prayer of winning — you pretty much have to take any Democrat you can get in a statewide election there.

But Virginia is not red — it is a purple state that is trending blue fairly quickly. So Northam's statements were a huge political loser in addition to morally monstrous. He told the Post that he would not try to force Medicaid expansion through the legislature (as Gov. Terry McAuliffe has tried to do repeatedly), and would instead "expand access to health care while better defining eligibility to control costs" — conservative code for cuts through means tests and work requirements. He said he would not attempt to take control of the House of Delegates by appointing a couple Republicans to his cabinet and triggering special elections, and said he has chided freshmen Virginia delegates to be ready to work with Republicans.

Northam justified this by vapid knee-jerk centrism. "Virginians deserve civility," he told the Post. "They're looking for a moral compass." Actually, what they're looking for is the Medicaid expansion, which is supported in the state by 69 percent of voters, according to a recent poll. Health care was rated as the most important issue by a 39-percent plurality of voters in exit polls — and that group broke 77-23 for Northam. As for a "moral compass," one could do worse than an all-out attack on the party that just finished running a viciously racist, conspiracy-mongering campaign for governor.

After a ferocious backlash, Northam issued a clarification which amounted to a restatement of his views, saying he supported the expansion but not that he would try to tip the legislature to do it, and still supported cuts:

See more

It might be possible to shove Northam into following through with his promise — indeed, holding politicians' feet to the fire should always be a high priority. But this also demonstrates the danger that centrist liberals have gotten themselves into while fighting the left for control of the Democratic Party.

Northam won a primary victory against Tom Perriello, boosted by the support of centrist liberals and especially the incumbent Virginia Democratic elite. But Northam was also a former Republican who voted for George W. Bush twice. Given the ludicrously lopsided polling and his campaign promises that led to his victory, it simply beggars belief that he's making an error of political viability here. Occam's razor suggests that, as a moderate conservative, he doesn't like progressive ideas, doesn't want a Democratic majority in the legislature, doesn't like Medicaid, and wants to kick as many people off of it as possible. Now that he's won, he's looking to ditch as much of his fairly left-wing platform as possible. It's basically an Andrew Cuomo-style stab in the back, after the election is in the bag.

In retrospect, nominating him to keep out the Dread Bernie Candidate was a titanic error, at least when it comes to advancing progressive policy.

It's looking more and more likely that Democrats can win in 2018 and 2020 no matter who they run. But if they run a slate of weak, timid, centrist compromisers, hemming and hawing about policy gimmes like Medicaid, who mouth progressive promises with their fingers crossed — and especially former Republicans, for Pete's sake — they won't get much in the way of concrete results. The result will be demoralization of the base, rising third-party support, and another backlash against elite failure, just like in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us