Virtue of Immoderation

| Tue May 31, 2005 1:19 PM EDT

One of the things that's so brilliant about President Bush—no, really—is that he can get many liberals to hate liberal ideas… simply by adopting them. Spreading democracy far and wide across the world? Bush has embraced it. Liberals sneer at it. But, as many pundits have pointed out, an idealistic foreign policy is fundamentally a liberal idea. Ditto for national standards on education. Or deficit spending. Or vast expansions of entitlement programs. Obviously Bush has implemented all these ideas in a terrible way, and no one should applaud that, but it would be a bad thing indeed if liberals—and Democrats in particular—went too far in opposition and became the party of stolid realism abroad, decentralized school choice, balanced budgets, and unduly restrained Medicare spending.

But if you wanted sanctimonious finger-wagging about "what's wrong with the left", I'm sure you can get that elsewhere. I'm not interested. What inspired this little rant was Onnesha's post last week about Hillary Clinton. The Nation recently ran a good profile of Clinton finding that, far from being a shifty triangulator like her husband, she's really quite moderate: "She projects pragmatism on economic issues, and she signals ideological flexibility on social issues." Fair enough, though I worry about a candidate that gets tagged with the "ultra-lefty" label while acting quite moderate in practice; the reverse would be far better. What I do like about Hillary, though, is she potentially has that same quality Bush has—the ability to get conservatives to hate an idea just because she's the one touting it. For instance, here's how Greg Sargent describes Hillary's stance on lowering the number of abortions in America via increased use birth control (and even teen abstinence):

The political beauty of this, as NewDonkey.com's Ed Kilgore has observed, is that it makes a subtle play for Republican moderates by forcing right-wing ideologues to reveal themselves as the true extremists, as foes of the common-sense goal of lowering rates of unwanted pregnancies. "When Democrats speak this way about abortion," says one senior Hillary adviser, "it drives a wedge between sensible Republicans, who want to reduce the amount of abortions, and the right-wing crazies, whose main goal is to stop people from having sex."

Good stuff. More to the point, while naturally I'd love for some moderate presidential candidate to rise in 2008 and "unite this divided country," I'm beginning to think it won't ever happen. As the filibuster deal showed last week, all moderates ever end up doing is making a strange fetish out of compromise, and legitimizing extremists. (Thanks to those moderates who "saved the Senate," Democrats who were opposing a handful of radical judges suddenly became "just as bad" as Bill Frist and the rest of the GOP's nuclear warriors who wanted to shred Senate rules because they found them inconvenient.) From a strategic standpoint, then, a Democratic candidate who viscerally repulsed the conservative establishment—and Hillary is very, very good at that—while appealing to a bare sliver of swing voters may well be the way to go. The upshot here is that when Republicans start foaming at the mouth over the Clintons, they usually end up revealing their own ugliness and lose elections—as was the case in the 1998 midterms.