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The Overdue Death of Democratic “Pragmatism”

Centrism in disguise is the wrong strategy for stopping Trump.

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It’s an unwritten rule in political journalism today that Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator and Democratic candidate for president, must be described aspragmatic.”

There isn’t much mystery as to what the press means by this. Politico reported last week that Klobuchar “is pitching herself as [a] pragmatic Midwesterner who won’t over-promise liberal policies to primary voters,” and later described her “tell-it-like-it-is centrism.” The senator probably wouldn’t object much to that characterization. Though she doesn’t appear to call herself a pragmatist with any frequency, her 2015 memoir extolled “a pragmatic bipartisan approach to problem solving,” adding, “The answer, as with so many things in politics, is somewhere in the middle.”

A pragmatist is thus two things at once: a moderate and a realist, with the latter apparently driving the former. This explains why Klobuchar does not explicitly support Medicare for All, saying that single-payer health care “could be a possibility in the future. I’m just looking at something that will work now.” It’s why she calls the Green New Deal “aspirational.” And it’s why she opposes free college. “If I was a magic genie, and could give that for everyone, and we could afford it, I would,” she said. “I’ve got to tell the truth.”

Klobuchar only joined the race a few weeks ago, but already the press has cemented her identity as a pragmatist because she fills a key narrative role in the 2020 race: serving as a contrast to the supposed idealists who are driving most of the conversation (and most of the voter excitement) in the Democratic primary. This is shaping up to be the defining conflict of the race, especially if Joe Biden and Sherrod Brown—who would compete in Klobuchar’s lane—also enter the field.  So it’s important to be clear now about what “pragmatism” really means, and why the Democratic Party ought to abandon it altogether.

This is not a new conflict among Democrats, of course. To some extent, it has defined the party for the past half-century.

The party’s rightward drift began in the mid-1970s, when the so-called “Watergate Babies” began to replace New Deal Democrats, but proceeded in earnest in the 1980s due to Ronald Reagan’s two landslide victories. The Democratic Leadership Council, formed in the wake of Walter Mondale’s defeat in 1984, pushed Democrats to embrace balanced budgets, welfare reform, and other centrist policies. The argument was that the Democratic Party must meet American voters where they were. This neoliberal turn also led Democrats to embrace technocratic policy as an engine for social change: markets, not governments, would solve the major challenges of our time. The kind of imagination and ambition that drove the New Deal and the Great Society became passé.

From a policy perspective, this shift has been an unqualified failure. The programs advocated by these Democrats have not reduced income inequality or dramatically increased healthcare access or affordability. It led to the 1994 crime bill, which created a bipartisan consensus in favor in mass incarceration and has had a devastating impact on people of color. “If you’re a black baby born today, you have a 1 in 3 chance of spending some time in prison or jail,” the Vera Institute’s Nicholas Turner told NPR in 2016. “If you’re Latino, it’s a 1 in 6 chance. And if you’re white, it’s 1 in 17.” Weeks before signing that bill into law, Clinton also signed the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking bill, which kicked off a wave of deregulation in the financial industry which contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. Perhaps more than anything though, this turn toward the center led to Democrats not doing things like supporting labor rights, antitrust enforcement, and anti-poverty measures.

Politically, the results are less conclusive. All four of the Democratic nominees who have  lost elections since 1988—Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton—sold themselves as pragmatists rather than idealists. The two who won, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, wrapped their pragmatism in an idealistic narrative about the need for radical change—and they won two terms each. Clinton’s presidency is rightfully held up as a triumph of “Third Way” liberal politics, while Obama’s ultimately may be remembered as an important but transitional one. The Affordable Care Act, his trademark achievement, is a case in point: A market-based health care reform bill with roots in the conservative think tank world, it nevertheless represents an important stepping stone in the path to a single-payer system.

The 2016 Democratic primary, though significantly less crowded, was in many ways a precursor of the one that’s getting underway today. While it was broadly framed as a fight between the Democratic establishment, represented by Clinton, and Democratic insurgents, represented by Bernie Sanders, it was also representative of the long-running intra-party dispute over the best strategy for winning elections and enacting change. Clinton, the pragmatist, won the battle, but Sanders won the war, as his supposedly idealistic policies have become broadly popular among Democrats—even party doctrine, in some cases.

And yet, amid the party’s decisive shift leftward, pragmatism threatens once again to smother ambitious new policies in the crib. “Do I think we could cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ in 10 years?” Klobuchar said when asked about the Green New Deal. “Actually, I think that would be very difficult to do.” Such caution inspires portrayals of her as a plain-speaking politician who doesn’t pander, an incrementalist who doesn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good—a doer, not a dreamer. But one person’s realism is another other person’s myopia: What is possible tomorrow is shaped by what is attempted today, however impossible the odds seem.

Pragmatism is as much a political strategy as a legislative one. Most voters are realists, not zealots, the thinking goes; by embracing pragmatism, presidential candidates like Klobuchar can win over this silent majority. It’s easy to see the appeal of such an approach in this political moment. Polling has shown that Democratic voters are eager to elect anyone who can defeat Trump—and would prefer that the party nominate the candidate with the best chance of beating him. Some argue that the best such candidate, given the president’s extremism, would be a centrist pragmatist.

“Despite all the talk about how ‘all the energy is on the left,’ progressive populism and democratic socialism underwhelmed in the primaries and were close to shut out in competitive general elections,” Jim Kessler and Lanae Erickson, of the Third Way think tank, argued after last year’s midterms. “The actual voting energy in the midterms propelled mostly mainstream Democrats who closely matched their purple and red districts or states.... Presidential candidates should not conflate that with appealing to the far left with populist rhetoric and a democratic socialist agenda.”

It’s true that most voters do not fall into neat ideological boxes. As Lee Drutman found in 2017, most social and racial conservatives have liberal economic views, while liberals, contra much of the reporting on the divide between Sanders and Clinton supporters, were in broad agreement on economic issues. Moreover, as New York magazine’s Eric Levitz wrote in 2017, “people generally cast their ballots on the basis of which candidate or party they identify with—which is to say, the one that seems to best represent people like them.” This generally favors the political party pushing for greater, more affordable health care—but also means that it doesn’t make political sense to put bumpers on hypothetical policies, which dampens voter enthusiasm.

Pragmatism doesn’t track as a legislative argument, either. There is justified skepticism, given the Senate’s structural favoritism toward Republicans, that any major Democratic effort can become law. But this is also true of any major piece of legislation at this point, whether it be universal or incremental. It’s possible, for instance, that Klobuchar’s hypothetical smaller-scale health care push could hold on to more Democratic votes than Medicare for All—but there is no sense that it would win any more votes from Republicans. Despite the label, there’s nothing really that pragmatic about these policies, at least in this hyper-partisan moment. (The actual pragmatic position is the one that no Democratic candidate has taken: If they want to pass any meaningful legislation, they must abolish the filibuster. For now, however, that remains a curious third rail among leading Democrats.)

As they travel across Iowa and New Hampshire, Klobuchar and other moderate Democrats running for president would do well to remember the campaign of another Minnesota pragmatist, Walter Mondale. In December of 1983, The New York Times observed a sense of nervousness among his supporters: “Even some Democrats supporting Mr. Mondale voice concerns that, despite his elaborate organization, the candidate’s stolid, low-key personality and his cautious, pragmatic approach have left many Democrats uninspired.” Eleven months later, the Democratic Party lost every state but the one Mondale hailed from. There’s no reason to believe that a pragmatic nominee today, whether from Minnesota or anywhere else, would be more inspiring.