/Democrats Need Brains As Well As Spine

Democrats Need Brains As Well As Spine

Joe Biden looking tough.
Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

In my days as a professional, card-carrying-“centrist” Democrat, one of the intramural memes that made me the craziest was the assertion that anyone who didn’t favor the progressive flavor-of-the-day policy prescription or message lacked “spine.” Not brains, but spine. The planted axiom was that everyone knew this or that lefty shibboleth was correct, and so failure to pursue it could only be explained as a product of corruption or of cowardice, with the latter explanation being more charitable.

Now don’t get me wrong: there were plenty of “centrist” politicians who could have plead guilty to the charge of timidity, bred of a deeply poll-driven obsession with occupying and holding the political middle ground at all costs. But sometimes ideological or strategic differences of opinion are just that, and do not betray an overweening desire to sell out “the base” for a mess of bipartisan pottage or pundit admiration. And being “tough” or a “fighter” or “unafraid” does not necessarily dictate the most successful course of action. Even though progressives have earned the right to lead the Democratic Party, an aggressive attitude simply won’t be enough.

It’s an important distinction to remember in the Trump Era, when it’s a rare left-of-center political person who does not openly and loudly disparage the president and his party. Trump is himself in part the American Beauty Rose of Will-to-Power politics, who has satisfied those in the GOP who cared most about “owning the libs” and defying “political correctness.” But the habit of identifying the left-most course as defining Democratic courage lives on in the attacks on Nancy Pelosi for resisting demands for an immediate lurch down the path to impeachment. Does anyone who has paid attention to Pelosi’s career really believe she’s afraid of anybody or anything? Quite possibly she is wrong that impeachment might materially improve the odds that Donald Trump will serve a second term in which he can further stack the judiciary with stone ideologues and shred every constitutional and democratic norm. If she’s wrong, she’s wrong, but it’s not a matter of inadequate spine.

You can hear the same sort of mistake being made in the criticism of Joe Biden’s irrepressible faith in an honorable GOP that will spring back to life once the Evil One in the White House is gone. He’s absolutely wrong about that, of course. But it’s not because he’s soft or too nice or lacks spine. No one Biden’s age is likely to be afraid of anything other than the Grim Reaper.

More to the point, though, toughness is not going to beat Trump or the GOP, either. It’s going to require brains and and a workable strategy, both in the 2020 election and beyond. And it’s the apparent lack of brains exhibited by Biden’s persistent bipartisanship that’s troubling.

Nobody’s going to call progressive writer Brian Beutler a milquetoast centrist. He is practically the Cato the Censor of pro-impeachment agitprop. But he understands why Biden’s misapprehension about Republicans is a problem, and what needs to be done about it:

[It] … foreshadows how things will go for any winning Democratic candidate who clings, sincerely or otherwise, to the view that a golden era of compromise will dawn once Trump is gone. These candidates will lock themselves into a mode of governing that can not work anymore. Their supporters and intra-party critics will be demoralized, their presidencies will stagnate, and they will waste precious time grasping for a better approach. (That’s if they don’t react to predictable GOP resistance by passing new, ill-conceived pseudo-compromises like the Hyde amendment.)

It’s obviously just as naive to assume that hard-nosed realism about the nature of the modern GOP will unlock a progressive revolution all on its own. But candidates who understand what they’re signing up for can take steps to prepare for governing around Republicans now, knowing it’s delusional to imagine they’ll govern in coalition with them. If Democrats win the White House but not the Senate, Democrats should be prepared to implement creative foreign and administrative policies; if they consolidate power, they should be prepared to legislate in an aggressive and likely partisan way. The next time a Democrat is president, Republicans will again want to filibuster his or her presidency into failure, so the filibuster must be on the chopping block, and the party should be prepared to legislate around its own internal center, rather than let its most conservative members set the agenda in the vain hope of securing bipartisanship.

This is a challenge to intelligence and imagination and political skill, not just to courage and strength and “spine.” Out-thugging Donald Trump may well be impossible in any event. So instead of simply demanding that Democrats “stop bringing a knife to a gunfight,” progressives should ask them to bring all their assets to the table. They’ll need them.