Two Days Out: Presidential Politics for America Op-Ed

For a few years now, my “About the Writer” page labels me a “radical moderate.” At first I thought it a cute, oxymoronic coupling of words, but I’ve since grown to proudly wear the label.

I feel confident in few political positions; I neither watch cable news nor subscribe to slanted newsletters, so I haven’t bought into an army of one-sided talking points, incomplete facts, and uncontextualized claims. Through my fairly balanced Twitter feed and media diet, however, I’ve encountered all of those things. This approach has taught me that few political issues are as clear cut as a devout partisan suggests.

As a result, one of the few beliefs I do feel strongly about is that one shouldn’t feel too confident in one’s ideology. There’s a virtual guarantee that someone out there is smarter and more informed than you, yet they disagree with your politics. That being the case, my conclusion feels axiomatic: you shouldn’t feel confident in your political positions either.

Thus, as a radical moderate, I can’t say I’m pleased with the state of our political discourse.

Have you noticed how both parties feel like they are the ones aggrieved? That they represent the majority and their opponents the minority? Have you noticed both parties complain about the other, and complain that the others are the ones who complain too much, but that only their own complaining is legitimate? Can Democrats stop blaming the Constitution for their political failings? Can Republicans stop blaming the media for theirs? Can Americans stop blaming each other?

Our parties have become experts at listing all the things wrong with the opposing party. These lists create anger. This anger mobilizes voters. Partisan media on both sides, who profit off of anger through the ratings and subscriptions that follow, consistently portray a warped view of the opposing position. So warped is that view that their consumers can’t even understand the other side anymore. Both parties think their own party is level-headed while only the other side has radicalized. The percentage of Republicans that are racist and Democrats that are socialist is not nearly as high as talking heads want you to think.

Nonetheless, fighting the stupid and/or self-interested and/or immoral opposing party is the number one requirement of partisans today. When people debate now, whether on TV, on social media, or around a dinner table, the goal is rarely to find common ground and learn what the opposition thinks. The goal is conquest. The goal is to win. The goal is to justify why one has felt a certain way for a certain amount of time, and to never, ever capitulate, for being wrong today implies one was wrong yesterday and the day before, a stretch of antecedents that goes back at least to the last time they stepped into a ballot box and pulled a lever, filled a bubble, or punched a chad. It’s a vulnerability few are comfortable contemplating.

And so our politicians reflect us, and we them. That’s how they get elected. Democrats have done everything they could to block President Trump’s agenda, and their voters cheer them for it. Before that, Republicans did everything they could to make Obama a failed president, just as their voters wanted. Gone are the days of partisan moderates working together. Most of our elected officials have succumbed to hyperpartisanship, because those that haven’t lost their primary.

You’re probably getting sick of me “bothsidesing” all the time. I’ve beat this dead horse so much I’m worried someone might call PETA. Still, since so many of 2020’s problems have become worse because of our divisive politics, I’m going to keep saying it.

Our major presidential candidates have done little to redirect this prevailing paradigm of American politics. Their combined age of 151 is comfortably a record; each of them are in fact older than the three presidents who came before them are now. Nothing about these ages suggest we’re ready to turn a page that desperately needs turning.

For independent voters, it can be difficult to sift through these two parties and determine which is the more moderate. Recognizing this looming dilemma, President Trump’s 2020 game plan was to clarify it for the electorate. He is the sane option, he’s said. The other side is radicalism, socialism, and chaos.

That strategy may have worked for him had we gotten the far left Democratic nominee he had hoped for, but he had no such luck. He got Joe Biden instead. Rather than call an audible, however, our undeterred President has still tried to run the anti-Radical Left game plan.

It could have proven effective against Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but it’s just not working on Biden. Consider their second debate, one in which we praised everyone involved because all they did was lie and make stuff up, but did so calmly and without interruption. At one point, Trump started talking about how Biden wanted to take everyone’s private health care. In that moment, I had intense déjà vu. As someone who covered every Democratic debate on this website, I can attest that just about every single one had a health care segment that had Biden (and frequently Pete Buttigieg) making that exact accusation about the Sanders and Warren health care plans, with Biden insisting he’d maintain private insurance but the more liberal “Medicare For All” would take it away.

It was a really weird thing for Trump to say. (Shocking, I know.) Biden successfully prosecuted a campaign against the lefty Democratic nominees, and he had done so in part by drawing a distinction between his more centrist health care approach and his opponents’ more progressive vision. In the months since the primary, Biden has rejected the “Defund the Police” battle cry while acknowledging a desire to reform. He has in no uncertain terms condemned looting. And yet, Trump’s failed attempt to turn Biden into a Radical bogeyman controlled by the Far Left of his party continues.

That speaks to a larger point — the Democratic Party is not the Far Left Radical Party Trump keeps saying it is. The party literally had a primary to settle what Democrats wanted. Perhaps if Democrats nominated Bernie Sanders, Trump’s accusation would be fairer, but that’s not what happened. As predicted by my surprisingly accurate read of the Democratic Primary, Biden’s last hurdles fell as soon as moderate candidates Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar (wistful sigh) dropped out of the race and helped him consolidate the moderate lane and hence a majority of the party. Polls confirm this analysis; self-described liberals remain a minority in the party.

Of course, even if Trump admitted to this fact, he and Republican voters may yet argue, perhaps accurately, that the left is on the rise and therefore they should be thwarted through Trump’s re-election before it’s too late.

This fear is not totally without cause. Democrats claim to be against open borders, but little they do suggests that’s true; it’s a politically insane position to welcome in just about anyone. Meanwhile, they’ve marshaled an egregious defense around those that indiscriminately tear down statues and commit other public vandalism; though we can likely agree a Confederate statue must be taken down, what we don’t agree on is that any mob with a rope should be able to make and execute that decision.

The progressive movement has also seemed to have forgotten its liberal roots. I’ve written before that not allowing conservatives to speak, whether on college campuses or elsewhere, is a flagrantly illiberal approach to public discourse. “Safe spaces,” the aural equivalent of bubble wrap, have no business in universities. Rowdy crowds of progressives can behave every bit as poorly as the conservatives they criticize.

In a progressive’s plans for America, I worry about the role of a radical moderate. I’ve lamented on several occasions my frustration with ideological purity being a more favorable quality than compromise, a framework akin to petulance as favorable to empathy. One would hope a radical moderate and his views would be welcomed into a liberal coalition, but evidence suggests he’d be seen as part of the problem.

Perhaps the answer to my fears really is a politically incorrect strong man like Donald Trump.

Or perhaps not. For conservatives and moderates worried about this progressive push, it should be made clear that President Trump is not their savior, his re-election not their solution. Somehow running as the aggrieved outsider again, POTUS 45 hopes we get stricken with a collective amnesia — that we forget he’s already been the president for as many months as his presidential number. What has he done to curb the rise of the left? What has he done to calm anything? He calls himself the law and order president, but it’s clear he’s a contributor to the chaos. In our cultural wars, he proudly wears a general’s stars.

A partisan will think me foolish for not evaluating the President purely on policy and instead evaluating his character and approach to politics. I plead guilty. I am apparently a fool for lacking confidence in political positions. Regardless, Trump’s shortcomings are overwhelming.

The evidence of these shortcomings is so abundant it gets lost in its own ubiquity. It’s not just that he tweets so frequently and beneath the dignity of the office. It’s not just that he speaks in a million different directions and is almost impossible to pin down for a straight answer and a hard fact in his slippery interviews. It’s not just that he thinks he’s among the most accomplished presidents ever, the least racist person in every room he’s in, and knows more about the military than the generals. It’s not just that he’s presiding over an economy that in some ways has undermined the conservative values he claims to uphold, priming the pump and racking up nearly trillion dollar deficits (even before the pandemic) that have contributed to a 27-trillion dollar debt. It’s not just that he rarely takes responsibility for things that go wrong but loves taking credit when things go right. It’s not just that he sides with Putin over our intelligence agencies. It’s not just that he doesn’t trust the media unless they praise him or the polls unless they favor him. It’s not just that he wants us to ignore unnamed sources but swears many people tell him how great of a job he’s doing. It’s not just that he hires the best people until they turn out to be the worst people. It’s not just that the swamp is still full. It’s not just that the image of the US has plummeted in the eyes of the world and our closest allies. It’s not just that he says unemployment numbers are not to be trusted if they’re low under his predecessor but are to be trusted if they’re low under him. It’s not just that he personifies avarice, arrogance, and boorishness. It’s not just that his family has profited from his term but Jimmy Carter put his damn peanut farm into a blind trust. It’s not just that he bragged about taking advantage of political and tax laws for his entire career and will do so again after he leaves and makes money off his presidency. It’s not just that he blames illegal immigration for hurting American jobs but never mentions automation, or that he blames Democrats instead of capitalism and natural gas for killing coal. It’s not just that Mexico hasn’t paid for a southern border wall. It’s not just that we don’t have a beautiful new health care plan. It’s not just that he’s out of his depth everywhere, showing little command of policy, even less knowledge of government, and no knowledge of history. It’s not just that his greatest political successes — jobs and judges — were built on the back of his predecessor and political maneuverings of his Senate Majority Leader. It’s not just that he continuously exceeds his own high standard of self-preoccupation. It’s not just that he holds up megaphones to conspiracy theories. It’s not just that he hosts super-spreader events so those in attendance can be infected while he can be glorified. It’s not just that for months he’s tried to undermine our faith in the election, attacking mail-in balloting during a pandemic, saying the only way he can lose is with massive voter fraud, and obfuscating on questions about a peaceful transfer of power. And it’s not just that shame of, humility toward, or self-reflection on any of the above seem impossible for him.

It’s that he might be inspiring others to be just like him.

If Donald Trump wins again, we’re going to get more candidates who behave like Donald Trump.

To be clear, my objection is not ideological. This site rarely evaluates policy or ideology unless it considers the political implications. In the 2016 Republican Primary, I never criticized the ideologies of co-contenders Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush, all of whom were varying degrees of conservative. I want Republicans elected to office. I want Republicans as a part of the national conversation. There are millions of decent, informed, well-intentioned, patriotic, generous Republicans.

And because I believe that, I also believe they can nominate candidates that don’t have us shaking our head in embarrassment that this person is the face of our nation. If Trump is re-elected, it’s only natural that future political candidates of both parties think it’s not despite the way Trump behaves but because of it that he has electoral success. I’m terrified he’s infected the national consciousness, that he’s shaping our personality like a hotheaded father teaches his children, however inadvertently, to be just like him. Indeed, there are right now millions of young people in their formative years studying how their president behaves.

Though a vote against Trump is, politically, a vote against the Republican Party, for me it’s more a vote against Trumpism. Despite their considerable overlap during the last four years, the former is a different philosophy than the latter, and it’s the latter that I wish to discourage in future candidates from both parties.

President Trump and Republicans accuse the media of trying to make him look bad, and there’s certainly evidence supporting most media outlets as left-leaning, or at least left-employing. I often find myself thinking that the media should highlight more of his accomplishments or cut him some slack when they pounce on his minor speaking gaffes.

However, the times I like him least are not when the media filters or misportrays, but when it’s just him. For every Trump devotee ginned up by his rallies, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are two like me who just can’t take it anymore. When I hear him talk, when I see him rant, when I read him tweet, it is these times when I’m most disappointed that neither the Republican Party nor the United States picked a more decent human to be our leader.

I’m done.

And so we’re left with Joe Biden. He is not a great candidate. I’m not even sure he’s a good one. We seem to have forgotten the cash-strapped Joe Biden of the Democratic Primary, the candidate who had an impossible time inspiring anyone. His campaign is now flush with funds not because of anything he did, but because of his opponent. Joe Biden’s best asset truly is Donald Trump.

His career, in a way, mirrors Trump’s. They’re both into their mid-70s now. They’ve been in the public eye forever, with decidedly mixed results. They’ve spent a career feasting on their own foot. They’re not what you would call technocratic or well-versed and -spoken on the issues. I would prefer so many things be different about Joe Biden.

One thing I can’t change about him is that he’s the last best hope to deny Donald Trump another term. As has been said by so many conservative former leaders no longer constrained by fear of Trump or his base of voters, they endorse Biden because Biden is antithetical to Trump in fundamental ways that have nothing to do with policy.

I’m a life-long third party voter, including in 2016. My top voting priority, from the safe confines of a non-swing state, has always been the promotion of a third party to compete with the big two, preferably a moderate one that would be a source of gravity to peel off voters from both sides and therefore pull those parties back from their drift toward the extremes. I liked being a third party voter. I felt comfortable there. Before mailing in my vote, it felt surreal to hover my pen over the empty circle next to Democrat Joe Biden’s name on my ballot.

But I filled it in. Sometimes our priorities get rearranged. For this election, Presidential Politics for America endorses Joe Biden.


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