How could anyone tell if the people known as “moderates” disappeared from politics? The Atlantic published a piece yesterday about the dwindling remnant of self-identified moderates still running for Congress. “The 2018 Midterms Could Kill the American Moderate for Good,” the headline declared. Given that it was published in the Atlantic—temple to the idea of a sensible political center—this was presumably meant as a warning.
Yet staff writer Elaina Plott got through 2,500 words on the subject without really ever articulating what moderate politics is, or does, or should do. The opening was the threadbare Oscar Wilde gag about moderation in moderation—a warning that even the Atlantic can’t muster any enthusiasm for its material. Turning at last to the subject matter, Plott wrote:
The candidates and political strategists I’ve spoken with believe that constituencies that value compromise still exist, as well as voters who feel invested in issues rather than parties. Candidates have tailored their campaigns accordingly, focusing on local issues, largely uncontroversial national topics such as infrastructure, and as little talk of Donald Trump as possible. Call it the moderate playbook, whose fate in November could signal a new hope for bipartisanship—or affirm its extinction.
From one sentence to the next, the argument went from being about “voters who feel invested in issues” to being about candidates who are trying to reach those voters by focusing on “local issues” and “uncontroversial national topics such as infrastructure”—that is, who are avoiding any commitment to a position on any actual issues. Being invested in issues, here, means being invested in the idea that people ought to say they care about issues, not having positions on any actual issues in particular.
Who is running this playbook? The piece came up with two examples of people trying to win their way into office by packaging themselves as moderate. Both of them are Democrats running for a presumptively Republican seat, against fanatical Trumpist crackpots. That is, they are running as “pro-business” or “fiscally responsible” because the only way they can possibly get elected is with the support of people who don’t want to vote for Democrats. This is less a matter of transcending partisanship than of accepting it as an unchangeable fact and trying to work around the limits.
Moderation is packaging. The piece blamed gerrymandering and gridlock for moderates’ lack of success. What it didn’t do was explain what moderates would do if the system weren’t stacked against them. The deepest policy dive came from Phil Bredesen, running to try to flip Bob Corker’s vacated Senate seat in Tennesee from Republican to Democratic:
Bredesen may be the only candidate, Democrat or Republican, whose press office has flooded my inbox with statements about the ballooning federal deficit, offering a plan (in all caps) to balance the budget within six years. Federal borrowing was once conservatives’ cause célèbre. But by the time Republicans shuttled through a massive tax-cut package late last year, even amid projections of a huge spike in the deficit, the issue seemed to have lost its appeal. Nevertheless, as with infrastructure, it remains a topic unlikely to draw partisan ire one way or the other—making it a valuable talking point for a candidate like Bredesen.
Another way of expressing that idea: Nobody cares about the deficit. They only care what arguing about the deficit may be used for. It is an empty meta-issue, meaning nothing in itself, whose true purpose is to conceal other agendas. For generations, it was the perfect and defining issue for moderates, and for the advocates for moderation.