The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy took a cheap shot at Mayor Pete Buttigieg this week.
When asked by radio host Hugh Hewitt about his thoughts on Thomas Jefferson, the contender for the Democratic presidential nomination did not say he wanted to remove the memorial to our third president from Washington, D.C. As far as he was concerned, Jefferson was a great but conflicted man. He didn’t think his party should have its annual dinners named after Jefferson or Andrew Jackson but he was pretty clear about not wishing the former “written out of the history books.”
Nevertheless, a number of folks on the right proceeded, as Hewitt put it, to take Buttigieg’s comments out of context in claiming that he was ready to demolish the Jefferson Memorial. Their spurious attacks allowed Buttigieg, who subsequently got a boost from a town-hall broadcast on Fox News, to emerge from the kerfuffle posing as the victim of right-wing haters, while at the same time buttressing his efforts to position himself as a moderate in the Democratic race.
This mini-controversy has less to do with the future of statues than it does with how to define moderation in 2019 America. And from that perspective, it ought to cast doubt on the ability of a supposedly “moderate” candidate such as Buttigieg or Joe Biden to stand up to the party’s base should he win the nomination or the presidency.
The former vice president’s current impressive lead in the race for the nomination is largely based on the impression that he is a credible alternative to the angry radicalism of the party’s left-wing base. Anything that allows Buttigieg to encroach on that territory should help him stay in the first rank of a crowded Democratic field that tilts hard to the left. Yet the difficulty in handicapping the Democratic competition is that the distinctions between left-wingers and moderates are difficult to discern.
Some of those searching for a genuine centrist to oppose President Donald Trump next year are desperate to seize on any Democrat who appears to have even meekly stood up to the Left. Those engaging in this exercise, such as New York Times columnist Brett Stephens, are longing for a Democrat to have a “Sister Souljah moment” like the one that helped brand Bill Clinton as a moderate in 1992, and they have yet to see it happen.
To the contrary, there is abundant evidence that so-called moderates such as Biden and Buttigieg are far more likely to conform to the demands of the Democratic base than to oppose them.
By any reasonable standard, Buttigieg is a hard-core liberal on the issues. He supports a form of Medicare-for-all, an eventual phase-out of private health insurance, and a vast expansion of other entitlements. He backs the Green New Deal, the Paris Climate Accord, and other “aggressive” methods to combat climate change. He favors stricter gun control and expanded student-loan forgiveness. And he opposes Trump’s immigration policies. Like all of his rivals for the nomination, he has shown willingness to bend the knee to a racial huckster such as Al Sharpton and to attempt to curry the favor of extremist left-wing cable talkers such as Rachel Maddow even as he blasts their opposite numbers on Fox.
But in 2019, Buttigieg is apparently what passes for a moderate Democratic presidential candidate, and he’d very much like you to think as much, and to regard his refusal to wish Jefferson erased from American history as proof.
There’s no denying that a great many Americans are as apt to think of Jefferson as being a slaveholder who fathered children with one of his female slaves as they are to associate him with the Declaration of Independence. And that’s not counting those who now think only of Jefferson as Alexander Hamilton’s foil, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical.
Respect for American history doesn’t compel us to endorse everything or even most of what important figures of the past did. But it does obligate us to judge them in context. Buttigieg’s answer to Hewitt is nuanced but it still places him too close to the iconoclasts for comfort.
You can still regard slavery as a stain on American history without feeling the need to virtue-signal at Jefferson’s expense. That’s not just because Jefferson’s contributions to humanity remain worthy of honor despite his deep flaws. It’s also because once you step down that path, it is a slippery slope toward exactly the kind of revisionism that Buttigieg says he won’t engage in.
While declaring his unwillingness to erase Jefferson from history is commendable, Buttigieg’s apparent desire to erase the third president from the present should trouble anyone who wishes to think of him as a moderate capable of standing up to left-wing radicals. The distance between renaming a dinner and toppling a statue is not as great as you might think.
Were he interested in the kind of Sister Souljah moment that Never Trumpers such as Stephens long for, Buttigieg could have simply shut down any suggestion that anything named after Jefferson should be renamed or destroyed. He didn’t do that, and neither will any other Democrat interested in holding onto the party’s base. Expecting them to do so when the stakes are even higher would be very foolish indeed.