Politics & Policy

In the Democratic Civil War, Root for Pelosi and Biden

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, June 20, 2019. (Al Drago/Reuters)
They mostly stick to what’s plausible, and that’s vital in polarized times

Until Donald Trump’s Sunday tweets demanding that certain “progressive congresswomen” — almost certainly including Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley – go back to the “places from which they came,” the Democrats were in the midst of an escalating civil war. Nancy Pelosi had taken shots at Ocasio-Cortez’s so-called “squad,” Ocasio-Cortez had fired back with racially charged words, and mainstream Democratic frustration with its young radical freshmen was started to boil over.

On the presidential-campaign trail, the battle lines were already clear. Joe Biden represented a clear and present danger to the Democrats’ progressive shift. He is the candidate of the past, the man who would throw cold water on the grand ambitions embodied principally by Medicare for All. He is the least revolutionary candidate in the field.

Make no mistake, the Trump-induced Democratic unity of the past few days represents a temporary truce. While the Democrats will almost certainly unite in time for the general election (as they did after the trench warfare of the 2008 primary), there’s still a war to fight, and in this fight Americans should root for Pelosi and Biden. Their victory will be good for a dangerously divided nation.

The first reason is easy for a conservative to state — Biden is correct in his critique of Medicare for All, and Pelosi is correct to oppose impeachment proceedings against President Trump. While Biden’s proposed health-care plan is best described as Obamacare on steroids, it’s nothing like the immensely expensive and disruptive single-payer plans proposed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Biden (optimistically, no doubt) estimates the cost of his public-option plan at $750 billion over ten years. However, he could miss his cost estimate by a factor of ten and still be well short of Medicare-for-All’s staggering $32 trillion price tag.

Pelosi, for her part, is precisely right when she says, “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path.” An impeachment proceeding, under the facts that we now possess, would dramatically escalate American polarization right in the midst of a presidential election that already promises to be at least as angry and divisive as the 2016 campaign.

But there’s another reason why Americans should root for Biden and Pelosi — a reason beyond the substance of their position. They’re rebuking the destructive politics of fantasy and unreality. They represent — in their own ways — the politics of compromise and regular order. They speak to the extreme wing of the party and tell them a fundamental truth — you can’t have everything you want.

And that’s an absolutely vital message, one that has to be heard on both sides of the aisle. Part of the fury of the present age is the result of defeated, unrealistic expectations. “We elected you, and you did not deliver” is a valid critique only when politicians are capable of delivering on popular demands.

Yes, politicians do fail to achieve realistic goals. They fail all the time. But it was unreasonable, for example, to demand that the federal government defund Obamacare when your side controls exactly one branch of government. It’s fantasy to promise Medicare for All — much less establish it as a litmus test — when there is only a small prospect of taking the Senate and an even smaller prospect of ever achieving the kind of majority that would survive (or destroy) a Republican filibuster.

In a closely divided, bitterly partisan nation, you may vote for a revolution, but you’ll generally get a stalemate. Both Obama and Trump achieved exactly one significant legislative victory. Obama won the Affordable Care Act, and Trump got his tax cuts. And while other legislative compromises have been important (the sequester, for example, or the First Step Act), the revolutionaries are still waiting for their moment. Regulations and executive orders are poor substitutes for truly meaningful statutory reform.

Biden and Pelosi exert steady leftward pressure on American politics and culture. They always have. But they are decidedly not revolutionaries by any meaningful definition of the term. Many Republicans, however, would actually like to see Pelosi lose and the “squad” win. They would like to see Biden and the other relatively moderate Democratic candidates lose and Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren win. They believe a more radical Democratic party is a politically weaker Democratic party. They may well be correct.

But if 2016 taught us anything, it taught us that even an unpopular person can win the presidency if his opponent is also disliked. In 2003, National Review famously ran a cover article featuring Howard Dean, titled “Please Nominate this Man.” The era of wishing for your political opponent’s irresponsibility should be over. It’s time to root for reason over revolution.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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