Musings on Moderates & Militants


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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46 Responses

  1. Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

    Frankly, Will, if you’re going to govern, but have no hard principles to stick too, I don’t want you on the job in the first place. I mean, I hate what Scott Walker has done in Wisconsin and what Sam Brownback has done in Kansas, but you can’t deny they has certain principles they care about and won’t budge on.

    And yeah, a lot of “governing” Cuomo has done has been harmful in the eyes of a lot of people, so maybe a deal for the sake of a deal isn’t always the best thing.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      If you lived in Idaho instead of Washington, would you be rooting for Brownback or Republican Cuomo to get the nomination and by default the governorship?

      If I was a liberal in New York, I’d support Teachout. But I’m closer to the Idaho example in reverse.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Well, I can deny that for Scott Walker.
      A man bought and paid for is no man of principle,
      and I take nothing he says as anything but looking for cheap advantage.Report

    • Why is it always assumed that the most orthodox members of a given party are actually “principled”? Quite frankly, the reverse is probably true – if you’re that orthodox, you’ve probably outsourced your “principles” to your party. As I have said time and again “have too many principles and you soon have none.”

      That doesn’t mean that “moderates” are necessarily principled in the sense of their view of the public good, or that compromise is always (or even usually) a public good. It is to say that the very term “moderate” as a reference to anyone who does not adhere to ideological orthodoxy is a misnomer.

      In Cuomo’s case, he certainly has had some things where he has stuck to his guns and been fairly unwilling to compromise – it’s just that he’s often (though not always, see his gun control legislation and SSM) been pointing those guns to his left. So I can understand the left having big problems with him and trying to primary him. Frankly, if my sympathies personally laid more with downstate than they lie with upstate, there’s a nonzero chance I even would have preferred Teachout (although the fracking issue is one where a lot of upstaters would support her), just as I strongly preferred DeBlasio to anyone handpicked by Bloomberg.

      But that doesn’t make Cuomo (or Bloomberg, for that matter, much as I wholly and completely despise the man) unprincipled.

      Additionally, like it or not, a willingness to compromise with other political ideologies is very much a part of being a successful governor or President, even if it is sometimes a good trait in a legislator. The question is rarely whether to compromise, it’s “(a)which values of mine are most important, (b) which are least important, and (c) with whom can I work in order to protect the values that I find most important?”

      If your answer to question (a) prominently includes “party unity” or “appeasing my party’s ideological base,” or “keeping my ideological orthodoxy pure” then you’ve just artificially restricted your ways of addressing the problem at hand. What’s more, you’ve reduced “effectively solving the problem at hand” to something closer to an answer to question (b) than question (a).

      Competency in the executive branch of government additionally requires a recognition that your decisions will affect real people who, if you piss enough of them off sufficiently in pursuit of a short term ideological goal, can make it impossible for you to govern effectively on other issues for the rest of your term. It requires building consensus, both inside and outside of your party, and perhaps most importantly it requires an ability to work with (or at least make sure your appointed officials can work with) the bureaucracy and government employees that will ultimately be responsible for carrying out your directives.

      Certainly, there’s an argument to be made that Cuomo has not performed these tasks particularly well, and I’m not qualified to offer an opinion on that. But the point is that these tasks are as or more important to competent executive governance as “principles” and, what’s more, “principles” and ideological orthodoxy are two different things. “Principles,” while only one element of competent administration, are indeed necessary to being a good leader of an Executive Branch, but whether those principles appear consistent with ideological orthodoxy isn’t all that important, and taking a “my way or the highway” approach to most things is a guaranteed way to be totally incompetent.

      None of which is to say anything specific about whether Teachout would have been competent. It’s only to dispense with this notion that anything short of uncompromising ideological orthodoxy is somehow unprincipled or, in its more polite parlance, “moderate.”

      In other circumstances, we like to talk about “moderate” and “extremist” Muslims, and specifically the need to support the “moderate” Syrian rebels without supporting the “extremist” Syrian terrorist groups, as if the “moderates” are somehow less serious about their religion rather than simply having a very different interpretation of religious texts. That there can be nothing “moderate” about someone who actively takes up arms against their government seems to have been lost in the discussion.

      Similarly, we might talk about “moderate” and “extremist” Christian groups, even though the difference between them lies largely in how much they emphasize the fire-and-brimstone aspects of the Old Testament versus the peace-and-love aspect of the Gospels. I could easily make the case that the latter group, far from being “moderate,” is in fact more “extreme” because their interpretation is in my view more faithful to the actual texts and overall more internally consistent.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I think you raise a lot of good points and I agree with much of it. Some minor quibbles though:

        1. I think there is a perception (and one I agree with) that the bar is set a lot lower for Republicans to earn a maverick/independent/moderate accolade from the media than it is for Democratic Party members. McCain or Paul so one or two ways that they disagree with the GOP and they become Jacob Javits. It seems Democratic types are hailed by the media by constantly going against the wishes of liberals and I think a lot of liberals are fishing pissed about this. Parties stand for things and Democratic rising stars seem to get maximum credit for being “very serious people” by going against everything that the Democratic Party base wants to stand for. I call this the Ygelias Award effect. Why does Ygelias stand for “speaking truth to power?” Why should our speaker be determined by an aging Brit who remembers every now and then that he used to be a Thacterite and needs to call Democratic party supporters and liberals craven because he still wants to identify with the Right despite the fact he is freaked out with what the Republican party has become?

        So I think a lot of people that make the liberal base feel that they are more condescended to by their own party (politicians and blogging pundits) and are starting to fight back against the corporate wing of the Democratic Party. This explains the rise of Warren and why Emmanuel is potentially facing serious competition for his job.Report

      • I generally agree with this, although I don’t think it’s right to imply that either Paul is treated as a brave “moderate.” Ron Paul was treated as essentially a joke by the media throughout his campaigns, and Rand has very carefully cultivated an image that presents him as an intensely loyal Republican, and I don’t think the media has ever portrayed him as being particularly independent of the party’s conservative base. Nor could they, as he’s been so careful to cultivate the support of that base. While he’s trying to broaden the GOP’s tent, he’s not trying to do that by reaching out to the centrists and media elites, but instead by trying to reach out to more traditionally liberal groups. We’ll see if he succeeds, but I don’t think it’s right to suggest that the media celebrates him particularly much.

        But beyond that, I’d agree that the media distinguishes between “VSP” or “moderate” Democrats and liberals. I actually have a fair amount of respect for liberals wanting to take the party over from those folks, with whom they’re starting to have less and less in common (though still far more in common than, say, McCain or Christie has in common with the Pauls and Justin Amash).

        But that doesn’t mean that the VSP’s lack principles, just that they have different principles from most liberals, who in turn may themselves have different principles from each other.

        Here’s a good way of showing the distinction between principled liberalism, principled VSP-ism, and orthodoxy:

        Rand Paul stands up and filibusters for clarification about the extent of the President’s authority to order drone strikes. Ron Wyden joins him. Is your response:

        (A) Good for Wyden. I might dislike Rand Paul, but there is something troubling about the unrestricted use of drone strikes and I’m glad to see a liberal Senator joining the fight.
        (B) Screw Ron Wyden. Why is a liberal helping this anti-tax/pro-life/anti-gun control/isolationist/anti-welfare conservative bring attention to himself?
        (C) Drone strikes are a critical defense against terrorism and I trust that the Executive Branch will not abuse this power, regardless of the President’s political party. People who are concerned about drone strikes are flat out wrong.

        If your response is either wholly (A) or wholly (C), then you’re acting on principle, whether those are the principles of a liberal or a VSP. But if your response at all involves (B), then I submit that you’re no longer acting out of principle.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        On this issue it would be A and C. If it were an issue that is actually core to the Democratic Party like healthcare access or unemployment insurance or clean energy, I’d probably be angrier.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        @saul-degraw Conservative politicians tend to be celebrated as mavericks only when they break to the party’s left. Ted Cruz isn’t celebrated for being a maverick to his party’s right. Rand Paul is celebrated, when he is, for agreeing with liberals on something. Virtually everything McCain was celebrated for was criticizing his party from the left.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Fair point I suppose but it does not take much to get labeled a maverick from the Republican Party, just one or two unorthodoxies which can be very small sometimes. Ted Cruz also seems to enjoy being antagonistic to almost everyone even his friends describe him as kind of an asshole. As far as I know Rand Paul is not described this way.

        I still think my main point stands where the Very Serious People of the punditsphere and media think that they can condescend to liberal desires and concerns but they generally are not as dismissive of the GOP conservative base. I suspect that this is because of a few things:

        1. The Punditsphere of Very Serious People are almost largely immune to recessions. John Chait had a great column a while back about how his children were growing up in a bubble that seemed perpetually protected from whatever else was going on in the economy. This allows people to scream about balanced budgets and debt because they will almost certainly never need the safety net in any form.

        2. The media is dismissive that social conservatives will have any success.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        I just want to +1 and applaud the comment from @mark-thompson that kicked off this sub-thread.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        But don’t forget Aqua Buddha, @saul-degraw . A stupid and juvenile prank, to be sure, but rather a cruel one.Report

      • On this issue it would be A and C. If it were an issue that is actually core to the Democratic Party like healthcare access or unemployment insurance or clean energy, I’d probably be angrier.

        I’m not sure how it’s possible to answer both A and C on that particular question, but that aside, I recall an awful lot of criticism of Wyden at the time precisely on the grounds mentioned above, though my google-fu is having a hard time with it now. At minimum, though, there’s plenty of examples of attempts by enforcers of Dem Party orthodoxy to discourage liberals who oppose drone strikes from supporting Paul’s filibuster by trying to bring in his positions on various other issues. Here’s one:

        Then of course, there’s the whole way in which Jane Hamsher and company became personae non-grata, not just amongst VSPs but also amongst orthodox Democrats.

        I can think of several other instances as well wherein the critique of a particular indisputably liberal Democrat was that he was daring to work with a Republican on a given issue, which was thus enhancing that Republican’s credibility, without any meaningful critique of the resulting proposal.

        But even if there is a meaningful critique of the resulting policy, the fact that “worked with Republican X” is at all a significant part of the argument is a sign that one is worried a lot less about accomplishing a prioritized goal and more about maintaining ideological or partisan orthodoxy, or to put it another way, that one has turned too much into a matter of principle and thus has lost their principles.

        I still think my main point stands where the Very Serious People of the punditsphere and media think that they can condescend to liberal desires and concerns but they generally are not as dismissive of the GOP conservative base.

        I’m not at all sure this is true, though I don’t think it’s provable either way. However, if it is true, it seems to me that there’s a much more obvious and likely reason for it: those who you call “Very Serious People” are, by and large, themselves Democrats with their own set of political agendas. Sure, there’s a few Republicans in their circle, but by and large their route to power, particularly nowadays, is through the Democratic Party. Indeed, slightly more self-identified “moderates” voted for Obama in 2012 than self-identified “liberals,” and it’s only been in the last two or three years that self-identified liberals have obtained even a modest numerical advantage over self-identified moderates. By comparison, self-identified conservatives have consistently had about a minimum 2-1 (and often a 3-1) advantage over self-identified “moderates” in the GOP for a very long time:

        To the extent liberals are more likely than conservatives to be dismissed as unserious, it’s because the VSP/”moderate” contingent of which media elites tend to be part is trying to maintain control over the Democratic Party reins.

        As I said above, though, I’ve got no problem at all with liberals fighting that battle and attempting to take the reins from the VSPs. All I wish to do is dispense with the notion that party orthodoxy is synonymous with principle when in fact it’s close to the opposite of principle.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

        Quite frankly, the reverse is probably true – if you’re that orthodox, you’ve probably outsourced your “principles” to your party.

        I’ve never thought about it that way before, but this is very well put.

        For this great comment, the next time I see you I am going to buy you a Fat Cat.Report

      • @scarletnumbers I don’t think there’s a person alive who can resist the Fat Cat.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      I hate what Scott Walker has done in Wisconsin and what Sam Brownback has done in Kansas, but you can’t deny they has certain principles they care about and won’t budge on.

      I mean, say what you want about the tenets of Tea Party Republicanism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos!

      (Been getting a lot of mileage out of that line recently. Not sure why that should be the case.)Report

  2. This may or may not be relevant, but in my heavily Democratic district in Chicago, I often vote for the Republican because I don’t like the idea that my Dem reps seem to take their votes for granted, and I want to register a warning.

    But then, sometimes I actually read the website or the positions of the Republican in question, and I just can’t vote for him or her. That’s what happened with the local GOP guy running for state rep. The problem isn’t so much that I disagree with him, it’s the tone of what he says that suggests to me he’s mostly the stereotype of the “yay, Rumsfeld!” guy, adjusted for state-level politics. For example, when he answered the League of Women Voters questionnaire, he prefaces each of his answers with a condescending statement about how biased the question is. To his credit, though, he at least answered the questionnaire. Most of the Democratic rentiers running for reelection haven’t even deigned to do so, or at least not yet. (And tone aside, I probably just plain disagree with him on the issues I care about, so wouldn’t want him in office.)Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      We have districts where the minority party doesn’t even field a candidate in some elections, so it’s not too surprising, I guess, if a true believer/nutjob runs as the minority party candidate in a safe district, because a more pragmatic person probably wouldn’t waste his/her time.Report

      • Avatar morat20 says:

        I live in Texas, so I see a lot of unopposed races. In general, I do not vote for an unopposed candidate, and when I see one that is effectively unopposed (in general, it’s a Republican versus Libertarian thing, sometimes Republican v. Independent) I vote for the independent or Libertarian. (So yes, I have voted for a surprisingly large number of libertarians!).

        I do so as basically a protest vote, because I’m not even given the illusion of a choice. Everyone knows how that vote’s gonna end, it might as well not be on the ballot. But I’ll register my discontent anyways. (And to be honest, even if there was a Democrat on the ballot in those votes it wouldn’t matter either. THAT office was settled in the GOP primary, assuming there was one)Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Josh Wander wandered off to Russia at some point during the mayoral campaign.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      I think your vote is barely a warning. This is nothing to do with you but just the concentration of liberal and Democratic voters in urban districts. One theory about why the Democratic Party has a hard time taking over the House of Reps is that they are too concentrated so state legislatures can create districts that are 80 percent Democratic and then have districts that are safely Republican but not as much. A safe Democratic district tends to go Democratic by at least 70 percent. A safe Republican district tends to go Republican by something like 55-60 something percent.

      The best way for you to give an urban Democratic politician a warning is probably to find someone who is willing to run and really campaign to his or her left. Get involved in party politics, etc and not through voting Republican.

      Though as I understand it, Chicago politics is one of the last vestiges of the old school ward system that really values people who lived in the ward since they were kids and started working at the district office at 14 or so.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        All things have their time and place. When the conservative learns that the liberal democrats won’t vote for him, he lashes out. Are we so surprised that he later loses his primary?
        Of course, it is always fun to run against morons — I encourage it!Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        Chicago politics is one of the last vestiges of the old school ward system that really values people who lived in the ward since they were kids and started working at the district office at 14 or so.

        Sounds like the mafia.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        AFAIK, Rahm’s the only one who’s lost a finger.
        And that was an accident.Report

  3. Avatar zic says:

    @will-truman did you see David Brooks column today? It’s on recognizing that things, here in the US, aren’t so bad as (this is me) our 24-hour cable-news cycle makes them seem. It’s barely connected to what you’re talking about except for the last to paragraphs:

    Fourth, put congressional reform atop the national agenda. More states could have open primaries. Nonpartisan commissions could draw district lines. Presidential nominees should get an up-or-down vote within 90 days. Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee suggests that if Congress doesn’t pass a budget or annual spending bills on time, then members don’t get paid.

    Politics is generally the same old tasks. Rejuvenating ailing institutions. Fighting barbarians to preserve world order. Today is nothing new. Instead of sliding into fatalism, it might be a good idea to address our problems without exaggerating our plight.

    Open primaries seem important to getting better, and less extreme candidates.

    Nice piece, good sorting of why people vote for candidates like Paul; though I do think much of his general appeal is shape-shifting; he catches attention because of a single issue people agree with (drug laws, for instance,) and he’s generally vague enough in other areas that they’re able to fill in his blanks in with their own ideology.Report

  4. Avatar Will Truman says:

    I generally favor open primaries, but every time I hear about a sabotage effort I lose a bit of my enthusiasm. Then something like Cochran-McDaniel happens and I get some of it back.

    I’m stingy with my NYT allotment, so I’m not clear if he’s talking about open primaries or the further step of jungle primaries, which gave us Duke-Edwards.Report

  5. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    My friends in New York were huge fans of Teachout. I saw a lot of go out and vote for Teachout stuff on facebook. Most of my friends vote are fairly stereotypical upper-middle class Brooklyn or Brooklyn-esque Boho types. They at least fit the pattern as do I.

    IIRC Teachout* ran very hard on a good government and reform platform so Cuomo’s weak stance on corruption and possible own ethical wrong doing was a big issue for my friends. One friend posted a lot of stuff about how NY is ranked 13th for corruption in the United States and how we can do better.**

    What is interesting about Teachout is that she dominated in the Norther suburbs and exurb counties of New York but Cuomo smashed her in NYC herself. This shows a tension in the Democratic party. The Northern suburbs are sometimes called Brooklyn North (by me) and the Hudson Valley is gentrifying with people who can’t afford to live in Brooklyn Heights anymore but prefer to move to Hastings or Nyack. I wrote about this a few weeks ago. The northern suburbs tended to be actual towns and have more charm and history than your typical cookie-cutter suburb and also a central town with walkability.
    NYC Democratic voters are still overwhelmingly Black-American, Latino(a), and Asian-American.

    So this kind of shows that good government might be a kind of upper-middle class or at least middle class issue. Something that you can care about when you are higher on Manlow’s hierarchy of needs. Minority voters in the Democratic Party are more connected to bread and butter issues. I saw some people were very angry with De Blasio for supporting Cuomo over Teachout.

    But I am between you and Jesse. I think ideals and ideas are important. I don’t want a politician who is merely a craven opportunist but politics is also about the art of the possible and compromise and sometimes aligning with the slightly corrupt for the greater good. I have very little patience for the true believer who seems to exist and wants to be disappointed politically and is unwilling to make any compromise. Most of these exist in the Republican party I think. I remember hearing about research or polling that showed Democratic voters generally favor compromise and getting stuff done but Republican voters favor sticking to guns in the name of ideals.

    *I love her name but maybe not as much as I love the fact that Arthur T was named Telemachus as a middle name.

    **Considering the history of Tammany Hall, I think that New York should be proud that we are only 13th for corruption 🙂Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

      ” I remember hearing about research or polling that showed Democratic voters generally favor compromise and getting stuff done but Republican voters favor sticking to guns in the name of ideals.”

      Sort of like all those Democrats who are willing to vote for people like Rand Paul, who make noise about restricting abortion rights but are also willing to roll back police militarization and drug laws and overseas interventionism.

      Oh wait that’s right, no Democrat would vote for Rand Paul ever because he makes noise about restricting abortion rights.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I’d consider voting for him.
        In a primary, at least.
        I cannot in good conscience vote for obstruction, which is what a vote for Mitch-By-Proxy is.
        If Rand Paul were running for judge, I’d probably vote for him.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        And rightly so, we’re talking the civil liberties of 1/2 the population; the basic right to control their bodies.

        The only comparison men face is conscription; at least he gets that right.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        There are principles that are more important than compromise and getting stuff done and principles that are less important than compromise and getting stuff done.

        Mine are the first type. Yours are the second type.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        1. Rand Paul is opening up an office in Silicon Valley so we shall see.

        2. Zic is right. I imagine many Democratic voters also disagree with Rand Paul on economic issues.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

        Oh wait that’s right, no Democrat would vote for Rand Paul ever because he makes noise about restricting abortion rights.

        Yup. But for just that one policy issue he’d be barely distinguishable from the Democratic ideal. Heck, they should be actively recruiting him to join the party to help them implement their platform!Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW says:

        Well, and he disagrees with Democrats on pretty much any economic issue you can name, and when you look at his statements it’s far from evident that he’s non-interventionist.

        It’s more a question of “in order to roll back the War on Drugs, are you willing to give up every single other policy position you believe in?” and most liberals saying “no”.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Spot on. A lot of libertarians don’t seem to understand this especially when it comes to the War on Drugs and the NSA.Report

      • Avatar morat20 says:

        I couldn’t vote for him because I’ve seen what purports to be his budget. I’m afraid magical thinking is a deal-breaker to me, and the asterisks in his budget proposals would require the death of a million Tinker Bills to get enough pixie dust to get that thing to fly.Report

  6. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Will, you like doing those rundown thingies of this or that fact about all the states, yeah? (It’s okay to say, nah, not really that much.)

    I’m wondering how many/which states have separate voting for Gov. & LtG & which have presidential-style tickets. Maybe I’ll look into it.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      See, you’re supposed to email me about this sort of thing privately. With the subject line “I have an idea for a Monday Trivia question…” (I would like to bring that back at some point.)

      Anyway, it is actually something I am interested in, but we’re still unpacking from the move so I’m not quite sufficiently motivated. I do know South Carolina recently switched to a ticket system, though. They had a couple of pretty bad Lt. Governors (one who was so bad that calls for Sanford to resign were muted, and his successor resigned and plead guilty to corruption.Report

  7. Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

    1) For those who don’t know, Teachout and Wu are not in the same category as Jimmy “Rent Is Too Damn High Party” McMillan. They are both professors of law in New York City; Teachout at Fordham and Wu at Columbia.

    2) However, I think you are overblowing this issue for one reason: New York’s electoral fusion laws. It allows a candidate to run under more than one party line, and have all of the votes in their name count. Even if Cuomo lost the Democratic Primary to Teachout, he would still have been on the ballot in November due to being the nominee of the Independence Party of New York, the Working Families Party, and the Women’s Equality Party.

    Some other examples:

    In 1981, Ed Koch ran for his second term as mayor. He was so popular that he was endorsed by the Republican Party, even though he was a Democrat.

    In 1977, Ed Koch ran for his first term as mayor. He ran in the Democratic primary against Mario Cuomo (Andrew’s father), incumbent Abe Beame, and Bella Abzug, among others. Koch won the initial primary over Cuomo 20-19, and the run-off 55-45. However, Cuomo was also the nominee of the Liberal Party of New York, and Cuomo refused to rescind his acceptance of his nomination. So, the election was pretty much re-run on Election Day, with Koch winning 50-41.

    The 1977 election was also famous for Cuomo’s unofficial campaign slogan: “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.”Report