Last Wednesday's Democratic presidential debate in Detroit was an exhibition that pitted pragmatists against those who represent the more liberal wing of the party. The question is, can pragmatism prevail over the leftist ideology in the party? Do the liberal firebrand candidates have the electability to defeat President Donald Trump?
No candidate better exemplified the frustration expressed at the rank-and-file pragmatist Democrats than Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, when he said, "I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas." President John F. Kennedy had a way of combining idealism and pragmatism regarding his "New Frontier" platform. The inaugural speech delivered by JFK on Jan. 20, 1961, contained lofty idealistic phrases – I agree with them – and JFK was able to blend practical solutions with unpretentiousness, in addition to using emotionally appealing phrases associated with valued concepts and beliefs. JFK blended idealism with realism and informality with a sense of dignity, as well.
In the 1960 presidential election year, the U.S. was still a prosperous nation, and we were without a trade deficit. From 1870-1970, it ran persistent trade surpluses that averaged about 1.1 percent of GDP. However, economic growth had slowed to only 3 percent a year. JFK chose not to rely on federal spending, which does cause inflation. JFK sought to increase business production and efficiency. JFK was not a "spendocrat" but rather a leader who had asked businesses and labor leaders to hold down prices, as well as requests for pay increases.
Candidates who stray far to the left or right run the risk of alienating themselves from voters who might be frightened by radicalism. Is this not one of the reasons third-party presidential candidates never win elections in America? How many Americans would vote for a candidate who would eliminate the private insurance market in lieu of Medicare for all? It seems as if moderate Democrats have the leftist candidates right where they want them, considering the GOP's constant branding of the party's support for what they see as "socialist" alternatives.
At this point, the Democratic candidates are all standing on a needle, and some will fall from that needle in the coming months. Some who took to the debate stage last Wednesday had riveting moments. Author Marianne Williamson demonstrated moments of brilliance when she answered questions about Trump, the Flint water crisis, racism, and reparations. But while she had that brief, powerful moment of "electricity," Williamson doesn't seem to be a master of policy objectives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. Williamson's performance will probably not elevate her to new polling and fundraising thresholds, but if nothing else, she may have added a term to our "urban political dictionary" regarding Trump's impact of the country: "dark psychic force."
Mayor Pete Buttigieg almost seemed to be a neutralizing or counterbalancing force. Buttigieg does not endorse radical positions, and could be the type of politician Sanders referred to as one of those we keep "recycling." Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Montana, really captured what it means to be a moderate Democrat when he spoke of how the GOP attempted to replace Obamacare, and that now, some Democrats want to upend the private health care system.
During the coming months, and as we head into the 2020 election, voters in America will have to decide if this is a time for bold departures from moderate talking points and policies, or a time for practical yet effective solutions to the current dysfunction in Washington, D.C.
Brent Been is a Tahlequah educator with a special emphasis on civics and history.