My Turn: The Biden challenge – moderation in defense of liberty is no vice

For the Monitor
Published: 5/5/2019 12:10:17 AM

In 1964, Barry Goldwater, in his acceptance speech as Republican nominee for president, famously declared that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Fifty-five years later, many progressives would actually agree with Goldwater. The enthusiasm for people like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris attests to this pent-up passion for radical transformation.

Times have changed. In 1964, America was in the midst of a liberal era, fueled by the social change dynamism of the martyred John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the ascendant Lyndon B. Johnson, an era that saw civil rights victories, the advent of Medicare, and the beginnings of the anti-war movement.

In decades since, it is conservatives who have been in ascendancy, culminating in the rise of a radical, rightist Republican Congress and the election of Donald Trump.

Given the resurgence of votes for Democrats in 2018, many progressives can’t wait to nominate a candidate for 2020 who will espouse a new liberal dynamism around issues like climate change, voting rights, Medicare for All and free tuition at public universities.

And while Democrats agree that these are worthy – and in some cases necessary – goals, we all should pause before we endorse a candidate who best reflects our dearest hopes. We should remind ourselves that our primary goal is to end Trump’s trashing of our democratic principles, his abandonment of America’s role as a defender of humane values and his callous disregard of the rule of law.

While those on the left point to Trump’s surprise election as proof that we no longer need to cater to moderates, the analysts tell us that the majority of gains for Democrats in House seats came from districts that had previously supported moderate Republicans, even as several new and dramatic personalities emerged on the far left.

Out in the mainstream, those Democratic victories could easily be overturned if moderate voters are scared back into the Republican fold. And yet, the progressives warn that young and minority voters could easily be turned off if they feel that Democrats are opting for a moderate, corporate-friendly candidate, which is how Joe Biden is often characterized.

Let’s look at the facts: While Biden served for eight years under President Barack Obama, it would be hard to find a single progressive idea of Obama’s that Biden disagreed with. He was out in front in support of marriage equality and a true advocate for fairness and decency, not a sycophantic yes-man like Mike Pence.

While he has made some poor choices, and committed some blunders in his long decades of service, he remains a fundamentally decent, affirming and progressive person, and he possesses one critical asset that no other candidate can claim: He can act more swiftly than anyone else to restore the American government and international relations that have been so severely undermined since Trump took office.

Biden has the experience, the knowledge, the personal and legislative relationships that are absolutely vital to such a timely restoration. He can put good people back into government and get them confirmed – fast. He can reassure anxious allies that American is back as a leader of the free world, rejoin the Paris climate accord and bolster NATO – fast. He can put the world’s authoritarian demagogues on notice that we are not about to see the world descend into nativism, racism and, inevitably, to fascism.

And he can do these things with a clear majority of American citizens behind him, rather than presiding over a hopelessly fractured and paralyzed body politic.

This Biden advantage is so critical to America’s survival that it eclipses every other policy position that another candidate might champion.

But it is not enough. Joe Biden is an old man, with links to the ranks of corporate backers whose embrace so hobbled the Clintons. He needs to choose a candidate for vice president who offers to young people, minority voters and conscientious progressives the promise of significant movement toward resolving America’s economic and social inequities, as well as decisive measures to confront an impending climate catastrophe.

More than that, he needs to advocate forcefully – but in a way that builds a broad consensus among reasonable Americans from all social strata – for policies that put the interests of American families above those of the rich and powerful.

He has begun to do this with the opening speeches of his campaign, but he needs our help. What we must do, we who love what we hear from Bernie, Elizabeth, Cory, Kamala, Pete and other bright lights, is to remind ourselves that the restoration of a decent, moral, effective government is the foundation of all our hopes and dreams for a better America and a better world.

(Rob Fried is an author and a retired educator who leads the New American Baccalaureate Project.)


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