I didn’t have my glasses on Sunday morning when I dragged The New York Times in from my hallway, but I could see there was an arresting photo taking up most of the top of the paper. I could tell it was a woman walking—maybe on a high wire? A catwalk? A gangway? Was she boarding a cruise, or fleeing danger? I put on my glasses. It turned out to be California Senator Kamala Harris, widely judged the winner of Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, striding into a recent speech wearing a stylish plaid suit and shiny black stilettos.
I liked seeing one of the women in the race getting such prominent coverage, after a spring when the only candidates who seemed to matter were men named Biden, Bernie, Beto, or Buttigieg. With the rise of Senator Elizabeth Warren, there’s been some course correction lately; maybe Harris was in for the same, given her debate dominance.
But no, not really: Harris graced the top of the Times only because, the caption told us, her rise “worries establishment Democrats.” (That’s funny; her lefty critics insist Harris herself is part of the establishment.) “Liberals Ruled the Debates, and the Moderates Are Anxious,” the print headline blared. Those “anxious moderates” include former Chicago mayor (and Obama chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel, whose political career is over. Also James Carville, last seen nationally telling the country on Election Night 2018 that “there’s not going to be a big blue wave,” a night the Democrats won 40 seats in the House of Representatives.
In the article, MoveOn’s Karine Jean-Pierre and social justice activist Brittany Packnett did their best to defend progressive Democrats, and explain that the center of the party—and the nation—has moved left. But they didn’t make a huge ripple in the overwhelming narrative; they weren’t allowed to.
But that’s not all! There was another story in the Times A-section warning: “Democrats Veer Further Left on Immigration at Forum, Pleasing Trump.” The fact that they’re pleasing a lot of people who are fighting Trump’s policies of breaking up families and putting children in cages didn’t seem to matter. Amazingly, in Sunday Review, the respected opinion section, there were three warnings about the scary left turn: two conservatives, Times columnist Bret Stephens, and National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, telling us Democrats are going too far in 2020, plus a liberal—Nicholas Kristof—warning against “knee-jerk liberalism.” (If you’re confused, yes David Brooks wrote a piece similar to Stephens’s on Thursday, “Dems, Please Don’t Drive Me Away.” Equally sad political gruel, but without the dollop of immigrant-bashing Stephens ladled on his.)
If that wasn’t enough—and it was more than enough—midday on Sunday the Times published online another paean to moderation: “For All the Talk of a Tea Party of the Left, Moderates Emerge as a Democratic Power,” a laudatory piece about how centrist House Democrats blocked “radical” measures, such as stricter health and safety standards for families in detention and time limits for holding unaccompanied minors, in last week’s border appropriation bill.
Credit where it’s due, however: Times columnist Maureen Dowd, whom I often criticize, identified the real reason moderates should be nervous: the early stumbles of the great moderate hope, former vice president Joe Biden. Dowd, who’s been kind to Biden in the past, criticized him for generally refusing to talk to the media—including her, which was probably a mistake for him; Dowd is good to those who give her access—as well as for seeming “irritated and unprepared” on the debate stage, and for “the aloofness and arrogance of the Biden operation.”
Weirdly, though, Dowd’s fine column was illustrated with a close-up of Harris’s shiny black stilettos, the same ones that graced the cover of the paper, to illustrate how “Joe Biden felt the sharp end of Kamala Harris’s criticism when she put her foot down at a Democratic debate on Thursday.” Has the paper missed decades of feminist criticism about reducing female candidates to their clothing and body parts? Does someone at the Times have a foot fetish? What is going on here?
In fact, the Times has a moderation fetish. With Sunday’s astonishing six stories about the dangers of progressive politics, the paper could not make any clearer that it sees itself as the house organ of the establishment, and that its role is warning upstart Democrats not to get out of line. It is clear that the paper’s highest political priority is getting Trump out of the White House, as is proper for anyone who cares about our democracy. But its cramped conception of politics apparently makes it impossible for the paper’s leaders to envision that bold ideas and big plans might be the way to animate an anti-Trump backlash; a return to status quo liberalism is all they can imagine.
The truth is, the moderates who went running to the Times to trash progressives should spend less time worrying about the rise of Warren and Harris, and instead wonder why their policies, and their candidates, are failing to catch fire so far in this campaign season. It’s too early to say I told you so, but I argued early on that Biden showed, in many pre-campaign stumbles, that he wasn’t ready for this role. (I had a lot of company making that case.) Other leaders hailed as moderate alternatives haven’t exactly stumbled, but they haven’t done anything to break out of the pack of 24 either. I like Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has set herself up as more of a centrist than her fellow female senators, but she hasn’t figured out her campaign story since her plucky mid-blizzard campaign kickoff. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has done nothing memorable in his campaign but bash Senator Bernie Sanders and socialism. (Maybe he’s really auditioning for a Times column.)
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been mostly claiming the moderate mantle, rejecting Medicare for All and tuition-free college. But on Thursday night he gave a great answer to why undocumented immigrants deserve public health care, and explained how the criminalization of undocumented border crossings led to the current brutal border policy of Donald Trump. The Times says its sources fear that the Democratic candidate endorsing the latter could win Trump a second term. So now the moderates are worried about Mayor Pete, too. Certainly, Biden should be: Buttigieg’s astonishing second-quarter fundraising haul—he brought in more than $24 million, and has more than $22 million in cash on hand—shows that many wealthy donors see the young mayor as a valuable alternative to the older vice president (both men are availing themselves of more corporate money than many of their rivals and thus are more direct fundraising competitors).
Moderate Democrats still have plenty of time to regain momentum. And look, I’m not sure progressives are right about everything; Sanders’s Medicare for All bill, cosponsored by Warren and Harris, along with 2020 contenders Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, moves everyone into the Medicare system in four years, including the 160 million Americans who have insurance through their employers, most of whom tell pollsters they fear losing it (even if they’re unhappy with it). But policy debates and careful news analysis are one thing; desperate attacks on the leading candidates and ideas of the Democratic Party are another.
I’m afraid it shows moderate Democrats would rather caricature their progressive opponents than debate them fairly. I’m also afraid Sunday’s shrill six-alarm coverage shows that The New York Times learned nothing from its role in helping elect Donald Trump in 2016.