Democrats are going big. They're certainly not bold.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Paul Sancya/AP, Steven Senne/AP, AP)

Kirsten Gillibrand formally joined the presidential field this week, saying she’s running because America deserves a leader who makes “big, bold, brave choices.”

To prove the point, Gillibrand will kick off her campaign with a speech in front of the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan this weekend. Because nothing says “bold” like trolling a president who has pretty much zero approval among Democratic primary voters.

To rephrase another, better-known New York senator, some see the world as it is and ask why. Gillibrand apparently sees the world as it is and asks why not make it into a photo op.

Anyway, boldness seems to be the overarching theme of this early Democratic campaign. Just about every candidate is running on a gauzy platform of what we’re told are impossibly bold proposals.

Elizabeth Warren wants a tax on assets and a breakup of the big tech companies. Bernie Sanders is back with free college and expanded Social Security. Pete Buttigieg and others have talked about expanding the number of liberal justices on the Supreme Court and eliminating the Electoral College.

Several candidates have come out for government-run health care and embraced the Green New Deal that would transform the American economy, as well as reparations for slavery.

I’m not saying these are bad ideas; there’s merit in many of them, and plenty that’s worth debating. But we seem to be confusing this concept of boldness with its exact opposite.

In politics, just because an idea is big doesn’t make it courageous. And just declaring something bold doesn’t make it so.

Presumably, the current crop of Democratic candidates are harking back to the party’s proud legacy of 20th century leaders, revered for their boldness. There’s a nostalgia for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, for the unabashed and lofty idealism of the Kennedys.

What we’re seeing is a reaction to the last Democratic campaign, when the nominee embodied incrementalism and outsize caution — and bombed in huge swaths of America. This time out, it’s passion first, practicality later.

But you know, if being bold were that easy, everyone would do it.

We don’t remember Roosevelt as bold because he expanded government, although he did plenty of that. He was bold because he took on his aristocratic peers, and later the pacifists in his own party, at great political peril.

(Roosevelt’s own court-packing scheme went nowhere, by the way, and is generally considered one of his least ennobling ideas.)

Johnson wasn’t bold just because he spent more on the social programs liberals championed; he was bold because he broke dramatically with his fellow Southerners, and in so doing risked the future of the Democratic Party, over the basic issue of human equality.

Perhaps no Democratic candidate of the era displayed the kind of boldness that Robert Kennedy did. But that’s not because he joined the antiwar marchers; it’s because he told people what he believed, whether they liked it or not.

In an act of political courage none of today’s candidates would dare to emulate, Kennedy went into rooms full of college students and told them he would end their draft deferments, because he didn’t think it was fair to ask only the poor to bear the burden of war. That’s bold.

Scoff if you want, but Bill Clinton was plenty bold in 1992, when he told his own party’s interest groups that they needed to care as much about the middle class as they did about the poor. Howard Dean was bold in 2004, when he loudly opposed the war that virtually every other leading Democrat was too afraid to denounce.

Contrast any of those examples with the current crop of candidates, who seem to think the hallmark of boldness is a willingness to tell reliable primary voters exactly what they’re desperate to hear, in the most dramatic terms possible.

How bold is it to tell liberals you want to soak the rich and nationalize health care? That you’d somehow change the rules to make it easier for Democrats to win elections and court rulings, when we can’t even manage to keep the government open for more than a few months at a time?

That we can live in a magical reality where government can spend as much as it wants, because apparently the newest economic thinking is that debt can be limitless and everything will be fine?

I probably won’t be moderating any debates this year, but if I did — fair notice — I would ask the candidates to name one thing they propose that isn’t immediately popular with the primary electorate.

The boldest stand to this point might belong to Cory Booker, who argues that nuclear power has to be a component of any serious energy plan. That’s not an easy position to take in Democratic politics.

What else would actual boldness look like in 2019?

It might be arguing that if you’re going to expand a raft of social programs, you ought to be willing to reform those programs too, and at least make a stab at paying for them.

And the only possible path to doing that — not to mention making some of the investments in infrastructure we badly need — is to scale back retirement benefits for the wealthy through means testing, rather than expanding them, and raising payroll taxes for everyone else.

Boldness could be telling people straight up that there is no solution for climate change that doesn’t include sacrifice. Or that Clinton’s admonition from 1992 is still true: You can’t be a party that loves jobs and hates capital.

Real boldness might lose, spectacularly. Then again, it might not.

Because what Democrats are doing now, in this opening act of 2020, looks an awful lot like the mirror image of Trump’s familiar, played-out con.

Make America great again! Build a fantasy wall! Mexico will pay for it! Win, win, win, and all of that nonsense.

Look at any decent poll for the last year, and you will find that a majority of Americans — including the independents who tend to tip presidential campaigns — are weary as hell of this total disconnect from governing reality.

I guess it’s possible they just want the liberal version of Trump’s little show, where everything is possible and we all get a free hat and a bunch of other fun stuff for nothing. But I tend to think the real contrast to Trump would be a candidate who tells people what can actually be done and what it’s going to cost them, because you can’t change the trajectory of the country without leveling with voters first.

“Big, bold and brave” sure is a nice, pithy slogan.

Maybe we’ve all had enough of those.

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