It’s not easy being on the moderate left these days. Politicians and activists committed to defending both liberal democracy and a practical, socially generous approach to government find themselves constantly torn between short-term imperatives and long-term hopes.
This was brought home last week by two very different political struggles. In the United States, congressional Democrats divided over whether to provide the votes Republicans needed to pass a budget bill to keep the government open. In Germany, Social Democratic leaders agreed to form a grand coalition that would extend Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tenure, but the arrangement could still be voted down by the party’s rank-and-file.
The contexts, of course, are different. The U.S. is led by an unstable politician who caters to far-right feelings on race and immigration. Merkel is the embodiment of liberal democratic moderation. Trump is pandering to the authoritarian right. Merkel is trying to defeat it.
To that end, she conceded a lot to the Social Democratic Party on public spending, labor questions and European integration, which makes her party’s right uneasy. Moreover, given the way the German political system works, the Social Democrats would hold positions in the government as true partners. In the United States, the Democrats have lost both the executive and legislative branches. Yet they feel a responsibility to do what they can to protect social programs and to keep the federal apparatus functioning.
At the same time, Republicans are incapable of governing without help from Democrats. The GOP far right won’t give House Speaker Paul Ryan the votes he requires to pass compromises and because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell usually needs supermajorities.
Democrats thus live in a thankless world in which they have responsibility without real power. If they accept less than a full loaf, they are trashed for not sticking to principle. If they turn down what they are offered, they are accused of obstruction.
It’s instructive that Senate and House Democrats behaved differently on the budget. In the House, 73 Democrats voted yes, but 119 voted no. The balance was the other way among Senate Democrats: 37 yes, 12 no.
There are a variety of reasons for this contrast, but one is straightforward: McConnell has pledged to Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer a real debate and vote on protecting Dreamers, the young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children but are as American as any of us. Ryan has refused to commit to a similarly open process.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi hoped she could use the threat of holding out enough of her party’s votes to push Ryan on the Dreamers. Ryan instead gambled that the proposal contained enough money for Democratic priorities that a sufficient number of Pelosi’s troops would find it impossible to vote no.
Ryan was right, because Democratic negotiators got the better end of the deal on the domestic side. They won spending on everything from health care and opioids to disaster relief and infrastructure. Pelosi knew this, too, and praised these gains in a speech on Friday. So while she urged a no vote, she did not make it a test of party loyalty.
When it comes to the Dreamers, their fate depends almost entirely on Ryan: Will he allow passage of a bill satisfactory to the Senate and force President Trump to make a choice? Or will he insist on legislation only acceptable to his right wing? Pelosi & Co. can scream all they want. They still lack the power to force Ryan’s hand. It’s a reality that’s hard to accept with so many lives on the line.
Nonetheless, the choice facing Germany’s Social Democrats is tougher. In the United States at least, Democrats are running well in the polls. “In our case, there’s some redemption in all of this because at the end of the year, the electoral outcome is extremely promising,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.
The Social Democrats, on the other hand, have steadily lost ground in the surveys by allying with Merkel. Forming a government with her again could further strengthen the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) by making it the main opposition. Yet, rejecting the deal would mean walking away from progress on so much of the party’s program while risking governmental chaos that could help the AfD anyway.
Because they see compromise as essential to incremental reform, politicians of the moderate left always face dilemmas of this sort. But at a time when democratic values are under challenge, their torment is all the more agonizing.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.