Hillary Clinton’s Moderation Is a Virtue

She shouldn’t apologize for being a moderate. That’s what would make her a good president.

Hillary Clinton.
Everything in moderation? Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to voters, Feb. 12, 2016, in Denmark, South Carolina.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Most liberals think the Republican presidential race is nuts. Those right-wing candidates are sucking up so hard to the Tea Party and the Bible thumpers that they’ve lost touch with reality. But a similar problem is happening on the Democratic side. Sen. Bernie Sanders is pulling the party to the left, Hillary Clinton is chasing him, and the issues and positions under discussion are drifting away from the political center.

It’s painful to watch Clinton as she tries to outflank Sanders. She’s repackaging herself as the fiercer feminist, the firmer advocate of gun control, the more assiduous courtier of protest movements. Last week, in their first one-on-one debate, Sanders accused Clinton of being a “moderate.” Clinton, pathetically, rejected his characterization as “unfair.”

Let’s cut out the purging, groveling, and acting. Hillary Clinton is a moderate. Moderation is an honorable way to live and govern. In fact, it’s the best way, because the world is too complex to fit any ideology perfectly. Clinton may shun the M-word, but if you listened to her carefully in Thursday night’s debate in Milwaukee, you heard how a moderate thinks and why it makes sense. Here are some examples.

1. Fiscal reality. Early in the debate, Judy Woodruff of PBS pointed out that federal spending is 21 percent of the U.S. economy. She asked Sanders how big the government would become if he were president. “Of course there will be a limit,” Sanders replied, but he didn’t specify what it would be. He said the government should provide free public college for everyone. He said his “Medicare for all” plan would “save the average middle class family $5,000 a year” while costing that family just $500.

Clinton questioned this agenda. She said it would “increase the size of the federal government by about 40 percent.” She asked how Sanders could promise $5,000 worth of benefits for $500 in taxes. “I will not throw us further into debt,” Clinton warned, adding: “We should not make promises we can’t keep, because that will further … alienate Americans from understanding and believing we can together make some real changes in people’s lives.”

2. Political reality. Sanders vowed to replace the private health insurance market with his single-payer plan. If France and the United Kingdom can do it, so can we, he argued: All we need is “the courage to take on the drug companies … the insurance companies, and the medical equipment suppliers.” Clinton replied that this was a nice idea but would be too hard to enact:

The last thing we need is to throw our country into a contentious debate about health care again. And we are not England. We are not France. We inherited a system that was set up during World War II; 170 million Americans get health insurance right now through their employers. So what we have tried to do, and what President Obama succeeded in doing, was to build on the health-care system we have, get us to 90 percent coverage. We have to get the other 10 percent of the way to 100. I far prefer that, and the chances we have to be successful there, than trying to start all over again, gridlocking our system, and trying to get from zero to 100 percent.

3. Purity. Sanders lambasted Clinton for listening to former Republican Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He denounced Kissinger’s policies in Cambodia four decades ago and concluded: “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.” The crowd applauded.

Clinton didn’t quarrel about Cambodia, but she sketched a more circumspect view of how to judge people and their advice:

I listen to a wide variety of voices that have expertise in various areas. I think it is fair to say, whatever the complaints that you want to make about [Kissinger] are, that … his opening up China and his ongoing relationships with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States … It’s a big, complicated world out there. And, yes, people we may disagree with on a number of things may have some insight, may have some relationships that are important for the president to understand …

Clinton pointed out that journalists had asked Sanders what experts he was consulting on foreign policy and that Sanders hadn’t supplied any names. This was an obvious opportunity for the Vermont senator, who lacks experience in international affairs, to show that he was at least studying up. Instead, he simply retorted: “It ain’t Henry Kissinger.”

4. Leverage. Sanders argued that the way to make peace was to “talk to your enemies” and “work with” them. He defended the idea of normalizing relations with Iran. Clinton replied that normalization, and even formal talks, should be withheld as bargaining chips. “I do not think we should promise or even look toward normalizing relations, because we have a lot of other business to get done with Iran,” she said. Those items of business included halting rocket shipments to Gaza and ending Iran’s support for Hezbollah. Clinton explained that her policy was to extract concessions before, not just during, negotiations: “We did not meet with anybody without conditions. That is the appropriate approach in order to get the results that you are seeking.”

5. Tough love. Sanders accused Clinton of heartlessness toward immigrants: “When we saw children coming from these horrendously violent areas of Honduras and neighboring countries, people who are fleeing drug violence and cartel violence, I thought it was a good idea to allow those children to stay in this country. That was not, as I understand it, the secretary’s position.”

Clinton agreed that she had a different view. “I made it very clear that those children needed to be processed appropriately,” she said. “But we also had to send a message to families and communities in Central America not to send their children on this dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers.” Opening the borders to such children, she suggested, would invite other Central American parents to try the same thing—and many of these kids, like those who had come before, would be endangered and “abused” on the trip north.

You might disagree with Clinton on these issues. You might see her as too timid about spending, too cowed by tradition, too tolerant of hawks, too arrogant about negotiation, and too mean to refugees. But there’s another way to look at these differences. Maybe Clinton is right. Maybe it’s naïve or dishonest—and destructive to the progressive party—to demand revolution and to promise more benefits than you can deliver. Maybe it’s reckless to run up the national debt and to open the borders to anyone who can smuggle a child through Central America. Maybe you can coax better behavior from hostile governments if you play hard to get. Maybe, instead of listening only to people who meet your standard of moral perfection, you should open your ears to wisdom, no matter where it comes from.

That’s how Hillary Clinton really thinks. And it’s not what makes her a bad choice for president. It’s what makes her a good one.