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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — The re-emergence of a Democratic left will be one of the major stories of 2014. Moderates, don’t be alarmed. The return of a viable, vocal left will actually be good news for the political center.

For a long time, the American conversation has been terribly distorted by the existence of an active, uncompromising political right unbalanced by a comparably influential left. As a result, our entire debate has been dragged more and more in a conservative direction, meaning that the center is pushed that way, too.

Consider what this means in practice. Obamacare is not a left-wing program, no matter how often conservatives might say it is. Its structure is based on conservative ideas. The individual mandate was the conservatives’ alternative to a mandate on employers. The health care exchanges are an alternative to government-provided medicine on the Medicare model.

Obamacare is complex because the government is trying to create a marketplace in which people shop for private insurance and receive government subsidies if they need them. It goes to a lot of trouble to preserve the private insurance market. The system does not even include a government plan as one option among many.

But once conservatives succeeded in pulling the health care debate to where they had always wanted it, they abandoned the concepts they pioneered and denounced Obamacare as a socialist scheme. It’s a classic case of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose politics: Move toward me, and I’ll just keep moving further away from you.

The right’s strong hand also prevented more aggressive action to ease joblessness. After the crash of 2008, the country desperately needed government to step in to bolster mass purchasing power, the point of stimulus efforts. With interest rates near zero, there was no better time to borrow in order to rebuild a decrepit national infrastructure and make other long-term public investments.

Instead, relentless pressure from the right made the initial stimulus smaller than it should have been — and then prevented any further expansion of public spending. In the blink of an eye, the public discussion was engulfed by an obsession with the deficit as millions languished without a job. Even Republicans are frustrated over how ideological fears about government’s size have stalled transportation bills that were once the stuff of bipartisan concord.