Dem Primary: Blurred Views of Our Past, and Path Forward
The effects of last week’s Democratic Party debates are still making themselves known, reverberating through the large field. At first blush, the biggest winners appeared to be Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Warren took advantage of being the lone star in the first night’s gathering, while Harris’ back-and-forth with former Vice President Joe Biden showed us far more than just two politicians on opposite sides of a cultural and generational divide.
The Democratic aspirants, and by extension the rest of us, are contending with many issues that have defined who we are as a people, where America stands as a country, and where we might be headed. The two dozen Democrats who want to call the White House home have to prove to their fellow citizens that they have what it takes to lead through these turbulent times.
For front-running Biden, the most long-lasting damage will not come from his decades-old stance on school busing. His problems are deeper than that. Debate moderator Savannah Guthrie asked about his comments before a closed-door fundraiser in which he told the crowd that he wasn’t running to change things. But change is precisely what the 2020 electorate may want.
Since the election of Barack Obama, the U.S. has been in a perpetual state of political evolution. If electing our first African American president wasn’t departure enough, electing our first reality-television star should be evidence that whatever guardrails the political system previously provided are gone. Biden is not a change agent and could never be. His appeal is based on the idea of returning to a time of comparative calm. He’s trying to turn back the clock, and for the former senator, this will continue to plague his campaign.
On matters such as the environment, college debt, and health care, the field seemed unwilling or unable to find ways to tangibly or emotionally connect the issues to reality. Those three topics, too, represent the difficult matrix the party has created for itself: attempting to energize voters it already has while attracting those it desperately needs to beat Donald Trump in November 2020.
Climate change? We generally know what it means. But how does one ask a voter to hold climate change in their hands? It could be referencing the weather. Perhaps the angle is greenhouse gases. But for an issue that has become so central to America’s progressive ethos, the candidates have not yet effectively connected what is a reality – rising temperatures and attendant consequences – to a reason to voluntarily change behavior or choose a Democrat over a Republican.
On health care, too, Americans are gun-shy about “Medicare for All.” Yes, health care regularly tops the list of issues that concern voters. Simply saying everyone gets free health care seems unrealistic. Bernie Sanders’ twin winners of raising middle-class taxes with the statement that any patient will be able to go to any doctor they choose speaks mainly to liberal activists. To the rest of us, it sounds like a combination of less money in your pocket and a promise that won’t be kept.
When former Rep. John Delaney was the only candidate last week to verbalize the idea that more than 100 million Americans don’t want to lose their private insurance, the others present looked at him as if he’d grown a second head. Their reaction only magnified the impression that the Democrats’ primary season is taking place in an intellectual bubble prevalent on the east and west coasts – and few places in between.
Student debt and free college, now packaged together by nearly the entire field, are perhaps the most interesting examples of how the 2020 Democrats are cannibalizing their party’s own voters. Cancelling all student debt, to the tune of $1.5 trillion, may appeal to the more than 40 million Americans carrying an active loan balance. However, to the approximately 215 million adults who have neither attended college nor have a degree – or who paid their own bills -- this sounds like a giveaway to upper-middle-class kids from the coasts.
When combined with the free-college-for-all concept, the Democrats’ position on higher education feels downright elitist. It is not just in flyover states, but also in major cities and suburbs where many kids find college unaffordable, or that the university path is not for them. When Democratic aspirants say they want to give you free college, they minimize the futures of those for whom ivy-clad walks to class will never be a desire or a reality.
The first two elements in the Democratic primary -- contending with an unpleasant past and being tone-deaf on the country’s present -- make it nearly impossible for any of the would-be nominees to project a positive, inclusive vision of the future for all Americans.
Of course, in any contested primary, a candidate in our broken two-party system must explain to the small core of activist voters and caucus-goers why he or she is the best one to represent the Democratic Party. This desire, however, is manifesting itself in ways that make the general election campaign, even against Donald Trump, more difficult.
Warren has been lauded by pundits and the media for her vast array of plans for America. It should come as no surprise that a senator whose previous job was as a college professor would be steeped in policy points. But plans do not equal vision. All of the suggested programs are so many tails wagging dogs. Mitt Romney had plans. Hillary Clinton had plans. Plans are not enough.
These plans, and their relative position along a left-right spectrum, leads to the issue that will be the Democrats’ electoral bugaboo next fall. Given their desire to prove their progressive bona fides, the candidates are cutting themselves off from any path back to the middle of the electorate.
MSNBC analyst Joy Reid, ahead of last week’s first debate, said 2020 would be another “base” election. That is true, up to a point. No candidate at any level can win without turning out their party’s activist base. But the base only gets the Democratic nominee to 35%-40% in November. If, as a party, and as a field, they don’t begin to believe what America is -- with all its faults and all its opportunities -- we’ll all have to deal with four more years of Donald Trump.