I found the first two series of Democratic presidential debates painful to watch, and I don’t think it was simply the result of the format or of the questions asked. It was because in their preoccupations, I don’t think the Democratic candidates have developed the message and the language that can win the White House for the party.
Numerous commentators have already made the point that in pressing for Medicare for All, the Democrats are courting disaster, so I’ll be brief on this point. Healthcare issues helped Democrats win the White House in 1992 and 2008, but elaborate healthcare plans that were politically flawed helped the Republicans win back the Congress in 1994 and 2010. Medicare for All has all the problems of past plans: it threatens higher taxes; and it comes across as another welfare program in which the middle class will have to subsidize the non-working poor. I am surprised that none of the Colorado candidates brought up the 80-20 percent defeat of the single-payer initiative in their state in 2016. What makes sense – and Paul Starr and others have made this point – is attacking the Republicans and Trump for attempting to do away with the insurance we have, while proposing something like a public option or Medicare for Anyone that would put America on the road to Medicare for All.
Trump’s nativist attacks against immigrants from South of the Border and his administration’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers has had the perverse effect of pushing the Democrats toward a virtual endorsement of open borders. Former Vice President Joe Biden actually showed a superior grasp of this issue, reminding his rivals that seeking asylum was not a crime in the first place (and couldn’t be “decriminalized”) but illegal entry was and has been and that by “decriminalizing” it (while ostensibly attack Trump’s refugee policies), they were inviting an increase in illegal entry.
Senator Elizabeth Warren and several candidates, while bemoaning growing economic inequality, called for increases in legal immigration based on family reunification, which in the past has brought millions of unskilled workers into the labor market who compete for jobs with unskilled native-born and first-generation Americans. Oh and lastly, I am surprised no one has asked Senator Bernie Sanders what would happen in his model country to the north, if someone who did not have legal residence came into a doctor’s office demanding free care. Canada, like the US, does provide free emergency care, but you can’t get into their national health care system without establishing legal residence.
The Democrats have a decent immigration program – it’s some version of the comprehensive reform bill that passed the senate in 2013 (path to citizenship, border security, and I would get rid of some of the guest worker provisions) – but again they have been driven to extremes either by Trump’s nativism or by an illusion that they will win the Hispanic vote by going to extremes. If you look at polls, for instance, you will see that Hispanic voters are as leery of increasing illegal immigration as anyone else.
Trump has played upon a politics that could be described as “white supremacist.” I am not sure about “white nationalist,” which is associated with racial separation. But in responding to Trump’s racism, Democrats have been using these terms in every other sentence – and add to that Senator Gillibrand’s high-toned blast against “white privilege.” In doing so, they are implicitly attacking not merely Trump but his past supporters and – even more important – people who are queasy about the Democrats for one reason or another. The terms also suggest that white voters have little to complain about, a message that won’t play very well in November 2020.
I also fear they think that in reiterating these terms – or in promoting reparations – the Democrats think they are courting black voters. In my experience – and I hope this won’t seem like some kind of weird racism – black adult voters are among the most sophisticated in the electorate. You could see it in Virginia after the various Democratic presidential candidates fell over each other to call for Governor Ralph Northam’s resignation for a 36 year old yearbook photo of questionable origin that had been publicized by a rightwing website angry about the governor’s stand on abortion. Virginia’s black Democrats, cognizant that Northam had not run a racist administration, or had a record of racism as a legislator, continued to back him. You see it in the continued African-American support for former Vice President Joe Biden in spite of Senator Kamala Harris’s attack against him for his decades-old stances on busing. Biden’s support might disappear, but again I think it is based currently on a reasoned assessment of who among the candidates is best equipped to get rid of Trump.
I could go on: the enthusiasm for impeachment (which ordinary voters including me have doubts about on the merits as well as the politics), Warren’s desire to break up Amazon (does she really think voters would prefer to go back to buying goods at higher prices?), Sanders on giving the Boston bomber the vote, Yang’s obsession with robots, Inslee’s hysteria about climate change (we have to do things, but the planet is not going to end after 12 years). The main point I would make is this: even if you accept the fact that the candidates are currently trying to stake out pluralities among Democratic primary voters and not yet seeking to woo the greater public, they are not doing a very good job of it. And that really worries me.