Democrats need to get aggressive about a single issue — not 10

Are the Democrats actually going to blow it in 2020?

There’s a palpable anxiety about the question, which is being raised constantly in print, in private homes, and, I assume, in the corridors of power. Will we actually have to suffer through four more years of President Trump, when he seems so beatable and such a large fraction of the country seems eager for an alternative? Can’t the Democrats just nominate someone who can win, run on a platform that can win, and then, you know — win?

David Leonhardt’s most recent column in The New York Times is a good example of the fretful genre. “[Y]ou would think,” he says, “that Democrats would be approaching the 2020 campaign with a ruthless sense of purpose.”

But they’re not, at least not yet. They are not focusing on issues that expose Trump’s many vulnerabilities. They have instead devoted substantial time to wonky subjects that excite some progressive activists — and alienate most American voters. Recent polls suggest that the Democrats really are increasing the chances Trump will win re-election. [The New York Times]

Leonhardt highlights two such issues: single-payer health care and decriminalizing border crossings. In both cases, he’s right that the activists are on the wrong side of public opinion. While a public option polls fairly well, eliminating private health insurance polls quite poorly. Similarly, while providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants polls quite well, decriminalizing unauthorized entry polls extremely poorly — including among non-white and immigrant groups one might suppose would be in favor.

So why aren’t the Democrats simply coalescing around a more winning message? Why are they risking losing the whole game just to, as Leonhardt puts it, “activate their progressive id?”

The simple answer is that not all Democrats are doing that. The frontrunner, Joe Biden, is campaigning against single-payer health care. And while he hasn’t come out against Julian Castro’s proposal to decriminalize border crossings, it’s hard to believe Biden is going to run on that issue in the general election.

A more complex answer, though, is that campaigns aren’t just about picking a platform that most people support and then enacting it once you win. Campaigns are also about building the political capital to put a platform into practice — and that capital is very much needed in American politics with its host of veto points to prevent change. Primary campaigns are about establishing trust, and thereby convincing your fellow Democrats to stand with you later on, whether you lead them forward into battle or declare that the more prudent tactic is compromise or even retreat.

Does that help explain the behavior of the various candidates? Well, consider health care. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama was the moderate on health care, criticizing Hillary Clinton’s plan for including an individual mandate. That was probably smart positioning for the primary; Obama needed to reassure voters that he was a relative moderate to be seen as electable. And it clearly didn’t hurt him in the general election, which Obama won by a landslide, and with substantial coattails.

But in part because of his positioning, Obama had not built up a lot of political capital on health care specifically. So when, after the stimulus bill, he made health care his top priority, he had to do an enormous amount of coaxing to get members of his own party to vote for the bill — a bill which was closer to Clinton’s plan than to his own, including the dreaded individual mandate. The bill passed, but was deeply unpopular by the time it did, and played a key role in the epic losses the Democrats suffered in 2010.

One lesson progressives took from that history is that the next time they tackled health care, they needed someone who was passionately committed on the issue, and who had built up political capital by running on it. That’s why the primary is featuring a serious argument about the subject, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren advocating single payer and Joe Biden advocating a more incremental reform. The only major candidate who has damaged their own credibility in the process is Kamala Harris, who has tried to have it every way at once — a clear indication of her lack of seriousness.

Biden’s plan, meanwhile, is actually vastly more aggressive than ObamaCare was. If it actually gets enacted, it would be a substantial win for the left. Indeed, in a Sanders or Warren administration, it’s unlikely that anything further left than what Biden is proposing will actually be enacted. Meanwhile, because of Sanders and Warren, that plan has now become a moderate compromise, and is probably more popular than it would otherwise have been.

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