During night one of the Democratic debate on Tuesday, moderator Jake Tapper steered the discussion that is a chief concern for many in the party. Who would have the best chance of defeating Donald Trump — a moderate, or a further-left candidate like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren?
“In poll after poll, Democratic voters say that they want a candidate who can beat President Trump more than they want a candidate who agrees with them on major issues,” Tapper said. (As one example, Gallup found that 58 percent prioritized beating Trump and only 39 percent prioritized finding a candidate they agree with on issues.)
Indeed, this is a discussion that has played out among nervous Democrats, particularly since the debates have begun. Sanders and Warren have endorsed policies such as replacing all private health insurance with a government program and making unauthorized border crossing a civil rather than criminal offense in most circumstances. Would these positions make the Democratic nominee fatally flawed in the general election and open to attack by Trump?
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), a candidate who has gained no traction, summed up the critique about an hour into the debate. “In this discussion already tonight, we’ve talked about taking private health insurance away from union members in the industrial Midwest, we’ve talked about decriminalizing the border, and we’ve talked about giving free health care to undocumented workers when so many Americans are struggling to pay for their health care,” Ryan said. “I quite frankly don’t think that is an agenda that we can move forward on and win.”
Warren, meanwhile, thrilled the base by insisting that boldly left-wing stances on the issues wouldn’t be a hindrance in the general election, but a help. At one point, she told the moderate former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” She got wild applause.
The whole discussion of the electability topic was unsatisfying, though — because, as good politicians do, practically everyone insisted they’d arrived at all their positions purely on the merits, without any political calculation.
The progressives insisted there was no trade-off between doing what’s right and getting elected. The moderates insisted the same thing. Admitting that politics played any role would, of course, mean admitting they were insincere or “calculating” — something to be avoided at all costs.
Why the electability discussion was incoherent
So, for instance, moderate candidates like Delaney and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock argued that Sanders and Warren’s support of Medicare-for-all and decriminalizing border crossing risked alienating swing voters and ensuring Trump’s reelection — that they were wrong on the politics.
But they also argued that those positions were simply wrong on the merits. Delaney insisted that if all hospital bills were paid at Medicare rates, “then many hospitals in this country would close.” Bullock said that if the government provided health care to unauthorized immigrants, “we’ll have multiples” of the thousands of people “showing up at the border right now.” Bullock added that, no, we don’t “have to sacrifice our values to actually win.”
Meanwhile, Warren and Sanders said, naturally, that their proposals were both right on the merits and right on the politics. “Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we get out there and fight for it,” Warren insisted. “I am not afraid, and for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid either.”
The concept that there might be some policies that are both a good idea and bad for electability-related reasons was only actually broached by the non-politician on stage, Marianne Williamson.
Regarding Medicare-for-all, Williamson said, “I’m normally way over there with Bernie and Elizabeth.” But, she added, “I do have concern about what the Republicans would say. And that’s not just a Republican talking point.”
She continued: “I do have concern that it will be difficult. I have a concern that it will make it harder to win, and I have a concern that it will make it harder to govern. Because if that’s our big fight, then the Republicans will so shut us down on everything else.”
Immediately afterward, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Buttigieg popped up to say Democrats shouldn’t think about such grubby concerns as politics and electability, because Republicans will attack them no matter what. Instead, he said, they should just “stand up for the right policy, go up there and defend it.” That, he said, is his “Medicare for all who want it” proposal, which would leave the current private insurance system in place while expanding coverage.
This positioned him between the moderates on stage and Warren and Sanders — but, like a skilled politician, Buttigieg insisted this wasn’t “triangulation”; it was just the “right policy.”
It’s up to Democratic voters to decide electability for themselves
Naturally, moderate candidates will argue that the further-left candidates are too extreme to win, while Warren and Sanders will argue that taking bold positions will better ensure victory by giving people “a reason to show up and vote,” as Warren put it.
The elision in Warren’s argument was that she didn’t want to acknowledge that the Democratic nominee could be hurt by taking left-wing stances that are unpopular among the public. Of course, the nominee could also be hurt by taking centrist positions that aren’t particularly popular. But CNN was laser-focused on those left-wing issue positions on health reform and immigration, and they would surely be major topics in the general election as well.
The odd thing about the case from moderates like Delaney, Ryan, and Hickenlooper is that their play-it-safe arguments could essentially be interpreted as making the case for Joe Biden, the current frontrunner, who wasn’t onstage (Biden will be in Wednesday night’s debate). Biden has his flaws as a candidate, but the other moderates haven’t managed to be particularly inspiring either.
The debate stage isn’t really the best format for such a discussion, since everyone’s arguments on who would be most electable are so self-interested (the answer is always “me”). Voters instead have to read between the lines and decide for themselves.