Before becoming the co-host of Pod Save America, Dan Pfeiffer spent most of his adult life in Democratic Party politics, which included serving as White House communications director for President Barack Obama. But in his new book Un-Trumping America, the former operative levels some sharp criticism toward the party in which he came of political age.
Contrary to the rhetoric of the leading Democratic presidential candidate, Pfeiffer doesn’t think of Donald Trump as the source of our current social and political ills, and he doesn’t believe that beating Trump will bring about a return to “normalcy.” For Pfeiffer, Trump is a symptom of much deeper forces in our politics — forces that will continue to proliferate unless Democrats get serious about, among other things, genuine structural reform.
Pfeiffer and I explore this critique in our conversation on The Ezra Klein Show. We also discuss Pfeiffer’s view that Donald Trump is the favorite in 2020, the case for and against filibuster reform, what working with Joe Biden is like, why Democrats need to prioritize democracy, and much more.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation, which we released this week on The Ezra Klein Show.
You write about the fact that the fundamental divide in the Democratic Party is between restoration and transformation, about whether the problem is Trump and the solution is to go back to a time before him, or whether the problem is much bigger than Donald Trump and requires structural change. You come down on the side of structural change, but I think the party also needs to deal with voters who don’t love Trump but are nervous about change. How do you navigate that tension?
There is no doubt that this tension has been present throughout the primary. And the further you get away from the hyper-engaged activist class, the more people seem to favor restoration as opposed to a revolution. Biden certainly represents a return to Obama-era normalcy. From the point of view of many Democratic voters, things were “okay” back then even if we didn’t get everything we wanted. The country felt safe and secure, and we had decent people in the White House. And [Biden] would be a return to that, so it seems like a safer bet.
This is perhaps a broader conversation, but the Democratic Party is in a weird place because Trump is the figure that blocks out the sun. So every discussion about where the party should go is filtered around how that helps us beat Trump. That, I think, limits the nature of the discussion. Elizabeth Warren’s policies are the most popular in the party by far, but the benefit of those policies is not discussed in terms of how they help the economy or how they would help build a larger Democratic coalition over the long term — only how they will be interpreted by a hypothetical group of white men in Wisconsin.
The reason I wrote the book is I believe very strongly that Democrats have been distracted by Trump from the forces that gave us Trump. And if we don’t deal with the forces that led to Trump, we’re just going to end up with a smarter Trump. That’s what scares me.
I do think one of the difficulties here is that for a lot of Democratic voters, the first question is what do you do about Donald Trump? Everything else becomes a subordinate question because all the Democrats are operating within an incentive structure created by that concern.
I actually structured the book to try, in the first section, to disabuse Democrats [of the notion] that Donald Trump is an aberration. Then the second part is how you beat Trump because I think that is this looming question over everything. But I think it’s important to think about that question in the context of what comes next. That’s why I think it’s important and unfortunate that the two candidates who remain in this primary are the ones who I think have least grappled with the political forces that led to Trump.
I want to put a pin in that provocative statement and we’ll come back to it. Let me try a theory out on you. We’re talking a couple days after Super Tuesday, and I think that Joe Biden’s win on Super Tuesday requires some rethinking on the part of the pundit class in a way that I think isn’t really happening because nobody’s pressing it. Joe Biden did something on Super Tuesday that I would have told you was impossible — he won a high turnout primary.
A problem among pundits is that we are not like most people. We are unbelievably politically engaged and unbelievably politically involved. In general, we have very deep internally consistent ideologies and we’re very issue-oriented. This is a way that folks who do this professionally differ systematically from everyone else. So when you hear people’s theories of what will turn out voters, it almost always reflects that. The theory is: If you have a candidate who is more straightforward in their ideology, less compromised, more exciting, they would turn people out. But Joe Biden is muddled in his ideology, muddled often just in his straightforward speech, runs basically as a generic Democrat in a way that annoys a lot of pundits, including me. And then he gets this big turnout.
So, I think we need to at least ask the question of whether or not there is an attraction to transformational change among people who get really into politics. If you didn’t think things are really wrong, you wouldn’t spend all your time doing politics professionally. But a lot of voters who are in very dire straits get scared by transformational change — even if they could use a lot of help. They’re worried about losing what they have. And I wonder if Joe Biden represents something that needs to be taken a little bit more seriously: a way in which the electorate is often systematically misunderstood.
Something I’ve come to believe — that is somewhat influenced by your book — is that everyone in politics thinks the presidential elections are about ideology and policy, and they’re [really] about identity and personality. And I think pundits have to do a better job of understanding that fact, that voters are just simply not ideological in the same way that reporters and pundits think they are. There has never been “the moderate lane” and “the progressive lane.” Warren’s voters were not Bernie voters necessarily. And some of Biden’s voters are also Bernie voters. And if you look at this entirely through the frame of ideology, then I think you’re going to miss how voters look at it.
I think a lot more of those lanes are simply a pro-system and an anti-system lane. It’s not literally about Medicare-for-all. It’s about the package of intuitions and gestures that lead to one vision of politics versus another.
I get frustrated by people who say that Bernie is the only candidate who wants people to be able to go to the doctor and afford it. I think it’s reasonable to talk about health care in terms of lives and lives lost. But there’s a very big difference between a tactical disagreement on how will you actually pass a health care expansion and opposition to health care expansions. The difference between the Sanders and Biden people on this is that the Biden people think you will fail with Medicare-for-all — that you will lose and get nothing, like they did in 1994. And the Sanders people think that you’ll succeed with Medicare-for-all — that people’s understanding of the constraints on the system are wrong.
But that’s a debate fundamentally about the system itself and how it works. Can you blow it up by attacking it frontally, or do you have to take its constraints as relatively settled and work within them? I think that generates a lot more of the disagreement in politics than we like to admit. A lot of policy debates that are actually political strategy debates in disguise, like the Medicare-for-all debate is a political strategy debate disguised as a debate about health care policy.
All these things are ultimately about theories of change: How do you actually get things done? Not to be explicitly provocative, but both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have deeply flawed theories of change. You’re not going to motivate Republican senators to do the right thing in the short term simply through grassroots mobilization. And you’re not going to pass Medicare-for-all, Medicare for some, or literally Medicare for one additional person in America if you’re depending upon eight to 10 Republican senators to agree with you.
That has been the problem with this debate from the very beginning. At the beginning of his campaign, I remember asking [Pete Buttigieg], “Why the public option?” And he said, “I think that’s the best way to start.” And I said, “Well, what would you say to the Bernie Sanders people who say that if you start in the middle, you’re going to end up to the right, and if you start at left, you’ll end up in the middle.” And he said, “That’s just a question of legislative strategy. If that’s the best way to get it done, let’s start with Medicare-for-all.” That sort of laid bare the whole conversation.