When Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney said his party should “run on real solutions, not impossible promises,” Elizabeth Warren responded:
I don’t understand why anybody goes through 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.
The audience erupted in applause. This has been considered the top moment of the first of two Democratic primary debates, which aired on CNN at the end of July.
Based on who they appeal to, the candidates in the two debates can be divided into two major factions. After watching the hours of pandering answers of the CNN debates, it became clear that, in the battle between Democrats who want to cater to moderate voters and those who push pie-in-the-sky policies, the second group is winning.
Group One: Appeals to the Middle
The first group of candidates appeals to white, Midwestern, blue-collar workers. They consist of:
- Former Vice President Joe Biden
- Montana Governor Steve Bullock
- John Delaney, former Congressman from Maryland
- Tim Ryan, Congressman from Ohio
- Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper
- Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Senator from Minnesota
- Andrew Yang
- Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator from Colorado
While more moderate, this group has some bad policies that reduce freedom and increase government power. One example is Delaney’s plan to force young Americans into mandatory national service. Another is Yang’s expensive proposal to give everyone $12,000 a year.
However, the “Sane Eight” at least make an effort to address the concerns of voters in the middle of both America and the political spectrum. They emphasize their connections to the working class and the American Dream, and say they have practical solutions rather than “wish-list economics.”
Except for Biden, they are all polling at around one percent or lower.
Group Two: Reaching for Extremes
Biden (who is recovering from his lackluster performance against Kamala Harris, as well as his “Biden 30330″ gaffe) is the outlier among the “Sane Eight” as a front-runner in the field. But he is only polling at around 32 percent. Most of the rest of the support is behind members of the second group, which consists of:
- Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, former Congressman from Texas
- Kamala Harris, U.S. Senator from California
- Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana
- Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts
- Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator from Vermont
- Mayor Bill DeBlasio of New York
- Governor Jay Inslee of Washington
- Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator from New York
- Tulsi Gabbard, Congresswoman from Hawai’i
- Julian Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
- Cory Booker, U.S. Senator from New Jersey
By and large, this group (which includes 6 of the 7 top candidates) appeals to left-wing activists in places like Boulder, Colorado and UC-Berkeley. The “Unreasonable 11” hopes to win with political correctness and condescending, divisive positions on social issues, rather than practical reforms. A few, including Sanders and Buttigieg, try to reach moderate voters, but they mainly lean towards this category.
(There is a third category: Marianne Williamson, who appeals to middle-aged ex-hippies with Himalayan salt lamp collections. Despite some half-sarcastic punditry about Williamson’s “success” in the debates leading to future electoral success, the fight is mostly between the “Sane Eight” and the “Unreasonable 11.”)
Extreme for Extreme’s Sake
It is necessary not just to debate the intended benefits of a policy, but also if it is realistic and what its disadvantages might be. As evidenced in the debate, the “Unreasonable 11” does not want to have this discussion, and prefer to scold their fellow detractors for not being idealistic and progressive enough.
Both nights saw debate between the two factions on the issue of government healthcare, with moderates questioning “Medicare for All” plans. Delaney said that if hospitals have to take Medicare rates for service, as Bernie Sanders has proposed, many will go out of business. Both candidates and the debate hosts questioned if the “Unreasonable 11” would ban people’s existing healthcare plans or have to raise taxes to pay for Medicare for All. Usually, they evaded the question by deflecting to the supposed benefits of their plan. Robert O’Rourke even implied tax hikes would not be necessary for universal healthcare.
The same pattern showed up in other policy points. Discuss concerns about the Green New Deal, socialized medicine, or other left-wing policies, and these will be dismissed as “Republican talking points.” If you say, as Steve Bullock did, that decriminalizing illegal border crossings and giving illegal aliens free healthcare will encourage illegal immigration (as Obama’s former Homeland Security Secretary also said), Democrats will rush to avoid the issue in the same way.
It does not take much political knowledge to know that primaries will involve conflict between more moderate and more extreme parts of a party. And I am far from the first person to claim that Democrats alienate mainstream voters. But why do these debates show such an antipathy for questioning plans for drastic reform?
Both parties (but Democrats in particular) have been drifting away from the center, and some have said this is only exacerbated by the ratings-driven format of the debates. This approach encourages vague soundbites rather than in-depth discussion.
National Review writer Jay Cost has blamed the requirement for Democrats to receive money from 65,000 individual donors to qualify for debates, which encourages them to pander to a small but “hyper-engaged” segment of voters. This gives the most radical voters disproportionate power in selecting the nominee. And on a fundamental level, what is more inspiring: bold proposals to “transform society,” or reasons why they won’t work?
Let’s Stay Realistic
We must recognize that some things are impossible. It is good to have strong ideals, but we can’t expect things to work perfectly, only as well as possible. Even well-intentioned plans involve tradeoffs and potential negative consequences. As the Rolling Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want.”
It is not weakness to seek compromise to attract less progressive voters. Similarly, noting flaws in a bold policy doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the problem it claims to solve.
It may not be snazzy to say that realism matters, but it is important. And with skepticism of far-fetched proposals on the decline, people who believe in realism need to find an inspiring way to say it. If they fail, we will see the triumph of crazy–and destructive–ideas.