Opinion writer

Tonight the Democratic presidential candidates gather for their first debate, and one media narrative coming out of the festivities may be that Hillary Clinton got dragged so far to the left by her challengers that she may as well have donned a fake Karl Marx beard. After all, the story-line among Republicans is that the primary is pulling the party far to the right, so the equivalent thing must be happening among Democrats, right?

It is true that some of Bernie Sanders’ positions are to the left of Hillary Clinton’s positions. Sanders supports $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending, a $15 minimum wage, and breaking up the big banks, positions Clinton has not adopted.

But broadly speaking, most of the positions that you’ll hear from likely Dem nominee Clinton (and some from Sanders, as well) tonight will not threaten to be a liability in the general election. The New York Times gets it right this morning:

Mrs. Clinton and the other current major Democratic hopefuls seem to believe that what they do to placate liberals this fall will not jeopardize their chances to win over moderates next November. It is the reverse of Jeb Bush’s maxim: The Democrats see no need to risk losing the primary to win the general election.

Dan Pfeiffer, a longtime senior adviser to President Obama, tells the Times: “There is a consensus around the idea that the path to the nomination and the path to the White House necessitates mobilizing the Obama coalition.” That coalition is comprised of millennials, minorities, unmarried women, and socially liberal college educated whites. But also, many Dem issue positions have majority support, as Pfeiffer notes: “The country has moved to the left on social issues and economic issues.”

I took a look at the polling, and it mostly bears this out. Here’s a quick rundown (let me know if I missed any issues that have been polled, and I’ll update).

Clinton probably won’t support $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending, but she’ll likely endorse more such spending to create jobs in principle, and Gallup has found that large majorities of Americans support this. Clinton won’t support a $15 minimum wage, but she generally favors a minimum wage hike, which has majority support.

Clinton probably won’t call for the sort of massive redistribution of wealth that Sanders wants, but her agenda, broadly speaking, will be a redistributive one (even if she doesn’t say so directly). Pew has found that majorities favor taxing the wealthy to help the poor. The New York Times and CBS have found that even larger majorities think wealth should be distributed more evenly. On specific issues, another recent NYT/CBS poll showed that huge majorities support requiring employers to offer paid sick and family leave, two key Clinton agenda items. Large majorities support a path to citizenship, and large majorities also support federal limits on greenhouse gas emissions, goals Clinton has generally endorsed.

There are exceptions: majorities favor the Keystone pipeline; the public remains split on the future of Obamacare; and Gallup notes that there may be only minimal support for pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But broadly speaking, much of Clinton’s agenda has majority support.

This isn’t to say that these positions will necessarily translate into a Clinton victory next year (if she’s the nominee). The economy, events abroad, the identity of the GOP nominee, Obama’s approval, and the possibility of new revelations about her emails all remain unpredictable factors.

Rather, the point is that the two parties’ primary processes seem fundamentally different. The GOP primary has resulted in the GOP candidates embracing positions such as huge tax cuts for the rich, defunding Planned Parenthood, and mass deportations/ending birthright citizenship. (In fairness, some of the candidates have not adopted those immigration positions, but others have, and all of them have come out against a path to citizenship.) These positions probably will be liabilities in the general election. By contrast, many of the positions Dems end up taking during their primary probably won’t be liabilities in the general election. We’ll see if this basic imbalance is registered in the coverage.

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* A DEMOCRATIC ‘DRUMBEAT’ FOR BIDEN TO RUN? Reuters blares that “the drumbeat” for Joe Biden to enter the presidential race is “growing louder.” The occasion for this is a new Reuters poll that finds:

Forty eight percent of Democrats surveyed in the Reuters poll wish he were a candidate, compared with 30 percent who said he should stay out….But support for Biden’s entry into the race does not translate into equal passion for his candidacy. Just 17 percent of those surveyed said Biden would be their first choice, while 46 percent would back Clinton. Biden would also run behind Sanders, who remains the favorite of one fourth of Democrats surveyed.

Dem voters tell pollsters they want Biden in the race. So what? That could reflect fond feelings towards the vice president more than anything else, which (this poll also shows) is not translating into actual support for his candidacy.

* BIDEN KEEPING OPTIONS OPEN INTO NOVEMBER: The New York Times reports:

Mr. Biden initially said he would decide by the end of summer. Now aides are researching filing deadlines to see if he can keep his options open into November.

This is beyond absurd. A new phase of the campaign begins with tonight’s debate, and it’s getting less and less clear that Biden could ramp up a candidacy in time even if he started today. We’re now straying into next month?

 * HERE COMES JEB BUSH’S HEALTH CARE PLAN: Jonathan Cohn brings it to us: Surprisingly, it repeals Obamacare, and replaces it with subsidies based on age, not income; weaker protections for people with preexisting conditions; and a transfer of more power over Medicaid to the states. As Cohn notes, this would probably result in “less government spending and regulation,” but also “some combination of fewer people with insurance and less financial protection for people who have coverage.”

This is the trade-off that all of the GOP candidates appear to want. It will be interesting to see how forthright they are about it.

* LIBERAL GROUPS PUSH DEM CANDIDATES TO GO BOLD: A trio of liberal groups — the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and Move On — have published a letter to the Democratic presidential candidates, demanding that they advocate an ambitious progressive agenda at tonight’s debate. They want the candidates to talk about debt free college; expanding Social Security; racial justice; and tougher accountability on Wall Street.

The hope: by highlighting these issues early on, the candidates might make it more likely that they receive more media attention and don’t end up falling off the agenda in the general election.

 * HILLARY’S NUMBERS UP SLIGHTLY:  New Washington Post polling numbers show:

Since August, Clinton’s approval rating is . . . up slightly, to 47 percent from 45 percent. Her net favorability — the percentage of people who view her positively minus those who view her negatively — is up six points.

Who knows what this means — maybe Clinton will now start an upswing; maybe she won’t. As I’ve noted before, Clinton’s numbers have a history of going down when she transitions into a political role. The same may have happened here.

* AND THE TWEET OF THE DAY, AMERICA-CAN’T-LIVE-WITHOUT-TRUMP EDITION: Donald Trump tweets:

At the request of many, and even though I expect it to be a very boring two hours, I will be covering the Democrat debate live on twitter!

It’s true. Tonight’s debate might very well prove boring. After all, Trump won’t be on stage boasting about how rich he is and spewing insults at every demographic group in sight. Thankfully, he’ll be there on twitter to liven things up!