Democrats are heading for what could be the most lively and crowded presidential primary season they’ve ever had, and with it comes efforts to simplify the questions their voters face. Nothing’s simpler than a stark dichotomy, which is why we’re going to be hearing a lot of analyses like this one in Monday’s New York Times:
After a 2018 midterm election that energized the left, perhaps the most consequential political question facing the Democratic Party is whether liberals will insist on imposing policy litmus tests on 2020 presidential hopefuls, or whether voters will rally behind the candidate most capable of defeating the president even if that Democrat is imperfect on some issues.
These dual priorities — and which one is emphasized more in the coming primary race — will help determine how the party approaches 2020. Will candidates sprint to the left on issues and risk hurting themselves with intraparty policy fights and in the general election? Or will they keep the focus squarely on [President] Trump and possibly disappoint liberals by not being bolder on policy?
This is a false choice, one that carries with it all kinds of assumptions and biases about what is and isn’t wise and appropriate for candidates to do. There will not be one group of candidates who satisfy “policy litmus tests” and another group “capable of defeating the president.” That assumes that only policy centrists can defeat the president, which is utterly wrong, and not how this is going to work at all.
Just to be clear, I’m not above criticizing demands for policy purity; I’ve gotten in arguments with some on the left who have become so committed to single-payer health care that they dismiss anyone who proposes other routes to universal coverage as corporate sellouts. But while there will be policy disagreement between the candidates — in fact, that’s where most of the disagreement will likely come — it’s a mistake to think of this as a choice between (reasonable and sensible) arguments about what the best way to defeat Trump is on the one hand and (loony and self-defeating) demands for ideological fealty on the other. It’s all interrelated, something I suspect the voters understand perfectly well.
I say that policy is where most of the arguments will come because it’s much easier to draw specific distinctions with your opponents on their prior records or their current plans than it is to prove that you’re more anti-Trump than someone else. That’s particularly true when, let’s be honest, all the candidates are pretty pure in their opposition to Trump. And while there is likely to be plenty of talk about electability, Democratic voters are likely to reject any argument that the way to appeal to the broadest swath of voters is to just adopt some centrist compromises on issues.
But policy does give you something concrete to grab on to. And it’s an important part of what candidates should be arguing about. After all, the long presidential primary season is the party’s best opportunity to work through its identity. What does it mean to be a Democrat at this particular moment in history? Who are they, and what do they believe? That incorporates everything from ideas about economics to race and gender.
And yes, a few candidates might have to shift their positions or explain their evolution from what they supported in the past, not because they're trying to satisfy some extremist fringe but because if you want to represent this party, you have to advocate for what this party now accepts as its consensus. Among other things, that includes universal health coverage, a living wage, welcoming immigration policies, and strong action on climate change.
If history is a guide, candidates will make a big deal out of small distinctions and past votes, but the bulk of primary voters will ultimately engage in what I refer to as ideological satisficing. Satisficing, a notion created by the economist Herbert Simon, says that instead of seeking out the absolutely optimal choice when faced with a decision, people are more likely to look for something that’s good enough. We don’t spend weeks trying to find the most fantastic supermarket in the tri-state area; if there’s a reasonably good one within a mile or two of our house, that’s where we’ll shop.
Primary voters consider lots of factors — does this candidate move me emotionally, do they seem competent, do I think they can win — but in a big field, when it comes to ideology most of them just want somebody who's good enough. Genuine outliers (in either direction) may get rejected, but when the distinctions between the candidates aren't that large — and this year, they won't be — ideology won't determine the outcome.
Perhaps more importantly, what voters will be seeking is someone who both has ideas about policy they find compelling and presents them in a compelling way, which is where it becomes clear that issues and electability can’t be neatly separated. For instance, at the moment Elizabeth Warren has offered the clearest rationale for her candidacy, an argument about how the American economic and political systems have been built by and for the wealthy and powerful in a way that enables corruption and hurts the middle and lower classes. That’s both an argument about issues, incorporating particular policy proposals, and a critique of Donald Trump, who is a product and a servant of that corrupt system.
Since it's so early, we don't know how persuasive Warren's argument will be to voters and how it will compare to what the other candidates offer. But if it works, it will be because they decide that they like her ideas, they like her, and they think that with those ideas and her personality she'll beat Trump. None of those elements is separable from the others.
This is far from the whole story of the primaries — for instance, one critical question is how each candidate can make voters feel about themselves, something I’ll return to at a later date. But it will never be just about ideology, or just about electability, or just about any one thing. It’s all intertwined.