If Republicans want to make the case that Democrats are a bunch of dangerous socialists, they have an abundance of clips to choose from the two nights of the Detroit debate: Elizabeth Warren rubbing her hands together in glee at the prospect of taxing away part of John Delaney’s self-made fortune. Bernie Sanders spitting out “profits” as if it were a four-letter word. Bill de Blasio vowing to “tax the hell out of the wealthy.” Sanders and Warren both arguing for taking away private health-care plans and providing free medical care to undocumented immigrants. Marianne Williamson passionately making the case, to big applause, for spending hundreds of billions of dollars to pay reparations to African Americans. Julián Castro advocating again for decriminalizing illegal immigration. Cory Booker, Castro and de Blasio attacking President Barack Obama — the most liberal president in our history — for deporting too many illegal immigrants.
Granted, there were also plenty of centrist arguments made, but they were delivered by candidates such as Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Steve Bullock, Tim Ryan and Michael Bennet, who are polling close to zero. Given the margin of error, their support might actually be in negative numbers. Pete Buttigieg sounds smart and reasonable, but some of his ideas are pretty far to the left, too: He wants to abolish the electoral college, add additional justices to the Supreme Court and pull out of Afghanistan immediately. (He also supported decriminalizing illegal immigration before backing away from it on Tuesday.)
Among the leading candidates, Joe Biden was the most vocal in championing a more centrist vision — he argued for keeping illegal immigration illegal and against abolishing private health insurance. But even Biden called for bureaucrats in Washington to set drug prices and said that he wants to renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade treaty that was concluded by his own administration. In short, the Democratic Party has veered pretty far to the left just since Obama and Biden left office 2½ years ago.
A lot of Democrats think this is a good thing. They endorse the argument Buttigieg made: “If it’s true that if we embrace a far-left agenda they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists.” Many Democrats also reject criticism from NeverTrumpers like me because we’re not Democrats. (I’m a former Republican turned independent.) They think they can win in 2020 simply by energizing the base, which Sanders and Warren certainly do.
These arguments are beguiling but unconvincing. Yes, Republicans will try to paint all Democrats, no matter how moderate, as socialists. That’s just what Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) did by tweeting, “The lesser of two socialists is still a socialist.” But if you take the Buttigieg argument seriously, you could just as well say that, since President Trump will try to paint his opponent as a crook, why not go out and commit some crimes? Where Democrats stand will determine whether Republican attacks will resonate or fall flat. Calling Bullock a commie is a lot less convincing than calling Sanders one.
Moreover, attracting NeverTrump Republicans and independents isn’t optional. It was by speaking to these moderates that Democrats picked up 40 House seats in 2018. As NBC News noted: “One analysis by Democratic firm Catalist showed a 24-point swing among white college-educated women toward Democrats from 2014 to 2018. Exit polls also showed Democrats cleaning up with independents by a 12-point margin, a group Republicans won as recently as 2016 and even in 2012.”
A recent NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll suggests how Democrats can appeal to these moderate swing voters. It’s not by providing reparations for slavery (which has the support of 27 percent of all voters surveyed), decriminalizing illegal border crossings (27 percent), providing free health care to undocumented immigrants (33 percent), replacing private health insurance with Medicare-for-all (41 percent) or getting rid of the electoral college (42 percent). The Democrats would be better advised to focus on background checks for gun buyers (89 percent support), banning assault-style weapons (57 percent), Medicare for everyone who wants it (70 percent), offering a pathway for citizenship to undocumented immigrants (64 percent), investing in green technology (63 percent), rejoining the Paris climate accord (53 percent), legalizing marijuana (63 percent) and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour (56 percent). Increasing taxes on those making more than $1 million is popular (62 percent support), but, as I’ve previously argued, the Sanders-Warren wish list will require raising taxes on the middle class.
To win in 2020, a Democratic nominee needs to tap into widespread unease with Trump and show that he or she will be a safe pair of hands on the tiller — someone who will not steer the ship of state too far to the left after it’s gone too far to the right. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Paul Begala, a canny strategist who helped Bill Clinton get elected. “Most Democrats think there’s a steaming pile of poop on my kitchen table, and you’re telling me you’re going to build a new house?” Begala said on CNN. “Just get rid of the poop! That’s the message!”
Don’t mess this up, Democrats. To preserve American democracy, we need to get rid of Trump. Then we can return to debating our normal policy differences.