For all the focus on policy and battles between two types of progressive health-care plans, it’s not clear that this race will be different from presidential cycles going back to 1980. Since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 message (“Let’s Make America Great Again” — I kid you not), we’ve seen a succession of candidates running on broad visions, as exemplars of an ethos.
George H.W. Bush wanted a softer but still successful Reagan third term (“a kinder, gentler America). Bill Clinton introduced a baby-boomer-led era mixing Oprah Winfrey emotion (”I feel your pain") and giddy optimism about technological progress (“A bridge to the 21st century”). George W. Bush promised “compassionate conservatism." Barack Obama offered the country “hope and change" and a progressive era with a historic president. Donald Trump offered to erase the Obama era and take America, white Christians in particular, back to a bygone time.
There were policy promises associated with each (generally, tax cuts for Republicans and health care/education/other domestic programs for Democrats). However, as much as pundits and policy wonks tried to ferret out details of plans that were never going to see the light of day (no campaign proposal survives contact with reality), voters pick the person they trust, who they think will look out for them, and the vision they feel comfortable with.
So let’s go back to the debate on Sept. 12. Warren, like Hillary Clinton, has come to the race having done her homework, bearing plans galore. Voters might not know what these plans are all about or what is in them, but she’s got them. Warren’s stack of plans suggests that she is very serious about “bold, structural change” that is going to go after the rich and powerful. She understands the power of personal narrative, so she shares her life story on the “ragged edge of the middle class,” but her appeal is largely intellectual (as you’d expect from a bankruptcy expert and law professor). This is a campaign about disruption, one that frankly ignores the incumbent president.
Likewise, Sanders — minus any sweet biographical anecdotes — throws down the socialist manifesto. If Warren wants bold, structural change, Sanders promises a peaceful revolution. Grouchier and less pragmatic than Warren, he also is a programmatic candidate. He’s not offering a hug or emotional reassurance; he’s seeking to disrupt capitalism.
On the other side of the divide stand Biden and Harris. Yes, they have plans (Biden’s Obamacare expansion, Harris’s “3 a.m. agenda”), but they are selling a much more emotional, personal message.
Biden is a reassuring figure, a throwback to paternal presidents who embody decency, fairness and optimism. His campaign boils down to “I know if we come together there is nothing we can’t do. That gives me the strength to know we can defeat Donald Trump and once again put this nation on the path towards dignity and decency and justice.” He offers solace to an exhausted nation.
Harris’s campaign is perfectly embodied in her latest video ad:
Hers is the most emotionally evocative campaign. She’s about empathy and social justice, a response to those most targeted by the Trump administration. Her message is summed up by the last lines of the ad: “We see them and we hear them, and ... they matter.”
It’s far from clear what Democratic voters really want from their nominee. They do want to be rid of Trump and be reassured that the United States is a diverse, fair and lawful country. I do suspect, however, that voters will choose with their hearts, not their heads.