It is the nature of media, especially social media, to magnify differences. Articles and tweets that feature heated, internal squabbles capture many more eyeballs than those that sing some version of “Kumbaya.” And nuanced policy debates are way less sexy than political fights, anyway.
As the field of Democratic contenders for president grows, the relevance of these truths is coming into view. There’s a narrative forming that the candidates are too far to the left, given the centrism of the American electorate. The party is vulnerable, according to this rap, to the very accusations of socialism that Trump has been spouting. Related to this critique is the view that as more moderates enter the race, the major Democratic contenders will form a circular firing squad and benefit Trump.
Most of this narrative — though not all — is wrong.
Democrats are poised to have the very debates we need to have in this country. If they play this right, they will be doing the electorate and the nation a great service, one that can ultimately get the United States back on track. That’s no mean feat, given how far off the rails we’ve flown.
The best way to understand this debate is through the concept of a continuum, a line of options, going from moderate to very progressive. Consider, for example, health care, climate, jobs and taxes. In every case, the Democratic candidates are pointed in the same direction. Their broad, united themes are: (a) to vanquish Trump and Trumpism, including his culture of lies and corruption; (b) to restore a functional, amply funded federal government; and (c) to leverage that newly functioning government to meet the major challenges we face.
The most important insight about this dynamic, one that risks getting buried if the Democrats aren’t careful, is that you would need a high-powered electron microscope to see the difference among the Democrats, compared with the difference between them and the Republicans.
Look at each issue to see how this plays out.
Health care: Here, the Democratic field is uniformly in favor of increasing the role of government in providing access to affordable, quality health care. Republicans, conversely, want the reverse: to increase the market’s footprint and reduce the government’s role.
The differences among the Democrats boils down to whether to take an incremental approach that slowly winds toward universal coverage or one that gets there a lot faster. Candidates on the moderate end of the continuum (e.g., Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota) favor undoing the Trump administration’s sabotage of the Affordable Care Act, expanding Medicaid to more states and holding down private premiums through subsidies to insurers and purchasers in the exchanges. Moving toward the left, some candidates favor Medicare-for-more — say, through lowering the eligibility age or offering a public insurance option to many more people — or Medicare-for-all (a longtime goal of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont).
Climate: The continuum here ranges from indirect incentives on the moderate end — raising the price of carbon through taxing it — to large, direct investments in green technology and the people and communities most vulnerable to the costs of climate change. One can find Republicans interested in carbon taxes, but the party is too financed by the fossil-fuel industry to go after climate change. GOP leadership remains in denial about the problem, actively undermining even the insufficient steps we’ve taken.
Jobs: At one end of the continuum are emerging proposals to provide time-limited, government-subsidized employment for narrowly targeted groups such as those with significant skill deficits or victims of discrimination (e.g., people with criminal records). At the other end is a guaranteed jobs program, providing gainful, permanent public-sector employment with decent wages and benefits to all comers (Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has proposed such a pilot program). To my knowledge, there are no job programs of any type from Republicans. The most you’ll see is some hand-waving about jobs from an infrastructure plan — but there is no infrastructure plan.
Taxes: Once again, the differences between the parties could not be starker, and the commonalities between Democrats are strong: They all want to roll back some aspects of the Trump tax cuts and raise more revenue to support their initiatives. Though it’s still early, of course, a useful way to view the differences among Democrats is to note the distinction between broadening the tax base by closing loopholes vs. raising tax rates, including on income and wealth that goes untaxed. For example, expect more moderate Democrats to propose getting rid of the pass-through loophole that keeps tax rates low for hedge fund employees and expanding the share of families subject to the estate tax. The more progressive candidates will start there, but they’ll also go further, such as the tax Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) want sot impose the ultrawealthy.
Republicans, of course, want to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy, paid for by benefit cuts for the poor and middle class (usually rendered euphemistically as “entitlement reform”).
No one can reliably tell you where actual voters will line up on these within-group differences among Democrats. There clearly exists a lot of great energy around big, progressive changes, leavened by a lot of disenchantment with the old Republican-lite center-left. But whether more voters go for incrementalism or leapfrogging is to be seen.
Forthcoming debates must answer this question, but that won’t happen if Democratic primary candidates throw each other under the bus, or, more specifically, under Trump’s airplane.
I asked my friend Ron Klain, a veteran of many campaigns (and a Washington Post contributing columnist), about this potential pothole, and he summed it up well: “A debate about ideas is healthy, a debate about motives is not. The Democrats should hash out their differences in 2020 without slashing up one another — not casting aspersions on each other’s integrity, motivation or intentions. It is that latter path that creates an opening for Trump’s reelection in 2020.”
So let the debate about ideas begin. And let the social media hate-fest wither on the vine.