Democrats’ swing to the far left is cause for serious concern
The traditional logic surrounding presidential runs is that one should campaign as a moderate, because the American electorate is understood to be a bell curve with small wings and a large center. This strategy remained fairly consistent until 2016, when Hillary Clinton, by most accounts a pragmatic centrist, was defeated by Donald Trump, who pandered almost exclusively to the far right.
How did this happen? Working-class resentment, deleted emails, Russian hackers and atrocious campaign strategy all played a role, but the Democrats’ new consensus seems to be that an ideological firebrand has a better chance of winning than a milquetoast centrist. If it worked for Trump in 2016, so the argument goes, it should work for them in 2020. This, more than anything else, has been the guiding principle of the current Democratic primary, which increasingly resembles a do-over of 2016 that progressives are determined to get right.
This time around, Hillary’s spiritual successor is Joe Biden, who continues to top the polls despite a general lack of enthusiasm for his campaign. Although Biden has remained relatively scandal-free, he’s much older than Hillary was; in January 2021, he’ll be seventy-eight, and would be by far the oldest president we’ve had (coming in second and third are Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, so make of that what you will). The former vice president is also notoriously gaffe-prone. My favorite line from last week’s debate was him declaring that “nobody should be in jail for a non-violent crime,” which was either a verbal misstep or a clever attempt to secure the critical Bernie Madoff endorsement.
A few other candidates — Amy Klobuchar, John Delaney, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock and all the others you’ve likely never heard of — have spurned the far left, forgoing ideas such as “Medicare for All” and emphasizing the values of bipartisanship. That’s the first thing they have in common. The second thing they have in common is that they are all losing; they either poll in the low single digits or have already dropped out.
As for the better-known candidates — Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, Bernie Sanders and so on — they’ve all adopted solidly progressive platforms. To use the earlier analogy, all of them hope to fill the shoes of 2016 Bernie, who (so the argument goes) could have beaten Trump in November if the DNC hadn’t rigged the primary in Hillary’s favor. The problem each of these candidates faces is that none of them are 2016 Bernie, not even 2020 Bernie; none so far have unified progressives behind “a future to believe in,” as Sanders did three years ago.
In the absence of that crucial, inspiring vision, the leading challengers are moving further and further to the left, substituting progressive purity for inspiration. This ought to be a little alarming. For years, Republicans have been making a strawman of the progressive left, suggesting that all Democrats are in favor of open borders, free healthcare and gun confiscation. For years, most Democrats have denied these things; now, the frontrunners’ policy platforms increasingly resemble the strawman.
To use the example of gun control, President Obama constantly reiterated his support for the Second Amendment, saying that he only wanted to take guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. Contrast that with Beto O’Rourke, who on Thursday admitted, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.” No strings attached, no preconditions; if you’re a law-abiding gun owner, well, too bad. Whether or not you think this is a good idea — and, given recent events, I think it’s worth discussing — this is undoubtedly a seismic shift in Democratic ideology.
There are other examples. For years, Democrats have denied Republican accusations that they are in favor of “open borders,” but last Thursday, all ten on the debate stage agreed to decriminalize border crossings if elected. Most also support a single-payer, “Medicare for All”-type healthcare system. Perhaps the most striking difference between this year’s crop of Democratic leaders and 2016’s is on the issue of reparations for slavery. In 2016, Obama, Clinton and Sanders all agreed that the idea of reparations was impossible to implement. That caveat doesn’t seem to bother the progressives of 2020, almost all of whom support H.R. 40, Sen. Cory Booker’s bill to establish a commission on the issue. Views on what exactly “reparations” would consist of differ, but a simple cash payment to the descendants of slaves is an incredibly unpopular idea, and the suggestion that it might happen under a Democratic administration could even end up giving Trump a second term.
For the record, I think Trump will lose in 2020, no matter who the nominee is; three years into his reign of error, it’s hard to believe that anyone to the left of Genghis Khan will vote for him again. But beating Trump isn’t the only thing that matters; even if we take it as a given that the Democratic nominee will win, that candidate will have the thankless task of governing the United States for the next four years.
A big part of that task will be ending our long national nightmare and trying to restore some semblance of order to Capitol Hill, and that always entails bipartisanship. If our next president governs from the far left, it will endanger his or her chances of working with the opposition, and we’ll be stuck in the same gridlock we’ve been in since 2010. That will still be an improvement from what Trump has done, but not nearly as much of one as we need.
Ultimately, the question voters need to ask of their candidates isn’t, “Who can win the election in November?” It’s, “Who can best run the country in January?” So far, it doesn’t seem like anyone has the answer.