Not long ago, Elizabeth Warren seemed blessedly unencumbered: She was an increasingly skilled campaigner whose litany of policy proposals made her sui generis. But that was an illusion. October’s Democratic debate confirmed that she is tethered to a potentially fatal millstone: that unyielding Old Testament prophet of New Age socialism, Bernie Sanders.
No matter that Sanders has been fixated on his own immutable inner vision for roughly half a century. To his adamant supporters among progressive Democrats, including the young, he personifies an uncompromising clarity of vision and principle which exposes the stranglehold of plutocracy on our presumptive democracy.
To win the nomination, Warren must pilfer some of Sanders’ acolytes and pacify the rest. And so, fatefully—and it seemed, reluctantly—she vamped on Sanders’ single-payer proposal until, inevitably, other Democrats compelled her to detail her own plan. Which has mired her in a swamp of controversy she must have understood would follow.
No doubt Warren hates this turn of events—nationalizing healthcare has never been her passion. But now she’s stuck with it. Her dilemma encapsulates the Darwinian dynamics of the Democratic field: Four top-tier candidates drawn into an ever-tightening circular firing squad which, by the end, may grievously wound its sole survivor.
Forget the national polls. More enlightening is the latest New York Times/Siena College poll of Iowa Democrats which shows Warren, Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden bunched within a 5-point range. None seems positioned to lap the field. And while Warren leads, the poll found more sentiment among primary voters for improving the private health insurance system than for scrapping it in favor of single-payer. Moreover, both Warren and Sanders are sufficiently well-funded and popular that neither can easily vanquish the other. For the foreseeable future, they are Siamese twins.
Nor do their moderate competitors show obvious breakaway potential. While climbing, Buttigieg appeals most to highly-educated white folks; despite his presumptive generational appeal, he trails Warren and Sanders among young people. As for Biden, his base of support is concentrated among older voters, which calls into question his room to grow a larger and more passionate base of support.
Viewed with a gimlet eye, all four front runners have significant liabilities.
Biden is a nostalgic figure wafted by a vice presidency which obscures his past failures as a presidential candidate. In 2019 his cracks are showing. A majority of Times poll respondents expressed doubts about running a candidate over the age of 75. His fundraising deficit and unsteadiness in debates make him susceptible to Buttigieg among moderate voters, leaving him squeezed between the progressivism of Warren and Sanders, and the appeal of a lightly experienced candidate, half his age, who nonetheless seems quicker and surer.
In this context, Biden’s history of two brain aneurysms lingers. But perhaps his biggest problem is familial: His indulgence of his youngest son’s blatant peddling of putative influence in the Ukraine, despite an absence of genuine qualifications, reeks of all that many voters loathe about our politics. His campaign’s excuse—that Hunter Biden broke no laws, and that Biden was too consumed in mourning his older son’s death to demand that Hunter find a more seemly source of income—unduly sentimentalizes Biden’s indulgence of sleaze-as-usual.
While these transgressions pale in comparison with those of the Trump family, they tarnish Democrats’ ability to attack Trump’s ethical cesspool. But, by now, Biden’s early dominance has choked off aspiring centrists such as Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, and Steve Bullock who might, in the end, have run a better race. In their stead, we have a newly-minted moderate, a small-city mayor.
No doubt that Buttigieg is preternaturally gifted, perhaps even a generational talent. He also has unsung gifts as a political assassin. Having neatly dispatched Beto O’Rourke, he rightly discerned that the path to marginalizing Biden lies in not in attacking him, but in confronting Warren.
The last debate revealed his recalibrated strategy: by cornering Warren on single-payer, to great effect, he repositioned himself as the moderate alternative. From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, one could hear the Democratic donor classes cheering.
Therein lies Mayor Pete’s main chance, and his worrisome limitations. Beneath his call for generational change lives a pragmatist with few distinctive ideas, and a dangerous weakness among African-American voters. In a field of white frontrunners, he is the quintessence of whiteness: the privileged, establishment meritocrat.
Sound harsh? In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, Biden leads among nonwhites with 31 percent, followed by Warren and Sanders at 20 percent apiece. And Buttigieg? Two percent.
His problem with black voters is not simply that many are culturally uncomfortable with his marriage to another man. His tenure as South Bend’s mayor has been marked by difficulties with the black community; his firing of a popular black police chief; his failure to diversify the police force; the fallout from the dubious police shooting of an African-American. Nor does his cogent, but buttoned-up, style match more accessible white politicians with racial crossover appeal, such as Joe Biden or Bill Clinton. Whatever the reasons, Buttigieg has been unable to establish a rapport with this indispensable Democratic voting bloc.
Similarly, his political flexibility inspires both admiration and mistrust. He has largely jettisoned his early pitch as the candidate of generational change, a quasi-progressive who would decriminalize the border, abolish the Electoral College, and restructure the Supreme Court. Instead, Buttigieg has adopted Biden’s centrist persona as a unifier who would reach out to Republicans and heal the divisions aggravated by Trump, while importuning the party’s donor classes in finance and tech. While this suppleness better positions him to win the nomination and contest the general election, it also arouses considerable wariness among party progressives.
For them, Bernie Sanders is the gold standard: an immutable truth teller who transformed the policy debate among Democrats. But in Mayor Pete’s efforts to sideline Biden by eviscerating Warren on policy grounds, Sanders is his best friend: by serving as a roadblock to Warren among progressives, Sanders limits her rise and hamstrings her freedom of movement. Buoyed by hard-core supporters, formidable grassroots fundraising, and an unyielding ideological commitment, Sanders is in this for the long haul. Not since Hubert Humphrey has a candidate seemed likely to keep running from beyond the grave.
While no longer the socialist sensation of 2016, in some ways Sanders is a better candidate. This time around, he’s making inroads among African-Americans and especially, Hispanics. Thus the redoubtable AOC, a symbol of youth, progressivism, and diversity among left–Democrats, has rallied to his side. All this keeps Warren from tacking toward the center. Were it otherwise, she would never have embraced a healthcare proposal which wasn’t her idea.
Her efforts to avoid this trap were palpable—by the end, her stations of the cross on single-payer became painful to watch. First, she cautiously ventured that there were multiple paths to universal coverage. Caught in the oversimplifications of debate, she then allowed that “I’m with Bernie.” But, unlike her many other policy proposals, she assiduously avoided the particulars. Pressed to specify how she would fund this phantasm without raising taxes on the middle class, she hewed to a formulaic recitation that overall costs to the middle class would go down, patently dodging the question while compromising her reputation as the unflinchingly candid master of detail.
Unsurprisingly, this proved unsustainable—as Buttigieg briskly established by nailing her in the third debate. Thus cornered, Warren eventually produced a 20-page white paper describing a $20.5 trillion plan to fund Medicare for All over a decade without raising taxes on the middle class.
As is her wont, this blueprint is admirably detailed and buttressed by consultation with serious and experienced experts. But it mires her in the hydra-headed problems of single-payer healthcare. By ramping up taxes on corporations and the wealthy in order to transfer the entire American healthcare system to the federal budget, she risks moving beyond the boundaries of even the considerable public appetite for taxing the rich. And because other reputable experts argue that the cost will far exceed Warren’s estimate as well as her means of paying for it, the specter of a middle-class tax hike remains.
More broadly, her new healthcare proposal makes Warren an avatar of federal intervention in the way that her other proposals—such as free college, universal childcare, and student loan forgiveness—have not. It pricks the distrust many Americans feel about the federal government, and strips millions satisfied voters of their private healthcare coverage. While she may be right that her plan reduces overall costs to the middle class, it leaves her with the task of explaining an extremely complex proposal to wary Americans whose votes she needs to win.
Worst of all, she has crossed the Rubicon on single-payer, making any strategic retreat exceedingly difficult.
Her opponents are using her proposal to define Warren in their own terms: Biden and Buttigieg castigate it as too radical and awash in fuzzy math; Sanders deems it inferior to his own. And while single-payer is popular among hard-core Democratic primary voters, the latest New York Times poll of swing states suggests that critical voting blocs prefer a more moderate Democrat. This would seem to be an engraved invitation to embrace positions most voters actually like. This year, that’s not single-payer.
In truth, all the contenders have significant problems in a general election match-up with Trump; none have the gifts of a Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. It is hard to watch Joe Biden in debate without holding one’s breath. When one envisions the primary map, one can imagine him as the walking dead.
His newly moderate understudy, Mayor Pete, has a serious problem with minorities which means that, almost surely, he must pick a running mate of color—most likely a woman. That raises an unpleasant but unavoidable and, for now, unanswerable question: can a gay white man and, say, a black woman successfully navigate an Electoral College map tilted toward Trump. A second question is whether, after savaging Warren, Buttigieg could rally young the people and progressives who thus far have disdained him.
Warren’s problems are the obverse: she is married to a healthcare program which leaks votes and positions her to the left of much of the electorate, leaving her to puzzle how she can propitiate that crucial combination of minorities, suburban swing voters, and persuadable blue-collar whites she needs to win states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
While Sanders is unlikely to win the nomination, he is easy to underrate. Indeed, he polls better in swing states than anyone but Biden. Still, one suspects that, under withering attack as a self-proclaimed socialist, in a general election he would start to evoke such left-wing losers as George McGovern. And his recent heart attack, no matter how hale he looks, would dissuade some voters from making him our oldest president ever.
Add to this a clash between donor bases which exemplifies the potential schism menacing the eventual nominee. In a salutary development, Sanders and Warner are funded by small grassroots donors. But Biden and Buttigieg rely on traditional donors and bundlers, a privileged group who expect a return on their investment—and some of whom despise Warren more than Trump. This augurs a potentially ugly financial arms race for the soul of the party, with consequences that will linger until November 2020.
This fractious picture will require an unusual level of maturity and commitment among the party’s constituent groups. Moderates and progressives will have to ask themselves why they are Democrats, and whether their differences would justify the reelection of the most destructive president in, at least, modern history. And both wings should remind themselves that, given gridlock, the policies which progressives embrace and moderates fear are unlikely to pass.
Each of the Democratic front runners, no matter their defects, would help restore America simply by embracing the constitutional norms and civic decency that Trump has undermined. It is this, above all, which Democrats must remember.