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Debates show policy orthodoxy is up for grabs in today’s Democratic Party

The divisions within the party are not new, but trace back to at least the 2016  Clinton-Sanders divide, and they are a lot deeper than policy, but also speak to strategy and tactics.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

After two rounds and four nights of debates, clearly there is no consensus on what is now orthodox politics within the Democratic Party. The divisions within the party are not new, but trace back to at least the 2016 Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders divide, and they are a lot deeper than policy, but also speak to strategy and tactics. Potentially this is good news for President Donald Trump and bad news for Democrats as they seek to define a message, candidate, and strategy for 2020.

No scene or line better captures the Democratic Party division than Tuesday night’s  exchange between former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The former criticized Sen. Sanders, Warren, and the progressives for offering policies he thought too liberal by declaring, “Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises.” Warren retorted with, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

The Delaney-Warren schism is certainly about policy. Should Democrats embrace Obamacare, or some modification of it, or go for single payer? Should the party support racial or slavery reparations, decriminalize border crossings, or go head on against guns and the NRA? These and other policy choices also reflect a strategic choice: How can Democrats best win?

Theory 1: Dems need to move to the center to beat Trump

One theory is that for Democrats to win they need to move to the center to beat Trump. This strategy is that moving too far to the left will alienate moderate or swing voters who will either then again vote for Trump, or at least not vote for a Democrat. The latter is what happened in 2016 when evidence suggested not so much a Republican Trump surge but that the Democratic base did not turn out for Clinton. Clinton lost not so much because of policy but because either of sexism, a bad campaign strategy that took for granted many states, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, or many voters.

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Running a moderate or centrist against Trump is a continuation of the Democratic Leadership Council playbook that dates back at least to 1992 and Bill Clinton. Perhaps it even goes back to the Humphrey-McCarthy schism in 1968. It is the basis of the thinking why, despite his weak performance in two debates, so many Democrats continue to back Joe Biden for president. He is the safe old white guy to put up against another old white guy with the hope he will appeal to disaffected white working-class voters who will never consider voting for a woman, a person of color, or policy positions that are far to the left. Alternatively, Delaney and Sen. Amy Klobuchar try to argue this point.

Klobuchar’s presidential mantra is that she has won in Trump territory, from the Midwest, and is a moderate who can appeal to the white working class.

Theory 2: Running a centrist is old school

Theory two is that running a centrist is old school. Polls suggest a Democratic Party is moving further to the left as more conservative baby boomers and some Gen Xers are exiting the political system and are being replaced by more progressive millennials and Gen Zers. Appeal to them and bring in a new group of voters who have thus far only marginally been involved. Appeal to them and build a party for the future. This is what Sanders sought to do in 2016, and what he, Warren, and others are counting on in 2020. They see a party that has moved beyond the policies of the Clinton era that endorsed getting tough on crime and supporting unrestricted free trade. They see a party that has moved beyond the Affordable Care Act and Obama-era policies such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Clinton lost in 2016 because she was a terrible candidate who did not appeal to a new generation of voters. She had a backward-looking narrative that she claimed would appeal to centrist voters in red states. But that did not occur. She beat Sanders because the Democratic Party was rigged in her favor. The key to 2020 is: run to the left, combine class and identity politics, and motivate a new base to vote.

Empirically, there are obstacles to running to the right or left.

photo of article author
David Schultz
First, for the moderates, there is little evidence that there are very many swing voters who will shift from one party to another. Swing voting now is more about whether one swings into vote or stays home. Moving to the center will probably not yield many voters who move from Trump to a Democrat. Conversely, there is inconclusive evidence that moving to the left will bring in new voters. Sanders turned out large numbers of young people to rallies in 2016, but they did not show up to vote. Mobilizing the unregistered or disaffected is hard and costly to do, which is why so many candidates simply seek to appeal to existing voters.

Second, missing from both camps is a viable Electoral College strategy. Winning the presidency is not about the popular vote; it is about getting to 270 electoral votes. It is a 50-state campaign (plus the District of Columbia) and where because of demographics, only about 12 or so states are competitive. Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 lost because of a failure to understand how to campaign for the swing states. At least in 2020 and perhaps into the near future, the Republicans hold an advantage because of the way the Constitution allocates electoral votes.

Third, former University of Minnesota Professor and Brookings fellow Paul Light once quipped that any policy that can pass will not make a difference, versus any policy that will make a difference cannot pass. His point speaks to a problem with Democratic Party policy proposals. In the current polarized political environment, really no serious reforms that Warren, Sanders, or any others propose will pass. The chances Democrats will hold the House, the presidency, and get a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate are slim. Even if they do, as they did in 2008, significant policy reform to the left is unlikely. Left candidates probably cannot deliver on their promises.

Conversely, tinkering with the current policies will do little to address some of the more fundamental problems facing the United States. Tinkering and not making much of an impact — especially when it came to deindustrialization, globalization, and the rise of inequality — is what alienated many voters from the Democrats.

But ignoring the reality of race in education and criminal justice, or the economics of sexism, also hurt Democrats among voters who did not see a party responding to their everyday needs and concerns.

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There are other divisions within the Democratic Party. Within both the right and left there are also splits, contrasting visions, and dueling theories about why Democrats win or lose or what they need to do in 2020. In contrast to the Trump-Republican Party, there is no orthodoxy for what the Democratic Party represents.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” 


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