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

Sen. Elizabeth Warren
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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.”

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.


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.


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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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 08/02/2019 - 09:46 am.

    Just as dislike, and even hatred, of Hillary fueled Trump’s election, I’m really hoping the same dynamic motivates Democrats this year. Not so much as what can you get passed of your agenda as stopping the damage this rotten excuse for a human is doing: stoking the racial divides; damaging long time alliances; trying to destroy a health care program instead of improving it; appointing people to head environmental and consumer agencies whose main aim is to gut them; becoming BFF’s with ruthless dictators. Could keep going and that’s not even touching the corruption, the lying, and the pettiness this guy displays each day.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/02/2019 - 11:04 am.

    Amen to Mike Chrun. I hope so, too.

    Hope, however – as they say (or at least SHOULD say) in sex ed classes when talking about birth control – is not a method.

    Democrats need to find a strategy and several tactics, to neutralize the schoolyard-bully name-calling attacks of Trump, McConnell and Emmer, among others. Further, and the most important point Professor Schultz makes, I think, is that the popular vote only sort-of matters in a presidential election. What really counts, and the reason why we’re now saddled with the Current Occupant, is the Electoral College. More than anything else, and no matter who the eventual Democratic nominee turns out to be, that candidate and the Democratic Party need to be smart – at least as smart as their opponents – about the electoral college.

    I do hope, personally, that the headline for Professor Schultz’s piece is at least somewhat accurate. The GOP at present has no ideas of consequence beyond lowering taxes and a desire to return to the halcyon days of the mid-20th century. To govern successfully – and repeatedly – the Democrats need fresh ideas, whether they come from creaky old political veterans or fresh-faced newbies. It’s possible to respect tradition without becoming a slave to it.

  3. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/02/2019 - 11:24 am.

    “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.””

    Well, I really like Elizabeth Warren and think she has the best, most well thought out ideas for moving this country forward.

    Unfortunately, most of her ideas are going to require a very progressive and cooperative 60 vote D majority in the Senate and consensus in the House.

    Here are the Senate seats needed to enable Warren plans:

    Mitch McConnell
    Steve Daines
    Bill Cassidy
    Lindsey Graham
    John Cornyn
    Cindy Hyde-Smith
    Dan Sullivan
    David Perdue
    Martha Mc Sally
    Joni Ernst
    Thom Tillis
    Susan Collins

    Maybe sad to say; but she is talking about things we really can’t do.

    • Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/02/2019 - 07:12 pm.

      If enough people are disgusted with Republicans in a year, a heavy election turnout will bury the Republican Party and many of Trump’s enablers. If the American people see Trump’s tax records and the economy goes south, it could happen.

    • Submitted by Tim Smith on 08/03/2019 - 12:54 pm.

      Not sad at all, very thankful a majority of Americans dont want her bankrupt policies.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 08/02/2019 - 11:49 am.

    There’s another conclusion Professor Schultz should address: The Democrats sure are interesting, even exciting to watch and listen to.

    They are, all of them, smart, and better informed than our current president is. They speak well–full sentences! They’re witty and actaully listen to each other in debate Imagine that concept! They have ideas, policies on which to express agreement or disagreement, all in the service of better lives for the greatest number of Americans.

    Contrast that, with Trump’s ugliness! No policies, no debates–you have to agree with The Supreme Leader or he will annihilate you. Take away your health care, take away the pension you earned over more than thirty years (he did that to FBI Director McCabe, one day before McCabe’s pension vested). Trump will sic goons and thugs on you for any perceived opposition to him.

    Many Republican Congressmen and women are retiring rather than have to defend Trump’s actions to their constituents, because they’re ashamed of those actions and their own silent consent to them. These are the canaries in the mine.

    I encourage all Republicans who voted for Trump to turn on the Democratic debates in September. You don’t have to commit yourself to anything; just listen to the talk.

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 08/02/2019 - 12:57 pm.

      That’s the problem with the Dems, it’s all talk. It’s always been all talk and no action other than obstruction (yes, the Repubs can obstruct just as well but they’ve also done many things).
      What have the Dems accomplished lately? Oh, yeah. Obamacare that everyone in both parties know has been a complete disaster.
      But they have done nothing. Hate Trump as much as you want, but he has delivered almost everything he campaigned on. He’s also shed light on some ugly things in this country because he wants them fixed. But all the Dems want to do is continue to hide all of it and label Trump and the Repubs.
      I’m not going to sway you on your beliefs and who you are going to vote for. The same goes for me. But at least stay off the usual identity labeling because both sides are completely ugly. A con that may seem smarter and more intelligent is still a con.
      It’s about what gets done. And everything the Dems are promising will never get passed. So either they are lying about what they will do or they are just putting policies out there to buy votes.

      • Submitted by Mike Chrun on 08/02/2019 - 04:01 pm.

        “Hate Trump as much as you want, but he has delivered almost everything he campaigned on.” Seriously?

        *That great big beautiful wall that Mexico will pay for?
        *We’ll have a better health care program after Obamacare?
        *That 1 trillion investment in infrastructure?
        *Drain the swamp?
        *Immigration “reform.”

        Those are 5 pretty big ones. That still leaves two points. Just because your great leader has promised and delivered, according to you, doesn’t mean he gets a pass on all the harmful stuff and buffonery. Second, Obama got us out of a deep financial crises and Obamacare wasn’t a “complete disaster.” Might want to switch off Fox at times. Many of his other aims were thwarted by Moscow Mitch under the philosophy of who cares if it’s good for people; we’re going to stonewall Obama on everything. Tac cuts and Supreme Court are basically what Republicans have sold out to.

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/02/2019 - 09:51 pm.

        “He’s also shed light on some ugly things in this country because he wants them fixed”

        Like telling four women of color to go back where they came from?

        Can’t he at least tell Bernie to go back to Poland for a little balance?

    • Submitted by Tim Smith on 08/02/2019 - 07:26 pm.

      Hey Constance, Thanks much for the offer, I may watch a little in September but have seen about as much as I can handle. The far left loudly trips all over themselves to give as much “free” stuff as they can. All the while the majority, centrist more quiet thoughtful part of the party is in touch with reality and is clearly going to win. We both share one issue, the swamp prevails.

    • Submitted by Tim Smith on 08/02/2019 - 08:57 pm.

      Who is retiring?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/05/2019 - 10:23 am.

      I say this as a Democrat – there was a lot of dumb and uninformed nonsense being spewed at the Democratic debates.

  5. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 08/02/2019 - 12:42 pm.

    If the Democrats take back the Senate, they can kill the filibuster if they stick together.

  6. Submitted by John Evans on 08/02/2019 - 01:08 pm.

    I’m not a fan of Clinton’s, but I think you’re being way too hard on her. Her candidacy had been tainted in advance by 25 years of concerted right-wing propaganda against her. A fantastic new Hillary conspiracy theory would surface, and receive substantial press coverage, every year. See if you can count ’em all!

    That’s largely why she started with such high negatives, and why there was always lingering suspicion of her among the electorate. For that reason, she was definitely the wrong candidate to nominate. But she was actually a very talented politician. At the retail level, she was very effective and amazingly, (frighteningly,) likable.

    The tactical errors of her campaign were minor compared to the inexplicable mountain of coverage about her private email server. This amazing nonstory dominated press coverage right up to election day. I have never seen any compelling justification for this bizarre and insistent press narrative. On election day, the story evaporated and today’s denizens of the West Wing freely use their private email accounts for public business.

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 08/03/2019 - 06:21 am.

    The veer to the hard left (open borders, healthcare for illegals) that is being thrown out there by candidates is damaging the party. When a moderate candidate shows the flaws in an issue (what it cost) they get accused of using “right wing talking points”.
    The winner of both debates was Donald J Trump.

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