Thursday, February 21, 2019

Damaging Infighting Among Those Who Want to Beat Trump

by Neil H. Buchanan

In a pair of Verdict columns this week, I assess the state of play in the incestuous overlapping worlds inhabited by politicians and political pundits.  Specifically, I argue first that there is no reason to be surprised that Donald Trump and the Republicans are screaming "Socialism!! Aaahhhh ..." in response to anything and everything that comes from the mouth of a Democrat.

It is not only that Republicans continue to have nothing popular to offer the voters, but also that they think that they can run an entire campaign by refusing to define the word socialism even as they shout it relentlessly.  Their entire strategy is to make everyone associate bad things with that word. and actually defining it would rob it of its mythical powers.  It is the perfect marriage of Trump's fear-mongering and Republicans' longstanding belief that any attempt to rein in the extremes of capitalism is a Marxist plot.  Fear the commies!

I next argue in today's column that the anti-Trump pundit class needs to stop reinforcing the "Democrats are turning too far to the left" narrative that has recently become popular.  Some, such as Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, seem to simply feel on a gut level that they hate Bernie Sanders, apparently because he dares to call his brand of politics democratic socialism.  That Sanders's actual policy positions are not at all radical -- that they are, in fact, indistinguishable from the liberalism that has been utterly mainstream since the 1930's -- seems not to matter to those who allow labels to substitute for content.

But the larger problem is that this claim that the Democrats have "gone too far" is being turned into an assertion that their embrace of what are actually quite popular policy positions is "giving Trump an opening."  Again, there is no opening, and Trump and the Republicans would do what they are doing no matter what.  The danger is only that this group of hyperventilating pundits is repeatedly validating a false narrative.

There is, however, a valid concern about how the Democrats handle themselves, which has to do with internal purity tests and infighting more generally.  It is worth thinking about that potential problem a bit here.

Health care continues to be a major issue for Americans, and it is a winning issue for Democrats.  Even after a decade of railing against the incrementalist Affordable Care Act, Republicans lack any plan to improve what is still a deeply dysfunctional health care system.  Even worse, they (working with Trump) are actively undermining the very real improvements that the ACA made possible.

Senator Kamala Harris came under fire recently for saying bluntly that she would like our health care system no longer to include private insurance companies.  She wants, in other words, to move to some kind of a universal single-payer plan (like Medicare, but for all).  So do I, and so does almost anyone who has honestly looked at how health care should be organized (and who is not ideologically against "socialized medicine").

As Barack Obama pointed out, however, we currently have a system that relies on private insurers, and it is unrealistic -- both practically and politically -- to imagine that we can simply dump the current system and replace it tomorrow with the preferred alternative.  Harris plainly knows this, and she acknowledged that there would obviously have to be a transition period.

Because she is in the early days of her presidential candidacy, it makes no sense to provide a detailed plan with specific time frames and all that.  Nevertheless, she did take some flak for supposedly "walking back" her embrace of single-payer.  Was she insufficiently pure?  I hardly think so (and I say this as someone who continues to be unconvinced that Harris is the best candidate).

After all, it is simply true that many people fear change, and we often forget (because there are so many people with bad health insurance, or none at all) that many people are willing to put up with their current insurance plans, at least until they are truly convinced that they are not jumping into an abyss.  Therefore, if Harris's initial statement sounded like she was saying that she would suddenly kick everyone out of their current plans, then she needed to clarify that statement.

Virtually nothing in the realm of public policy literally happens overnight.  (We may soon see a major exception, if "hard Brexit" actually happens on March 29.)  Arguing about the speed of change can sometimes be even more important than arguing about the nature of the change itself, and because everyone knows (even if some will not say so out loud) that there have to be transition periods, it is both healthy and inevitable that we discuss transition rules.

Speaking of Brexit, The Post's E.J. Dionne (who is, I think, one of the best columnists out there, although he occasionally drinks the insider kool-aid a bit too much) argued yesterday that the British Labour Party's current difficulties provide a lesson for Democrats.  Initially, his argument sounded depressingly like the Rubin-style "Democrats are blowing it by being Bernie-socialist loonies," but that was not his point.

Most importantly, of course, Dionne pointed out that the Democrats simply are not "left" in the sense that Labour has become a leftist party.  On any of a number of policies, I might actually prefer Labour over the Democrats, but that is irrelevant to the point that the Democrats are -- in every meaningful sense -- a centrist party.  Dionne might overstate the degree to which Democrats have moved from Clinton/Obama center-right to center-or-center-slightly-left, but no matter.

Putting aside the ugly problem of anti-Semitism that is currently roiling Labour, what is the lesson that Dionne wants Democrats to learn from their lefty cousins?  It is not that the Democrats need to return to Clinton-era defensiveness about their liberal commitments, even though Dionne is far too forgiving of Bill Clinton, crediting him with "creating a middle-of-the-road politics that sought to accommodate the left to the market rhythms of the Reagan and Thatcher eras."  That description oddly ignores the damage that Clinton and his misnamed New Democrats wrought for real Democrats (which is a big part of the explanation for people's lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton's candidacies, since she was inevitably associated with her husband's brand of talking like a liberal while governing like a conservative).

Again, however, Dionne's point is not that Democrats are taking bad policy positions or making bad strategic choices.  He worries, rightly, that they are going to lapse into intramural sniping that will truly be damaging to their chances of beating Trump next year.  Labour's infighting is tearing the party apart, which is especially unfortunate because the Tories are so vulnerable right now.  Trump and the Republicans are deservedly unpopular, and Democrats need to remember who they are really fighting.  (And it is not the People's Front of Judea, or the Judean Popular People's Front.)

This is, then, Dionne carrying forward Professor Dorf's argument from last month that "Trump is an existential threat to American democracy, world peace, and the habitability of planet Earth. Even a small diminution in the likelihood of defeating him in 2020 is too high a price to pay" for even a principle that would be fully defensible in another context.

The problem is not that Democrats are offering unwise policy positions.  It is, as I argued in today's Verdict column, that some pundits are wrongly accusing the Democrats of having gone crazy and losing votes in the process, which could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And that, too, is a version of the problem that Dionne and Dorf both identify.  Democrats cannot beat each other up over relatively minor matters (such as the specifics of Medicare-for-All), and anti-Trump conservatives need to take the same advice and stop the infighting with the people who want to beat Trump.  The stakes are too high.


David Ricardo said...

This is a good post, good in the sense that it stimulates discussion and polite (I hope) disagreement. Start with this.

“That Sanders's actual policy positions are not at all radical -- that they are, in fact, indistinguishable from the liberalism that has been utterly mainstream since the 1930's “

Not necessarily. Free medical care and free college have not been a part of the mainstream Democratic positions since the 1930's. Sanders' position on these and other issues are truly a substantial change. This may not be bad, and the policy positions of Sanders should be debated. But it would seem to be a stretch to say that Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson etc advocated the policies that Bernie is advocating.

“ She wants, in other words, to move to some kind of a universal single-payer plan (like Medicare, but for all).  So do I, and so does almost anyone who has honestly looked at how health care should be organized (and who is not ideologically against "socialized medicine"). “

There are a huge number of health care economists and others like myself who deplore the current system. But that does not mean we want to embrace a single payer insurer system. For many of us the problem is not who pays but the 'fee for service' structure which highly incentives extreme inefficiencies. Just having government provide insurance without changing the 'fee for service' structure will not solve the rising costs of health care. If someone will explain how Medicare for All will solve the problem of horrific drug prices, since current Medicare has done little to stop the rises then maybe we will be more amenable to the concept. But as Mr. Buchanan points out Sen. Harris along with other advocates for that position are not forthcoming with details or timelines.


“ Democrats cannot beat each other up over relatively minor matters (such as the specifics of Medicare-for-All), and anti-Trump conservatives need to take the same advice and stop the infighting with the people who want to beat Trump.  The stakes are too high.”

is a good recommendation but fails to take into account the reality of politics. And while the concern is a good one, it is likely that no matter how vitriolic the primary campaign, anti-Trump individuals of all political persuasion will come together to work against the re-election of the man. Look at how bitter the folks like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz were in the run up to the election of Trump, and look at how they supported him and where they are now. Politics and the public have short memories, in this case that's a good thing.

David Ricardo said...

Per my second point

egarber said...

That link to the second Verdict column seems to reference an old blog post. Is that intended?

egarber said...

It's sort of weird. Beto's comment below is being interpreted as "to the right of" whoever. But in truth, what Democratic candidate disagrees with the thrust of this? Every candidate supports private job growth, as a fundamental matter.

"“I’m a capitalist. I don’t see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without, in part, harnessing the power of the market. Climate change is the most immediate example of that." - Beto O'Rourke

egarber said...

On Beto's comments, all Democratic candidates support the notion of the private market amortizing / commercializing alternative energy solutions. We'll never solve the problem without it. So who's fault is it that the corollary of his comments must be that OTHER candidates therefore support something drastically different? Is that a form of infighting? Or is the collective party allowing Republicans to set the terms of the debate - i.e., the real battlefield is the war over "labels"? One thing is for sure: the whole thing makes our discourse dumber and dumber each cycle.

Shag from Brookline said...

The Rreen New Deal is a general proposal. Recall FDR's campaign for his 4th term, proposing a "second bill of rights." Unfortunately FDR died early in his 4th term and there was no implementation of his proposal as WW II was coming to an end. There's some commonality of the Green New Deal proposal with FDR's proposal for a "second bill of rights. Had FDR lived longer in his 4th term, perhaps he could have persuaded Congress to adopt parts of his proposal. Truman, unfortunately, remained to be "accepted" as FDR had been.

To counter Republicans's claims of socialism against Democrats by focusing on the Green New Deal, Democrats should respond with the Trump/GOP Green Fast shuffle with the 2017 tax bill benefitting primarily the wealthy and corporations with the greenbacks, followed by little investment, not paying for itself, increasing deficits, capitalism at its worst, further expanding the inequality gap. Perhaps restoring the tax laws in effect before the 2017 tax act could jump start some aspects of the Green New Deal proposal. The 2017 tax bill was a fast shuffle. Democrats should put the cards on the table for all to see.

Shag from Brookline said...

Republicans have long challenged Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, decried as socialism. But the real complaint was that these programs in providing safety nets for many also provided voters for Democrats. Republicans challenged Obamacare for the same reasons. (Consider that FDR's proposed second bill of rights addressed medical care.) Republicans fought Obamacare tooth and nail, spending over 6 years trying to repeal and replace it, something they were unable to do with the election of Trump in 2016 and controlling both houses of Congress. Much of the voting public wants and needs the basic benefits of Obamacare.eventually putting it along side Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as safety nets for many. voters. Compare this to the motivations of the Republicans for their 2017 tax law, that primarily benefits the top 1% and corporations, such that Republicans hope to rely upon political tithing of campaign contributions by the primary beneficiaries from their tax savings. Such tithing gives the 1% greater "speech" power to support Republican candidates. Democrats have challenged the low tax rates for the wealthy that exacerbates the growing income inequality since 1981.

Trump's MAGA theme doesn't clearly identify when America was great as a goal to reclaim. Some look back to the post-WW II days. Consider what the tax rates on the wealthy were back in those days compared to today's rates. Democrats have pointed this out. But Republicans cry out with "Socialism" when Democrats do so.

Progress is not made in great leaps and bounds. Often it's two steps forward, one step back. The Green New Deal is a proposal, just like FDR's proposed second bill of rights. Democratic candidates need not be in exact lockstep, but should be going in the same basic direction. They can share good ideas without creating political disharmony.

Joe said...

Thanks for the last two comments, Shag.