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.