Debating Republican Talking Points: Bad Strategy or Good Practice for the General Election?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Based on my reading of much of the recent commentary from so-called centrists and NeverTrump conservatives, it appears that they experienced something of a group orgasm in watching this week's Democratic presidential not-at-all-debates.  Why?  Because they have convinced themselves that the less liberal candidates brutally exposed the supposedly crazy liberals for being totally unrealistic about health care.  In the estimation of this pearl-clutching crowd, Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders were laid low by the cold reality of centrist logic.

This is nonsense, of course, but it would nonetheless be useful to learn something about how progressives can change the framing of the health care debate going forward.  More generally, it is important to understand the difference between a healthy debate and an unhealthy debate at this stage of a campaign.

The short version of my argument below is that it is not at all healthy to frame opposition to Sanders and Warren on health care (or other Democrats on other issues) in ways that reinforce Republican narratives.  There is a way to hone arguments and to develop responses to Republicans' attacks, but that requires making clear that that is what we are doing.

The people who were happy with the purported comeuppance of the wild-eyed liberals have pushed back against the "Why are we debating Republican talking points?" cry by saying, in essence: Grow up!  The Republicans are going to hit your eventual nominee over the head with these things, so you should not get a pass by saying that Democrats should not attack Democrats.

As far as it goes, that is a fine point.  There is much to bemoan about the perma-campaign that Americans now endure, but at least it is true that we have time to see who can take a hit, who fades, and who can be in it for the long haul.  Senator Warren is currently the best example of this dynamic at work, because her persistence and hard work have allowed her at least to have temporarily pushed the whole ancestry thing out of her narrative.  Meanwhile, Joe Biden continues to underperform, and Kamala Harris is showing herself to be unsteady at key moments (but awesome in others).

And it is not merely stamina that is at work here, because it is genuinely true that candidates are able in the debates and throughout the campaign to respond to criticisms and either change positions (Biden on public funding for abortions) or announce policies (Harris on health care, Warren on everything) and then see where things go.

Even so, it is patently absurd to say that because some honest engagement on issues is healthy, all policy arguments are per se good.  Not everything that doesn't kill us makes us stronger.  Some lines of argument truly are damaging because they are damaging, and the damage lasts.

Maybe it is too much to expect gotcha-addicted moderators to frame the questions fairly: "Republicans have said that your position will bankrupt the country, so can you explain to voters here and now how you will respond effectively to that attack?"  Instead, we get: "Aren't you going to bankrupt the country?"  How would a viewer not have her opinion shaded by that setup?

The prime example of that kind of unfair framing from this week's debates is, of course, on health care.  As Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman put it: "Did you know that if liberals get their way and pass Medicare-for-all, you’ll have to actually pay for health coverage for the first time, when obviously everyone now gets it for free?  That was what you would have thought if you knew nothing about health care and listened to the way Jake Tapper of CNN framed the question during the Democratic presidential candidate debate on Tuesday night."

Waldman's point is that Tapper was obsessed with questions that amounted to asking, in Waldman's words: "Are you gonna raise taxes? Are you? Are you?"  That is a silly question, for what should now be a familiar reason: The current health care system imposes costs that we do not call taxes far in excess of what, say, a Sanders-like plan would call taxes.

Or, as Waldman put it colorfully: "Now if I said to you, 'I’ll increase your taxes by $2,000 but cut your premiums by $5,000, leaving you $3,000 ahead,' and you replied, 'That sounds terrible — I don’t want to pay higher taxes!' we’d all agree it would make you an idiot."  And it would.  This is not difficult, but somehow even fairly smart people like Tapper think that it is important only to talk about what we label a tax.

Again, maybe people like Tapper are simply too blinded by their need to generate viral moments to be fair about this.  I hope not, but I have long since given up on expecting journalists to stray from center-right framing and talking points.  But where do the candidates fit in?

Imagine that you are one of the candidates who truly believes that a Sanders- or Warren-style all-in public health care plan is likely to be an electoral loser.  As much as I believe that single-payer is the way to go, I can see that argument.  Like Waldman, I think that our political situation currently (even leaving out the fact that the Republican candidate in 2020 will be Donald Trump) is unable to process the ideas necessary to get enough people behind a change to single-payer.

But that does not mean that it is acceptable for a Delaney or a Hickenlooper to say that "we're going to lose if we nominate someone who is in favor of Medicare-for-all" or that "Bernie is going to tell people that their health insurance is illegal."  What should they say instead?

Here is something that a self-styled moderate Democrat could and should say, in response to a question like Tapper's: "We all know that current co-pays, deductibles, and everything else are bankrupting people and causing even Americans with health insurance to forgo needed care.  But Republicans are going to scream, 'Tax! Tax!! TAX!!!'  And if even Jake Tapper buys into that false framing, then it seems likely that many voters will be fooled, too.  That is a shame, because Bernie's plan truly would save money, but I fear that it is too easy for Republicans to lie about this in a campaign.  A less aggressive approach seems wiser, all things considered."

The key is that no Democrat should actually make and support a Republican argument in this campaign.  They can warn what Republicans will do, but they must be very clear that what the Republicans will do is deeply dishonest and harmful to most Americans.

Why does that difference not amount to mere semantics?  Because no one should be able to quote a Democratic presidential candidate (or advisor, or staffer, or donor) saying something that he knows (or should know) is false and that undermines what could become a key element of the party's platform.  It is simply not necessary to act as if the Republican talking point is true in order to ask for a response to it.

In other words, someone like Delaney could say: "Bernie, please tell me how you are so confident that the Republicans won't be able to demagogue this with dishonest stories about Big Government?  I know what you're saying, but we're years into this argument, and people still fall for the tax-tax-tax thing."

Among other things, that would allow everyone to later rally around a nominee and say, "I genuinely worried that we might not be able to get our message through the Republican fog machine, but now we must try and we must succeed.  And you know what our biggest asset is?  We have the advantage of not being the side that is lying."  Compare that with the situation in which a Hickenlooper (or a Biden) will later be peppered with accusations of flip-flopping and knuckling under to the Democratic liberal machine.

Is it too much to expect candidates not to press every advantage as they desperately try to rise (or even to show up) in the polls?  No, in fact it is the very minimum that we should expect of every Democrat.  The rule should be that we simply do not make specious and unfair attacks as if they are not specious or unfair.  We can, for example, have a real disagreement over whether to expand the Affordable Care Act or replace it, but no one should say that the other candidate's idea is something that it is not.

Adding to the noise here is the fact that conservatives (including some Democrats, but most prominently including NeverTrump former Republicans) remain committed to the idea that the health care system should not be made universal or even rational if doing so involves direct government action.  And even worse, some of these people seem truly not to be intelligent enough to understand why questions like Tapper's are biased.  What, you want taxes to go up?  It is infuriating but true that many of the people involved in these conversations are either too dim or too lazy to bother understanding what is going on.

Yes, if Elizabeth Warren becomes the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020, she will be well served by having developed clear answers to questions like: "Why shouldn't people be able to keep their health insurance if they like it?"  But the people who are her sparring partners should not be repeating the big lies that Republicans are going to throw at her.  It is possible to confront dishonesty without reinforcing it.