How Not to Be a Republican

by Neil H. Buchanan

In my new Verdict column, published this morning, I return to the Democrats' intramural feud over Elizabeth Warren's Medicare-for-All plan.  Back when she had not yet released the details of her plan, the self-styled reasonable centrists claimed that she was being vague because she refused to "admit" that her plan might involve having people pay taxes.  As I wrote at the time (those days of yore known as three weeks ago), it was not Warren but her detractors who were being evasive, because they were pretending not to notice all of the non-tax costs that our health care system imposes on people.

Now that Warren has released a detailed financing plan -- one that does not, in fact, raise taxes on the middle class -- the arguments from her opponents have only become more absurd. The title of today's column (Dear Mayor “Extremely Vague” and Senator “Pipe Dream”: Put Up or Shut Up), is of course a reference to the oh-so-clever zingers that brought the punditocracy to its feet for Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.

The "put up or shut up" part is simply an extension of my earlier critique, which is that they have been getting a free pass even though they have not described anything that comes even close to a non-vague plan.  In particular, I quote New York Times columnist Elisabeth Rosenthal: "Medicare for All, Medicare for All Who Want It, a public option, improving the Affordable Care Act—those are 30,000-foot concepts that, depending on the details, could work (or not) and be popular (or not)."  I echo her call for the non-Warren/Sanders candidates actually to put something out there that can be attacked, in the way that they are attacking Warren and Sanders.

And to be absolutely clear, there is nothing wrong with (and everything right about) attacking one another's policy proposals.  No one could have expected that Warren's release of her detailed financing proposal would end the debate.  I would have hoped that the arguments against it would have been better than the incoherent snark so far from Joe Biden's campaign (which I discuss at length in the latter half of today's Verdict column), which simply blows my mind.

But attacking and criticizing each others' plans is what candidates do.  Sometimes, the exchange is even outright nasty, and that can be appropriate (or at least acceptable), too.  Talking like Republicans, however, is not at all what they should do.  Unfortunately, not only are the non-Warrens talking like Republicans, their feelings are getting hurt when they are called out for talking like Republicans.  They need to get a grip and understand the difference between disagreement and damaging disagreement.

A new front has now opened up in the Warren-versus-Biden et al. debate, and it helps to clarify what is not at all acceptable in a primary campaign.  As many liberal observers (including me) have been saying for some time, the attacks on Warren from the Biden/Buttigieg crowd are not merely attacks, they are precisely the attacks that one would expect to hear from Republicans.  "C'mon, Liz, admit it, you'll raise taxes, right?" is not merely incoherent in all of the ways that I have discussed in many of my recent columns, it draws from and reinforces the idea that taxes are simply bad.

And that is not something that Democrats should say, because ultimately Democrats believe in a capitalist system that necessarily includes government activity to correct market failures, to provide public goods, and to push back against the excesses of unbridled greed.  All of which requires taxes and spending, which means that the "tax-and-spend liberal" tag ought to be trivial, but Republicans have made it politically potent; and it becomes more so when Democrats act as if they are ashamed about even proposing taxes (especially of the very progressive sort that Warren champions).

Klobuchar stumbled upon the key distinction in the last debate, although she clearly did not understand that there was a distinction.

Before getting into that, however, I must add as an aside that I find it depressing that Klobuchar is among those who are hectoring Warren, because so much of what is happening is obviously a sexist double standard in which the guys are allowed to get away with smarm and mansplaining and Warren is held to a "but does it all add up -- under our terms of the debate" standard.  Having Klobuchar join in with the "pipe dreams" stuff, especially when she has no clue as to how her centrism will have any more success against Republican obstructionism than Warren would have, is sadly reminiscent of high school girls joining the boys in attacking the nerdy girl.  I do not at all believe that Klobuchar intends to do this, but her chiming in makes it more difficult to call out the sexism that is clearly motivating much of the way that Warren is being treated, both by her opponents and by pundits.

But for now, we can put all of that aside and get back to the point that Klobuchar tried to make.  In that debate, Warren was again -- completely accurately -- calling out Biden and the others for making "Republican talking points" in their attacks on her.  Klobuchar responded: "I’m tired of hearing, whenever I say these things, oh, it’s Republican talking points. You are making Republican talking points right now in this room by coming out for a plan that’s going to [be kicking 149 million people off their insurance]."

The problem is that Klobuchar cannot tell the difference between "something that Republicans say" and "something that Republicans attack."  She is right that Warren's positions are anathema to Republicans and therefore that attack ads will be written about Warren's supposedly heavy-handed socialism.  She is wrong that Warren is repeating Republican talking points, which is what Klobuchar and her buddies are doing.

If you (like Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and the entire donor class of Democrats) think that Warren is making arguments that will turn off voters, then you would want her not to be the nominee, and you would want to distance yourself from her supposedly unpopular positions.  (That her positions are in fact hugely popular need not deter the Democratic establishment.). "Don't nominate her, because her proposals will lose the election" might not be true as a predictive statement re Warren in 2020, but arguments like that are what primary campaigns are in large part about.

It is, however, very important to make those arguments carefully, because it could end up that the person with whom you disagree will be your nominee.  "I wouldn't rush into Medicare-for-All, because I think the country isn't ready for it," is quite different from, "She hates freedom and wants to take away the private health care plans that everybody loves!"  And that is when one has crossed over into making Republican talking points.

Klobuchar, it turns out, is not the only Democrat whose feelings are hurt by being told that she is inadvertently doing favors for the Republicans.  Biden has now decided to attack Warren for being, of all things, an "elitist."  Why?  Here is the man whom no one calls Middle Class Joe (other than Biden himself) making the point:
"[T]hese kinds of attacks are ... condescending to the millions of Democrats who have a different view. It’s representative of an elitism that working and middle class people do not share: 'We know best; you know nothing.' 'If you were only as smart as I am you would agree with me.'"
It actually is much more over the top than that, but I edited for brevity's sake.

Biden, then, is arguing that when Warren tells him that he is doing the Republicans favors by reinforcing their worldview with a question like "But do taxes go up?" she is insulting middle-class Democrats who are not as smart as she is.  Yikes.  In fact, she is doing nothing more than telling Joe Biden  -- and it is becoming increasingly obvious that he views himself as the avatar of "working folks," so maybe he cannot tell the difference -- to stop talking like a Republican.

Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman nailed it perfectly with this response: "And with that, Biden responded to an arguably unfair criticism from Warren that he was repeating Republican talking points by … repeating a Republican talking point."  I cannot resist quoting some of Waldman's explanation here at length, because it is so pithy (and, for those who want to read the whole thing, there is more to enjoy in his column, especially about George W. Bush playing cowboy):
"There was precisely nothing in Warren’s remarks that suggested she was telling working and middle-class people 'you know nothing' and 'if you were only as smart as I am you would agree with me.' Where did he get that from? 
"As Biden knows full well, the 'elitism' attack is an old GOP favorite, one the party uses to deflect Democratic criticism of Republicans for doing the bidding of the wealthy and powerful, and to put focus on cultural affinity rather than policy and self-interest. Don’t look at our tax cuts and deregulation, Republicans say, because that Democrat hates you and everything you stand for! He doesn’t love Jesus! He doesn’t hunt! He doesn’t enjoy NASCAR! He’s an elitist who thinks he’s better’n you!"
Biden, therefore, has now talked like a Republican about taxes and health care, and then when he was called on that fact, he responded -- to a person who grew up poor in Oklahoma and worked her way up the academic ladder -- by calling her an elitist in exactly the way that Republicans would attack her.

One could, I suppose, respond: "But that's the point.  Warren shouldn't be the nominee because Republicans will paint her as this smarty-pants Harvard professor, and we'll lose the working-class white guys that we need to take back Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania."

Leaving aside the strategic question of whether those voters can be won back at all (or at what cost), this misses the point.  "Making Republican talking points" is not -- contra Klobuchar -- saying things that Republicans will attack in predictable ways.  It is attacking a fellow Democrat in ways that hurt the whole party, especially if the person being attacked ends up the nominee.

Even that last point, however, is not the whole story, because Biden himself will be hurt if he is the nominee of a party that he himself has said includes a lot of out-of-touch, tax-loving liberals.  Maybe he can try to pull a Bill Clinton-style "I'm not one of those Democrats" move, but this is not 1992, and Biden is going to do himself no favors if he starts telling people to ignore the liberalism of his own party.  In an election that will almost certainly be driven by turnout, how would the Democrats' most impassioned voters respond to Biden's distancing himself from them?

The point is that it is possible to disagree with one's temporary opponents without doing long-term damage to them -- or to yourself.  I hope that Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and the pundits who love them figure that out, very soon.

[Bonus: For those who caught the Monty Python reference in the title of this column, enjoy.]