If you paid close attention to the Democratic presidential debate last week, you noticed something that Democrats might find disturbing. The two leading candidates — Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, probably in that order — both faced tough questions that could damage them in the general election. And neither appears prepared to defend themselves against what is coming.
Let’s begin with Biden, who has a simple problem with no clear solution. His son Hunter traded on his father’s name. In Ukraine, Hunter accepted a lucrative position on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. Burisma surely believed hiring the vice-president’s son would give it political juice with the United States government. It did not. Joe Biden’s positions as vice-president did not benefit Burisma. He advocated the good-government line that everybody else in the Obama administration and the (small-D) democratic world took, pushing out that country’s corrupt prosecutor. His substantively correct stance did not benefit Burisma in any form.
Yet this does not fully absolve either Joe or Hunter. The latter was implicitly selling access to his father, and the fact that he did not deliver it means that he essentially conned Burisma. At a minimum, the arrangement marginally spent down the moral capital of the American government and economy by promoting the perception that official favor can be purchased through family members of powerful officials.
Trump, of course, has degraded that moral capital a million times over with his open nepotism and self-dealing. The problem Biden faces is that it is difficult to communicate the nuance of his position. How do you simultaneously say: (1) Hunter Biden was wrong to take that job, and I was wrong to let him; (2) I did not take any official action that benefited his family; and (3) Trump is using this minor corruption as cover to enable oligarchical corruption several orders of magnitude greater?
Biden’s response to this dilemma has been to elide it completely. At the debate, he simply insisted he and Hunter had done nothing wrong while deflecting the inquiry:
Look, my son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States government in rooting out corruption in Ukraine. And that’s what we should be focusing on.
And what I wanted to make a point about — and my son’s statement speaks for itself. He spoke about it today. My son’s statement speaks for itself. [Changes subject to Trump.]
When the moderator pointed out that he was dodging, Biden merely repeated the refrain (“My son’s statement speaks for itself”). For human and understandable reasons, Biden is obviously reluctant to scold his troubled son in public. Yet the fact remains that his son’s behavior is an albatross for the father, and all indications suggest that if Biden wins the nomination, the damage from this relationship will only become more extensive.
Warren, for her part, faced yet another round of criticism over her refusal to acknowledge the financing mechanism of the health-care plan she has endorsed. The political weak point of Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All plan is that it would move 157 million Americans out of employer-sponsored insurance and onto Medicare. In theory, this should work out great. (I would be happy to trade my employer insurance for Medicare.) In practice, this requires persuading half the country to swap their current insurance for a government plan and to convert their health-care premiums (which are nontransparent and remitted directly by their employer, reducing their wages only indirectly) into taxes (which are paid directly). Poll after poll shows that both these changes turn the abstractly popular notion of broader coverage upside down.
Warren’s strategy is to dodge both objections. She has, in the past, avoided the question of people losing their employer insurance by saying nobody likes their insurance company. (That’s not true: People tend to express satisfaction with their current coverage.) On taxes, she changes the question to total cost and refuses to acknowledge that taxes will go up in the swap.
Warren’s admirers consider this dodge to be clever, but the most recent debate shows just how politically damaging it could become. The problem is that Sanders, who wrote the damn bill, openly admits taxes would go up. “I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up,” he conceded, while noting that “for virtually everybody, the tax increase they pay will be substantially less — substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expansions.” The contrast between one Medicare for All supporter honestly admitting how the plan would work and the other refusing to admit it did not make her look good. It gave her opponents an opening to cast her as shady, which they seized.
Pete Buttigieg pointed out that Warren’s response was “a yes-or-no question that didn’t get a yes-or-no answer.” Biden said, “It’s important to be straightforward with them,” and Amy Klobuchar added, “At least Bernie’s being honest here.” This is not merely a problem of Warren being associated with an unpopular policy. It is a question that is corroding her reputation for honesty, which is the foundation of her outsider, truth-telling brand.
As will Biden, Warren will find the reality that Trump is orders of magnitude worse to be of little value. Republicans have a party-controlled mass-media apparatus that has trained its rank and file to support liars, but the Democrats do not.
Warren painted herself into this corner by making an elementary mistake: She outsourced her policy position to a rival candidate. Sanders doesn’t care if he takes positions that poll horribly among the electorate as a whole — either he is genuinely invested in a magical-thinking theory of “political revolution” that sweeps away all electoral and legislative constraints or he’s running a message candidacy that isn’t even trying to win at all. By endorsing Sanders’s health-care plan, she gave him control of her message on the issue.
If Biden wants to beat Trump, he needs to put more distance between himself and his son. If Warren wants to beat Trump, she needs to ditch Bernie’s health-care plan and come up with one that doesn’t have political poison pills. The question with both candidates is, what steps are they willing to take to win?