intelligencer chats

When You’ve Lost Tom Friedman, Have You Lost America?

A pretty progressive posse. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Jonathan Chait, Benjamin Hart, Eric Levitz, and Jeb Reed discuss the possible perils of Democrats’ progressive immigration stances.

Ben: Here’s the Times’ resident stalwart voice of the center, Tom Friedman, today, writing about how worried he was, while watching last month’s primary debates, that Democrats will blow the 2020 election by moving too far to the left. The candidates’ treatment of immigration issues was one of his concerns:

“I was shocked that so many were ready to decriminalize illegal entry into our country. I think people should have to ring the doorbell before they enter my house or my country. I was shocked at all those hands raised in support of providing comprehensive health coverage to undocumented immigrants. I think promises we’ve made to our fellow Americans should take priority, like to veterans in need of better health care.”

Do you think there’s credence to the kind of argument Friedman makes here?

Eric: I guess the fact that Friedman doesn’t appear to understand what decriminalizing illegal entry means (crossing the border remains a civil offense punishable by deportation) doesn’t actually detract from his point. If a professional political commentator can’t grok that distinction, I suppose swing voters won’t either.

Jon: Exactly.

Eric: It is odd that the dynamics of the primary led so many candidates to go out of their way to make their positions sound more radical and/or controversial than they are in substance.

Jon: Having positions that are rational when explained, as opposed to positions that sound intuitively appealing without explanation, is generally a political liability.

In part, the dynamic in the primary is a huge field where candidates are vying to break out, and nearly all of them adopted the strategy of appealing to progressive activists by taking positions more bold than their opponents would be willing to, and in part this has been fed by progressives convincing themselves there is no cost, ever, to taking unpopular positions. The complicated corrective response to overreliance on crude median-voter theory, like you made, has given way to extremely simplistic views that treat the center as a complete myth, mobilization is everything, etc.

Jeb: Re: the Friedman column, Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum wrote this: “I have previously criticized Republicans who accused liberals of wanting ‘open borders.’ President Trump tweets about this endlessly. But I have to admit that it’s hard to see much daylight between Warren’s plan and de facto open borders.” And Ezra Klein said something similar on his podcast the other day. Seems like a pretty big problem.

Eric: Will Wilkinson disagrees on that point.

Jeb: I’m not judging it on the merits — it’s fine for Wilkinson to push back. But the convergence on that perspective by people like Klein and Friedman and Drum is meaningful.

Eric: Yeah, it’s potentially problematic. Maybe once those raised hands at the debate make it into GOP attack ads, we’ll see movement. But as of now, Democrats haven’t paid a clear penalty for moving left on immigration (beyond the penalty they’d already paid by 2016, from shifting their coalition away from white noncollege voters).

I agree with Jon that lefties can lean too hard on “They’re going to say X about us anyway.” But I feel like the charges from the GOP side on immigration have been so hysterical over the past two years — and there’s so much general noise about the issue — that I’m skeptical that the details of the Democrats’ immigration policies will matter much.

I think the party has an interest in reducing the salience of immigration as an issue (if at all possible). But I’m not sure how much difference there’ll be between having “repeal Section 1325” on the Dem nominee’s website versus not, though I agree that it seems like a somewhat needless risk given the prospects for actually passing that sort of measure and the limited consequences of doing so, relative to passing a pathway to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented people, which is overwhelmingly popular.

Jeb: Yeah, agree.

Ben: Jon, if you do think Dems have paid or will pay a price for the kinds of positions they’re taking now, is there a particular course you’d rather see them take?

Jon: Stop taking unpopular positions! Or, at minimum, prioritize one or two places to take a big risk if you think you can move people. But they can’t just stick their neck out on everything

Ben: So on immigration, which is what we’ve been talking about, was it a mistake to, say, offer undocumented immigrants health care?

Jon: That was a huge mistake. As a health-care-wonk friend of mine mentioned to me, they don’t even do that in Norway. It’s really unpopular!

In general, immigrant communities are not nearly as immigration-focused or as left wing on immigration policy as progressive activists.

Ben: “They don’t even do it in Norway” — GOP attack ad.

Does this also create tension between what the candidates feel they need to say in order to win a primary and where they probably need to go in order to beat Trump next fall?

Jon: Either (1) they’re worried only about the primary, or (2) they have bought the arguments circulating in progressive circles that totally dismiss the dangers of getting too far to the left of public opinion. The dismissal on the latter point is almost reflexive on Twitter now.

I think candidates have all decided they need to generate excitement in order to break out of the pack, and they’ve decided that doing this requires giving activists what they want — either for positive reasons (get the activists pumped) or negative ones (hard to create a movement when you’re getting dragged online). But the Biden vote shows a huge number of Democrats just want to win, and the field has ceded these voters to Biden, which helps explain why he’s staying on top despite a pretty crappy performance to date.

When You’ve Lost Tom Friedman, Have You Lost America?