The Democratic presidential primary has worked to the party’s disadvantage by maneuvering its candidates into unpopular positions. This is not quite a crisis, but it is a serious danger that, if not redressed, could blow up in the party’s face.
Democrats have lots of room to run to attack President Trump from the left on economic and social policy while placing themselves on the right side of public opinion. And while the party as a whole has done so, the presidential contenders have been jostling to stand out by adopting a series of highly unpopular stances. To date, the following positions have been taken by some or all the candidates: replace all employer-provided private insurance with a government plan; decriminalize the border while also providing subsidized health insurance to undocumented immigrants; and provide reparations for the descendants of American slaves.
All these positions would likely be serious liabilities in a general election. What’s more, none of them would appear to stand any plausible chance of enactment in the next administration, given that the (current) House majority and (prospective, unlikely) Senate majority both require the support of Democrats far to the right of the presidential field. So these risks the candidates are taking do not bring with them a concurrent benefit. They’re not laying the ground for a sweeping new progressive agenda they can pass in 2021. They’re merely seeding Donald Trump’s attack ads.
Notice that the previous paragraph contains some qualifiers (“likely”; “appear to.”) Modesty is needed in making political projections. Public opinion is never completely fixed, and predicting the effect of any particular dynamic always involves some uncertainty. After Trump, we should retire terms like “unelectable” and its implication of total confidence in political outcomes.
But to acknowledge that we lack certainty about an effect is not to say we know nothing. There is a large body of research showing that voters tend to punish candidates that they perceive as holding extreme positions. Holding unpopular positions in fact tends to make a candidate less popular.
And yet, as obvious as this simple observation might sound, the progressive intelligentsia has devoted enormous energy to denying it. The defensive impulse against any “centrist” critique is so impulsive and so widespread that bad, even silly, political rationalizations for taking reckless positions are now flourishing.
Advocates of single-payer insurance dismiss polls showing wariness toward losing employer-sponsored insurance by insisting they can educate people out of this view:
The giveaway here is the phrase “once you explain to them.” That’s not how politics usually works. You can try to explain to people that they’ll be better off trading their employer-sponsored insurance for a government plan. And I agree — most people probably would be better off. But getting people to change their minds isn’t just a simple matter of explaining the facts to them. The other side gets to make arguments, too. There’s just no reason to believe Democratic arguments in favor of single-payer would persuade more voters than Republican arguments against it. It’s surely possible to turn people toward single-payer in a curated information environment where voters are exposed to one-sided arguments selected by advocates, but this has no bearing on real-world political outcomes.
An even more baffling argument for taking unpopular stances is that the Republicans are going to lie anyway, so who cares? “Neither Warren nor those around her have ever bought into the idea that proposals like [eliminating private insurance] are sufficiently potent ammunition for Republicans to warrant backing off,” reported my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti recently, “It’s common for her supporters, and Sanders’s, to point out that Republicans will likely accuse Democrats of wanting the most extreme possible version of their policies anyway — open borders! Full socialism! Gun confiscation! — regardless of the identity of the nominee, so moderating to avoid that is a fool’s errand that would only alienate their own backers.”
This view is, quite simply, insane. Obviously, Republicans are going to say all kinds of nasty and frequently false things about the Democratic nominee. But there’s an enormous difference between a world in which Republicans accuse a Democrat of holding an unpopular position, the Democratic candidate denies it, and mainstream media treat the charge as sketchy or false, and a world in which the Democratic candidate openly advocates an unpopular position.
Dave Roberts, a writer for Vox, brought up the death-panels smear to support his point that Democrats should not worry about being attacked for unpopular positions:
It’s true that Republicans claimed Barack Obama’s health-care plan created death panels. But only about 40 percent of the public believed the lie. If Obama had actually stood onstage and promised to enact death panels, the number would have been a lot higher than 40 percent, and Obamacare probably could not have passed. It’s hard for me to understand how the lesson from this episode is that Democrats should go ahead and endorse unpopular policies.
What’s concerning here is not so much the concrete position as the process by which it has been arrived at. The Democratic nominee can try to back away later from some of the positions she endorsed in the primary. (Though the more radical the positions, and the more unambiguous the endorsement, the harder it will be to back away.) But Democrats seem to have actually drunk the Twitter Kool-Aid and convinced themselves taking unpopular progressive positions can’t hurt them. They are not merely arguing against the avoidance of unpopular positions on specific issues, but dismissing it as a consideration altogether.
The nominating process has almost a year remaining. If they keep trying to outflank each other to the left, taking the position that gets the most applause from the debate stage and retweets without any thought to how it will play in the general election, then the damage could be severe.
Donald Trump is an unpopular incumbent. His best chance of winning reelection is to remind people the country is doing okay despite his antics, and to convince them the Democrats pose a bigger danger. Democrats can inspire their voters and make the case for change without accommodating him.