Will the Democrats Self-Destruct?
March 10, 2019
The Democratic Party has a big image problem.
Two-thirds of registered voters believe that the Democratic Party supports socialism, according to a recent Harvard/Harris poll. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders may think that is great news, but the results must scare party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. They have to worry about winning elections, rather than ushering in the perfect society. In the poll, two-thirds of voters also said that the U.S. economy should be based on a “mostly capitalist” system. Those two numbers are not a winning combination for Democrats.
That is not surprising; America is not France. No major political party in the U.S. has ever advocated a socialist model for the country. Although a growing percentage of younger voters hold favorable views on socialism, Americans 50 and older remain adamantly opposed to it. That’s important, because turnout is higher among older voters than younger ones.
So the poll’s results should be a wake-up call for Democrat leaders. Socialism has not suddenly become a hot ticket in the U.S, despite Bernie Sanders’ popularity among lefty Democrats. The socialist label is still a club that Republicans can use to bash Democrats.
Donald Trump has already issued dark warnings about the threat of socialism in the U.S., starting with his State of the Union speech. Trump may make it one of his key themes in the 2020 campaign; other Republicans are eagerly following his lead.
When the Democrats introduced their election reform bill last week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), dismissed it as the work of “the democratic socialist majority”. McCarthy did not explain why making it easier to vote is a socialist concept. But in any case, we should expect this drumbeat of attacks to accelerate.
Moderates, not “Progressives”, Won the Midterms
Most Democratic politicians, of course, are firmly committed to our capitalist system, though they want a more robust safety net. Only a handful of members of Congress are socialists. However, they are high-profile and adept at dominating the airwaves. If mainstream Democrats can’t shake the socialist label, the Republicans will pound them relentlessly on this point.
This line of attack could hurt the Democrats’ chances of retaking the White House and threaten their control of the House of Representatives. After all, 31 Democratic Representatives serve districts that voted for Trump in 2016. The Democrats have a 36-seat majority, so it is vital that they hang onto these swing districts. Far-left “progressive” candidates generally did not fare well in the 2018 midterms; it was moderate Democrats, often competing in “purple” districts, who won the day.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is a democratic socialist, has been pushing far-left ideas since the day she arrived in Congress, at the ripe old age of 29. She has proposed a 70% tax on incomes above $10 million–a classic soak-the-rich tax. The New Green Deal that she co-sponsored calls for the Federal government to guarantee jobs for all Americans.
But was AOC elected to Congress in New York because she is a socialist...or because she is a Latina in a district that has become heavily Hispanic? AOC’s rise may simply reflect classic ethnic politics at work. She also ran a well-organized, grassroots campaign against an Irish-American incumbent who had become complacent.
Rashida Tlaib, a Muslim woman elected in Michigan, is the other democratic socialist member in the House. But the same question arises: did she win her election based on her socialist views or because she was an experienced local politician running in a poor, overwhelmingly Democratic district?
Of course, there is one very important socialist in the Democratic camp: Senator Bernie Sanders.
Drawing the Wrong Conclusions From 2016
Many Democrats believe that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election because of her centrist agenda. They think that the answer is to move to the left and present some big, bold ideas, as Sanders did in 2016. The senator certainly generated a lot of enthusiasm among younger voters, but that does not mean that voters were rejecting Clinton’s moderate political views. Democrats may be drawing the wrong lessons from her defeat in 2016.
The basic problem wasn’t Clinton’s ideas—it was that she ran a lousy campaign. Her speeches remained dull, as she recited a long wish-list tailored to various interest groups. Clinton focused far too heavily on identity politics (minorities) and did not reach out much to white working-class voters. She did not even visit Wisconsin. Clinton also carried a lot of personal baggage, such as the negative publicity related to her large fees for speaking at Goldman Sachs conferences and other possible conflicts of interest.
Sanders ran a superb campaign. He was fiery on the stump and, like Ronald Reagan, he hammered away at a few core themes. Unlike Clinton, he came across as authentic and passionate, and a man of great integrity. Many voters in the Democratic primaries chose to ignore that as a senator, Sanders had accomplished very little. And since Sanders never made it to the general election, he did not have to explain in detail how he would fund his proposals for Medicare for All and free tuition at public colleges.
Sanders has benefited from a generational divide among voters, but the numbers also show the risk of his candidacy to the Democrats. Fifty-six percent of voters aged 18-24, and 48% of those 25-34, favor a “mostly socialist” system. But that means about 50% of each cohort does not. Furthermore, only 27% of voters 55-64, and 22% of those over 65, want a “mostly socialist” system, according to the poll.
Socialism may become a powerful “brand” in US politics someday, but Democrats should not count on that happening by 2020.
Sanders’ Ideas Go “Mainstream” …But Are They Sound?
Sanders has crowed that his ideas have now become “mainstream” in the Democratic Party. However, that does not mean that they are good ideas or that they would be winning themes in 2020.
The estimated cost for Medicare for All is $33 trillion dollars over 10 years, or about $3.3 trillion a year. To put that in context, the total federal budget for 2018 was $4 trillion. Now let’s add the cost to the Federal government of funding free education at all state and community colleges. That is, if we could find a reliable estimate for that proposal.
To fund these initiatives, federal taxes would have to rise dramatically; you can be sure that Trump would hammer away at that issue in the election campaign. In an ironic twist, Sanders’ home state, Vermont, abandoned a single-payer health initiative, because the price tag scared voters.
In addition, under some versions of Medicare for All, private health insurers would be eliminated, as Sen. Kamala Harris noted in her blithe comment on that subject. That would require a dramatic change in our health care system, as the Federal government assumed coverage for 140 million Americans, and lead to large job losses. (Harris has subsequently walked back her comment.)
Nonetheless, many Democrats have fallen into line and are supporting Medicare for All. To their credit, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker have refused to jump on the bandwagon so far.
Do Americans really want the “political revolution” that Sanders calls for? Are they clamoring for expensive new programs and a massive expansion of the government?
Or do voters want sensible, "moderate" policies, such as:
Fixing the Affordable Care Act to fill the gaps in our health insurance system
Returning to normal tax rates (not 70%) for wealthy Americans
Re-imposing the estate tax, to limit large family fortunes (and concentrated political influence)
Restoring our infrastructure, which would also provide many blue-collar jobs
The Democrats found a winning formula in the 2018 midterms. Why not use it again?
The Wall Street Democrat