Well, the first Democratic debates are now in the rear-view mirror, so I suppose I should write a few words about What It All Means.
First, on the Democratic horse race, which preoccupies many of us. It’s clear Kamala Harris helped herself quite a bit in terms of visibility and has seen an uptick in the polls. In the Morning Consult (MC) post-debate poll, she is on 12 percent as a first choice for Democratic voters, tied for third place with Elizabeth Warren.
But the basic structure of the race has not decisively changed (though of course it may down the line). Biden is on 33 percent, far in the lead, albeit down 5 points from pre-debate levels, while Harris is up 5 points to the aforementioned 12 percent. Sanders and Warren basically held steady. It’s also worth mentioning that Biden’s very high favorability rating barely budged as a result of the debate.
Harris is already experiencing a bit of blowback, including from some black politicians, for her premeditated hit on an incredibly divisive issue that left politicians like Biden struggling for political survival. The idea that Biden’s actions reveal him as some kind of racist is a hard sell. On the other hand, the idea that Biden isn’t ready for the kind of brutal attacks that Republicans and Trump will launch at him, should he be the Democratic candidate, is a much easier sell. That in the end could be the most important result of Harris’ successful rhetorical strike.
The more consequential result of the debates may not be its effect on the race for the nomination but rather its effect on Democrats’ ability to beat Trump. Here the news is fairly grim I think. Trump is an unpopular President and quite beatable. But that requires you keep the election a referendum on him and not unpopular Democratic ideas.
I had a post awhile ago where I listed the “four don’ts” of the 2020 Democratic campaign. To refresh your memory, here they are:
1. Reparations for the descendants of slaves. Preferred: social programs that disproportionately benefit blacks because of their income, education or geographic attributes.
2. Abolish ICE. Preferred: Reforming ICE + a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants + an actual immigration policy that includes border security and policies about future immigration levels.
3. Medicare for All that eliminates private insurance. Preferred: Medicare for Anyone or Medicare for All (Who Want It). Currently embodied in the DeLauro-Schakowsky Medicare for America bill.
4. A Green New Deal that commits to 100 percent renewable energy within 10 years. Preferred: A Green New Deal that focuses on jobs, infrastructure, research and promoting clean energy in all forms.
In the Democratic debates, several candidates besides the expected Sanders screwed up on the second don’t on how to handle Medicare for All, most notably Warren, who had previously been fairly cagey in how she handled the issue. But she aggressively put herself on the side of abolishing private health insurance, an unpopular position which could weaponize the health care issue for Trump and sink a Democratic candidate. Harris also declared her support for this approach but then, hilariously, claimed the next day she had misunderstood the question. Nice try.
On the third don’t, abolishing ICE, technically no one called for it, but they did aggressively compete with one another on how leniently to deal with border issues. In their zeal to show how much they opposed Trump’s cruelty on the issue, many candidates signed onto the idea that illegal border crossing should be decriminalized. Like abolishing ICE, this will sound to many voters like open borders, which is a terrible position for Democrats to be in. Americans want their borders to be controlled, with limits on the amount of immigration and asylum-seeking. If Democrats have a humane and workable way to deal with these issues, voters need to hear this, rather than proposals that sound like calls for a much looser border.
On the first don’t, reparations, there wasn’t much talk about it. Possibly Harris might have talked about the issue but she had other plans. However, by bringing up the busing controversies of the 1970’s, it potentially injects another divisive racial issue into the campaign. There is nothing in public opinion that indicates re-litigating this controversy would be particularly helpful for the Democrats. Quite the opposite; the country has moved on from this approach to dealing with de facto school segregation, which was and is quite unpopular.
Now, I get that this is the nomination process and a candidate can conceivably tack back to the center in the general and recant or “clarify” their unpopular issue positions But that’s easier said than done. It is wiser to give your enemy as little ammunition as possible. I fear many Democratic candidates, including some of the most plausible nominees, are ignoring this stricture.