The two-night Democratic debate this week was portrayed as a policy brawl between the party’s moderate and left wings. But what we really saw in Detroit were debates between the party’s left and the far left.
On Tuesday night, the so-called moderates offered dire warnings about the socialist policies advocated by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper cautioned that “last year Democrats flipped 40 Republican seats in the House, and not one of those 40 Democrats supported the policies of our front-runners at center stage.” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock accused the senators of “wish list economics.” Former Maryland representative John Delaney said they were advocating “bad policies like Medicare-for-all, free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump reelected.”
The problem is there is nothing moderate or centrist about the agendas of the candidates issuing these warnings, who are all polling at less than 1%. Take health care, for example. Their alternative is the so-called public option, which they described as a long transition to Medicare-for-all. First, people younger than 65 would be able to choose between private plans or buying in to traditional Medicare. Then, as Hickenlooper explained, if “more people choose it, eventually, in 15 years, you could get there” to Medicare-for-all. So, the concern of the “moderates” is not with the danger of socializing our health care system, but with the danger of doing it too quickly so that voters will rebel. It’s like the old saying, if you put a frog in boiling water he will jump out, but if you put him in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, you eventually get cooked frog.
The public option is, as Medicare and Medicaid administrator Seema Verma explained, nothing more than “a Trojan horse with single-payer hiding inside.” It would be a disaster: Private insurance pays hospitals 75% more than Medicare for the same services – effectively subsidizing Medicare. If millions of nonseniors sign up for Medicare, and those private subsidies disappear, costs will skyrocket and hospitals will close – necessitating massive tax increases and government intervention. A decade ago, President Barack Obama decided it was too radical to include in Obamacare; now it is considered too right-wing for Democrats.
That was the message delivered by Warren and Sanders, who accused their detractors of insufficient dedication to the cause of full socialism. “We’re not going to solve the urgent problems that we face with small ideas and spinelessness,” Warren declared. “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
Of course, her message was directed not at the less-than-1-percenters onstage, but the man who was not there Tuesday night, former vice president Joe Biden. On Wednesday, Biden showed himself to be a feeble front-runner, stumbling over whether Medicare-for-all would cost $3 trillion or $30 trillion. The lesser candidates hammered him for the Obama-Biden administration’s record of mass deportations and his sponsorship of crime bills that led to mass incarceration of African Americans – attacks that he struggled to answer. As New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told him, “Mr. Vice President, you want to be president of the United States, you need to be able to answer the tough questions. I guarantee you if you’re debating Donald Trump, he’s not going to let you off the hook.”
Biden is leading in the polls not because Democrats are clamoring for a centrist, but because they want someone who can win. As moderator Jake Tapper put it, “In poll after poll, Democratic voters say that they want a candidate who can beat President Trump, more than they want a candidate who agrees with them on major issues.” Biden’s unsteady debate performances will slowly erode the perception that he is that candidate. Warren and Sanders command a combined 30% of the vote, which means two things: First, they are together statistically tied with Biden; and second, they are dividing the democratic socialist vote.
The real debate will take place when the three of them finally share a stage.
Marc A. Thiessen is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.