Are the Democrats actually going to blow it in 2020?

There's a palpable anxiety about the question, which is being raised constantly in print, in private homes, and, I assume, in the corridors of power. Will we actually have to suffer through four more years of President Trump, when he seems so beatable and such a large fraction of the country seems eager for an alternative? Can't the Democrats just nominate someone who can win, run on a platform that can win, and then, you know — win?

David Leonhardt's most recent column in The New York Times is a good example of the fretful genre. "[Y]ou would think," he says, "that Democrats would be approaching the 2020 campaign with a ruthless sense of purpose."

But they're not, at least not yet. They are not focusing on issues that expose Trump's many vulnerabilities. They have instead devoted substantial time to wonky subjects that excite some progressive activists — and alienate most American voters. Recent polls suggest that the Democrats really are increasing the chances Trump will win re-election. [The New York Times]

Leonhardt highlights two such issues: single-payer health care and decriminalizing border crossings. In both cases, he's right that the activists are on the wrong side of public opinion. While a public option polls fairly well, eliminating private health insurance polls quite poorly. Similarly, while providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants polls quite well, decriminalizing unauthorized entry polls extremely poorly — including among non-white and immigrant groups one might suppose would be in favor.

So why aren't the Democrats simply coalescing around a more winning message? Why are they risking losing the whole game just to, as Leonhardt puts it, "activate their progressive id?"

The simple answer is that not all Democrats are doing that. The frontrunner, Joe Biden, is campaigning against single-payer health care. And while he hasn't come out against Julian Castro's proposal to decriminalize border crossings, it's hard to believe Biden is going to run on that issue in the general election.

A more complex answer, though, is that campaigns aren't just about picking a platform that most people support and then enacting it once you win. Campaigns are also about building the political capital to put a platform into practice — and that capital is very much needed in American politics with its host of veto points to prevent change. Primary campaigns are about establishing trust, and thereby convincing your fellow Democrats to stand with you later on, whether you lead them forward into battle or declare that the more prudent tactic is compromise or even retreat.

Does that help explain the behavior of the various candidates? Well, consider health care. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama was the moderate on health care, criticizing Hillary Clinton's plan for including an individual mandate. That was probably smart positioning for the primary; Obama needed to reassure voters that he was a relative moderate to be seen as electable. And it clearly didn't hurt him in the general election, which Obama won by a landslide, and with substantial coattails.

But in part because of his positioning, Obama had not built up a lot of political capital on health care specifically. So when, after the stimulus bill, he made health care his top priority, he had to do an enormous amount of coaxing to get members of his own party to vote for the bill — a bill which was closer to Clinton's plan than to his own, including the dreaded individual mandate. The bill passed, but was deeply unpopular by the time it did, and played a key role in the epic losses the Democrats suffered in 2010.

One lesson progressives took from that history is that the next time they tackled health care, they needed someone who was passionately committed on the issue, and who had built up political capital by running on it. That's why the primary is featuring a serious argument about the subject, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren advocating single payer and Joe Biden advocating a more incremental reform. The only major candidate who has damaged their own credibility in the process is Kamala Harris, who has tried to have it every way at once — a clear indication of her lack of seriousness.

Biden's plan, meanwhile, is actually vastly more aggressive than ObamaCare was. If it actually gets enacted, it would be a substantial win for the left. Indeed, in a Sanders or Warren administration, it's unlikely that anything further left than what Biden is proposing will actually be enacted. Meanwhile, because of Sanders and Warren, that plan has now become a moderate compromise, and is probably more popular than it would otherwise have been.

Immigration is, I think, a very different story — largely because Democrats are avoiding the kind of argument they're having on health care. Nobody has yet stood up in a Democratic debate and said: It's actually really important to distinguish between citizen and non-citizen, to privilege citizens over non-citizens in certain ways, and to be selective about who we welcome into our country, whether as residents or as citizens. That's a message that might or might not be compatible with decriminalization — you could decriminalize border crossing and still implement a national I.D. card, pass tough employer sanctions, even build a physical wall on the border. But nobody is taking that tack either. There isn't really any debate.

That's a problem, and not because decriminalizing border crossing is so unpopular. The GOP, after all, holds a host of very unpopular positions, on guns and upper-income taxes and a host of other issues, and they are still able to win elections. It isn't even just that decriminalization plays into a narrative that the Democrats care more about foreigners than they do about Americans (though the Democrats really should worry about that possibility). The real problem is who appears to be calling the shots and controlling the narrative.

Why did Biden only half-heartedly raise his hand when the question of the border came up? Probably because he wasn't sure what the implications of the choice were. Then why not keep his hand down? Presumably because he figured out that taking a stand was risky — and being the only one to dissent would mean taking a stand.

That dynamic, whereby the nominee worries about crossing some unspoken line, on the other side of which they become unacceptable, could pose real problems for the Democrats. The substance of the issues is secondary; anyone who behaves that way is telegraphing that they are not in charge. And that's something no Democratic nominee can afford.

Half a loaf is better than none. That's why you need leaders who can compromise. On the other hand, you can't get even half a loaf if no one bakes the loaf in the first place. That's why you need leaders who actually stand for something, who know how to build capital and spend it. But if you try to bake a loaf with every ingredient in the world in it, you'll wind up with something nobody in their right mind would eat.

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