The most important takeaway from the second round of
Democratic debates, other than the fact that Joe Biden performs better after a
practice round, is that there is a deep division within the Democratic Party.
Contrary to claims by many of the pundit class, the Democrats are not all in
lockstep solidarity with the democratic-socialist left. Over the past two
nights, several Democratic candidates sounded almost (but not quite)
In particular, there seems to be an ongoing struggle between
different factions of the party with respect to two issues: immigration and
health insurance. Several sharp exchanges in the debates related to whether
healthcare reform plans should eliminate private medical insurance in favor of
Medicare-for-all and whether illegal immigration should be decriminalized.
Joe Biden led off the second
night of debates with an attack on Kamala Harris’ plan to replace private
health insurance, saying, “There is no talk about the fact that the plan in 10
years will cost $3 trillion. You will lose your employer-based insurance. And
in fact, you know, this is the single most important issue facing the public.
And to be very blunt and to be very straightforward, you can’t beat President
Trump with double-talk on this plan.”
Sounding almost like a conservative, Biden continued, “The
plan, no matter how you cut it, costs $3 trillion when it is, in fact,
employed, number one. Ten years from now, after two terms of the senator being
president, after her time. Secondly, it will require middle-class taxes to go
up, not down. Thirdly, it will eliminate employer-based insurance. And
fourthly, what happens in the meantime?”
Biden is on firmer ground here than Harris. The former vice
president was deeply involved with Obamacare, the 2010 health care reform bill
that was intensely unpopular until Republicans came close to replacing it in
2017. At that point, Obamacare suddenly gained more fans and maintains a 10-point
advantage in polling.
On the other hand, the approval of Medicare-for-all fluctuates
wildly in polling and is heavily dependent on the details. AP polling
from January found that voters like the idea of Medicare-for-all but not the higher
taxes and longer wait times that it could bring. More recently, FiveThirtyEight pointed out that more voters are on board with the idea of allowing people to
buy into Medicare voluntarily than in eliminating private insurance and forcing
everyone into the program.
This is underscored by the recent endorsement of Joe Biden
by the International Association of Fire Fighters, who said in a statement that union members “do not support the concept of abandoning those plans for a
government-run single-payer plan,” adding, “The elimination of employer-based
insurance in favor of a Medicare-for-all or government-run single-payer
proposal is a bad idea that punishes working families who have secured quality
In his opening statement on the first
debate night, John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman, argued that the
focus on Medicare-for-all could cost Democrats the election. “We can go down
the road that Senator Sanders and Senator Warren want to take us with bad
policies like Medicare for All, free everything and impossible promises that’ll
turn off independent voters and get Trump reelected,” Delaney said. “That’s
what happened with McGovern. That’s what happened with Mondale.”
Later that night, Delaney took on Sanders directly, saying, “His
math is wrong” and warned that many hospitals across the country would close if
they had to rely on Medicare reimbursement rates.
“Why can’t we just give everyone healthcare as a right and
allow them to have choice?” Delaney asked. “I’m starting to think this is not
about healthcare. This is an anti-private sector strategy.”
Amy Klobuchar voiced similar concerns about the
Medicare-for-all plans of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “I just don’t
buy… that it’s somehow not moral to not have that public option,” she said.
The other big policy disagreement between the Democrats was
over immigration. When former Obama Housing Secretary Julian Castro advocated
decriminalizing illegal immigration, it was Joe Biden once again who resisted
the urge to pile on the popular liberal talking point.
“I have guts enough to say his plan doesn’t make sense,”
Biden responded to Castro. “Here’s the deal. The fact of the matter is that, in
fact, when people cross the border illegally, it is illegal to do it unless
they’re seeking asylum. People should have to get in line. That’s the problem.
And the only reason this particular part of the law is being abused is because
of Donald Trump. We should defeat Donald Trump and end this practice.”
There was one other issue where one Democrat sounded more
conservative than present-day Republicans. At one point, John Delaney mounted a
spirited defense of free trade, something rarely heard these days in either
“So listen, this is what I don’t understand,” Delaney
postulated. “President Trump wants to build physical walls and beats up on
immigrants. Most of the folks running for president want to build economic
walls to free trade and beat up on President Obama.”
“I’m the only one running for president who actually
supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Delaney continued. “President Obama
was right about that. We should be getting back in that. Senator Warren just
issued a trade plan that would prevent the United States from trading with its
allies. We can’t go and we can’t isolate ourselves from the world. We have to
engage with fair, rules-based trade.”
At the end of the two nights, it was obvious that there are
two different overlapping factions within the Democratic Party. One is the Obama
faction represented by candidates like Biden, Delaney, Klobuchar. The other is
the far-left faction of Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. After
attempting to keep one foot on both sides of the party in recent months, Joe
Biden seems to have firmly embraced his position in the moderate lane.
As I’ve argued in the past, Biden is the dominant moderate
candidate in the Democratic primary while numerous strong candidates are vying
for the limited number of progressive votes. Barring unforeseen circumstances
such as a gaffe of Trumpian proportions or a sudden health problem, this makes
Biden likely to become the eventual nominee.
It also makes Biden likely to eventually become president. As
he stakes down middle-of-the-road policy positions, he makes himself palatable
to the moderate and independent voters who will decide the election, voters who
have been all but ignored by Donald Trump for the past three years. As Biden attacks
Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, he is also inoculating himself from charges
of socialism by Republicans and positioning himself for the general election.