ImageThe strongest Democratic voices in Thursday’s presidential debate made few appeals to the political center or pleas about the electoral perils of
The Democratic debates this past week provided the clearest evidence yet that many of the leading presidential candidates are breaking with the incremental politics of the Clinton and Obama eras, and are embracing sweeping liberal policy changes on some of the most charged public issues in American life, even at the risk of political backlash.
Vowing to eliminate private health insurance, decriminalize illegal immigration and provide government health care benefits to undocumented migrants, high-profile contenders like Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are wagering that they can energize voters eager to dismantle President Trump’s hard-line policies.
But with moderate Democrats repeatedly drowned out or on the defensive in the debates, the sprint to the left has deeply unnerved establishment Democrats, who have largely picked the party nominees in recent decades. They fear that advocating a government-run health care system could alienate suburban and upper-income voters who are otherwise eager to eject Mr. Trump from office, while the most progressive immigration policies might turn off the working-class white voters who backed Mr. Trump after twice supporting former President Barack Obama.
Liberals point to polls showing that policies like universal health care and tuition-free college are growing in popularity, and argue that victory in 2020 depends in part on inspiring turnout from young voters and progressives. Yet other Democrats came away from the debates fearful that the party was squandering the chance to make the election a referendum on an unpopular president, and staking its fortunes on untested policy promises instead.
These Democrats also feel they have a potentially winning hand in 2020: The party found success in 2018 by assailing Republicans for wanting to upend the Affordable Care Act, and benefited from denouncing Mr. Trump’s harsh attacks on migrants, and hard-line approach to separating children. By talking up ideas like decriminalizing illegal border crossing, they fear that voters will lose sight of Mr. Trump’s divisive policies.
“We’re fighting immigration on his terrain and giving up our advantage on health care,” said Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago. “That’s the travesty: We’re ceding an advantage Trump knows we have on him.”
Or as James Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, put it: “This is an election that Trump can’t win but Democrats can lose.”
[Moderate Democrats emerge as a power in the House of Representatives.]
Some of the anxiety among moderate Democrats is flowing from the wobbly debate performance on Thursday night by Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president. For months he was the great hope of many centrist Democrats: a candidate of stature who appeared capable of building a broad coalition in the primary, resisting the impulses of the activist left and leading a do-no-harm presidential ticket to victory by reclaiming voters exhausted by Mr. Trump’s erratic behavior.
But so far, that scenario has not come to pass.
Mr. Biden has quickly proven an imperfect champion of political pragmatism, stumbling in his efforts to navigate the cultural crosscurrents of his party and struggling to excite voters the way his counterparts on the left, like Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris, have started to do.
And if Mr. Biden was supposed to hold back the Democratic Party’s leftward march and keep its energies trained on Mr. Trump, then the debates this past week showed that mission has already faltered badly.
“It’s imperative that our candidates are listening carefully to all of the voices in the party,” said former Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri moderate. Referencing the frequent liberal outrage on Twitter, she added, “social media may promote the loudest voices, but they’re not the majority.”
And as if to offer an inducement, Ms. McCaskill cited current polling and said that “the reason Biden is the front-runner by such a large margin is because he’s speaking to those voters.”
Yet for many Democrats, especially those who are younger and not white, the risk in 2020 is not about being seen as overly liberal. Rather, it is nominating a Democrat who is perceived as insufficiently ambitious by voters who were uninspired by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and supported third-party candidates or sat out the election.
Karine Jean-Pierre, a top strategist for the progressive organizing group MoveOn, said Democrats are right to embrace monumental liberal policy goals for both substantive and political reasons. The party needs to motivate its base to vote in 2020, she said, and it would need to take sweeping action after the election to fully erase Mr. Trump’s legacy.
“When you have an administration that’s doing what it’s doing with these hateful policies, you have to do big and bold things,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said, citing Mr. Trump’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and crack down on the border. “The other side is literally caging kids, babies. Donald Trump has created a human rights situation at the southern border, and folks are upset about trying to do something different?”
Ms. Jean-Pierre faulted several Democratic candidates for parroting Republican attacks on their own party, rebuking former Gov. John Hickenlooper in particular for raising the specter of socialism on the debate stage Thursday night.
“We should be saying, ‘We are the party trying to come up with big solutions to fix the damage this president has done,’” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.
Indeed, liberal activists are growing increasingly irritated about the tendency of some party leaders to view issues through the prism of how they will play with mostly white moderate and center-right voters.
“Sometimes appealing too much to Joe in the diner means you’re not reaching Joanna in an apartment building in an urban core,” said Brittany Packnett, a social justice organizer. “We need to engage people who have been forgotten about by establishment politics and help them recognize they have a role to play as citizens.”
In some respects the Democrats’ position resembles that of the Republican Party in the early stages of the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, when a jumble of candidates crowded into televised debates, shoving each other toward their party’s ideological pole on some of the same issues — immigration, health care and abortion rights.
Most of the 2020 presidential candidates who dominated the recent debates were aiming directly at voters on the left. There were few appeals to the political center or pleas about the electoral perils of left-wing politics. With few exceptions, the moderate candidates on stage spoke in tones so gentle they verged on apologetic, seeking to nudge the party away from far-left ideas without confronting them head-on.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, perhaps the best-known moderate in the race besides Mr. Biden, did not dwell in the Wednesday debate on her strong objections to pursuing a “Medicare for all” health care policy. Instead, she diplomatically suggested Democrats adopt a different “bold idea” — the less disruptive policy of creating an optional government plan.
“I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years,” she said of a proposal by Mr. Sanders, of Vermont, without belaboring the matter or seeking to target him.
Her Senate colleague, Michael Bennet of Colorado, was somewhat more forceful on Thursday night, warning in an urgent tone that Mr. Sanders would do away with private insurance entirely. Yet some of his higher-profile competitors in the race, including Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris, have backed the Sanders legislation.
Most telling was the Democrats’ leftward turn on perhaps the most explosive issue of the Trump era.
Asked by moderators if they favored decriminalizing unauthorized border-crossing, and treating it as a civil offense, nearly all of the candidates who debated on Thursday night raised their hands in agreement — including, seemingly, Mr. Biden.
“That criminalization, that is the basis for family separation,” said Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. “You do away with that, it’s no longer possible.”
For some candidates like Mr. Buttigieg, who has positioned himself as a liberal reformer but by no means a strident activist, embracing the most ambitious progressive policy plans may be a matter of strategic necessity in the primary. Unless they appease the Democratic Party’s activist base, they reason, they could be squeezed to the point of irrelevance between Mr. Biden, the campaign’s avatar of moderation, and more combative rivals on the far left.
Yet for policy-minded moderates and other Democrats fixated above all on defeating Mr. Trump, the debates raised an unsettling prospect — that with Mr. Biden as an unsteady standard-bearer, the forces of electoral and ideological pragmatism could be overwhelmed in the primary by the demands of the rising left, and the candidates who embrace them.
Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a co-chairman of Mr. Biden’s campaign, said Democrats needed to work toward the interconnected goals of winning both the presidency and the Senate. Those tasks will be more difficult, he said, if the 2020 candidates have to support and defend controversial policy proposals.
“I believe there’s a way to energize the base, and at the same time not lie to the base and promise a whole bunch of things we know we can’t get done,” he said.
Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist who led the party’s campaign to take control of the House last year, warned that Democrats were at risk of moving too far left to assure a wide range of voters that they supported broadly popular positions like securing the border and preserving popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
“If you don’t lay the groundwork — the purpose for your candidacy and the larger picture on health care and immigration — you will have a harder time getting the electorate to listen,” said Mr. Sena, who is advising Mr. Bennet. “The further left one goes, the further away one gets from a larger pool of swingable general election voters.”
But such sentiments only evoke eye-rolling among other Democratic strategists, who believe that such up-for-grabs voters are disappearing in this tribal era of politics.
“You are competing for a smaller and smaller band of undecided voters,” said Anne Caprara, who ran J.B. Pritzker’s campaign for governor of Illinois last year.
Ms. Caprara argued that Republican scare tactics were inevitable no matter the Democratic policies — “Nancy Pelosi is coming for your children!” as she put it — and that Mr. Trump’s incendiary language and divisive politics had created “a wider berth” for Democrats to pursue progressive policies.
“The horrors of Trump’s immigration policies have made it easier to have a bigger conversation about embracing immigrants,” she said, also pointing to abortion rights, where Republican efforts to ban the procedure outright have opened the eyes of some otherwise moderate voters that Roe v. Wade “is in real jeopardy,” adding that, “The landscape has changed. This is not 1995.”