To its critics both within and outside its ranks, the Republican party has long been saddled with the ignominious moniker, “the stupid party.” Tactically and ideologically, its critics contend, the GOP can be counted on to sacrifice its natural advantages and alienate potential allies. Democrats must be jealous. They seem determined to take that embarrassing title away from their opponents.
Liberated for two years from the compromises demanded of a governing party, Democrats have emerged from the wilderness enamored with a variety of big policy proposals that are deeply unpopular and completely unpractical.
Over the course of the second round of primary debates, candidates including Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris touted their support for a Medicare for All system in one form or another. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rightly notes, “Medicare for All is single-payer healthcare.” Indeed, in a single-payer system the government serves as a virtual monopoly insurance provider. The problem for single-payer advocates is that most privately insured Americans like their coverage.
A Gallup survey from last December found that 70 percent of approximately 180 million adults and their dependents on private insurance rate their coverage as either “good” or “excellent.” 85 percent of Americans with private coverage say the same for the quality of care they receive, and a majority of adults on private insurance are satisfied with the cost of accessing health care. It makes sense then that a NPR-PBS News Hour-Marist poll released last week found that only 41 percent would support a plan that eliminates private insurance entirely.
Asked to respond to criticism from Barack Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who wrote that decriminalizing border crossing effectively opens the border, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro instead dismissed Johnson’s claim as a “right-wing talking point.” Harris and Warren and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg all agree that border crossing should be reduced to a civil offense, eliminating the need for migrant detention centers. The bad news for the decriminalizers is that this, too, is unpopular. A Fox News Channel-sponsored survey dually conducted by a Republican and Democratic pollster last month found that just 35 percent of respondents support “decriminalizing entering the United States without proper documentation.” The poll couldn’t even find a majority ofDemocratsin support of the proposition.
Joe Biden, the undisputed Democratic frontrunner according to polling data, mostly managed to remain above the fray. But even he couldn’t resist throwing out his own line for progressives. “Would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?” the former vice president was asked. “No,” he replied. “We would make sure it's eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those, either — any fossil fuel.” This answer proved insufficiently zealous for Gov. Jay Inslee and Kamala Harris, but it might be too enthusiastic for most voters.
The downward pressure fracking-related domestic natural gas production has put on American energy prices is so generally well-regarded that the issue isn’t polled nearly as often as it was at the beginning of the decade. The most recent surveys suggest hydraulic fracturing has become more popular as it has become more widely practiced. No one is eliminating fossil fuels anytime soon, so it’s likely the only benefits associated with Biden’s pronouncement will be enjoyed by Republican ad creators next fall.
As for the Green New Deal, which Harris and Warren endorsed, an April survey commissioned by the nonprofit activist group Green Advocacy Project showed that only 43 percent of the voters it surveyed back the plan. Moreover, intensity on the issue favors the GOP; 80 percent of self-described Republicans strongly oppose the GND. And while over 75 percent of self-identified liberals back the GND at least somewhat, only 46 percent of Democrats strongly support it.
And what about the federal jobs guarantee in the Green New Deal? Elizabeth Warren insisted that provision was a “made-up” “Republican talking point” that wasn’t in the Green New Deal resolution (it is), even though she supports such a proposal. So, too, do Harris, Sanders, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand. Booker’s plan would create a pilot program that provides federal funding to select regions with the aim of offering full-time work paying $15-per-hour and benefits to anyone who wants it. If a program like Booker’s was extended to the entire country, Brookings Institution estimates that it would cost roughly $5 trillion over 10 years to creating low or medium-skilled jobs for estimated 50 million un-or underemployed Americans that may take advantage it. In theory, a jobs guarantee would dramatically reduce unemployment, and a program that targets regions with uneven job growth could prove worth the effort. But with 1.6 million more job openings than unemployed Americans, it’s unlikely that there is much national demand for make-work.
In a March survey sponsored by the centrist think tank Third Way, a whopping 9 percent of respondents said they would be most likely to back a “candidate who supports a new program that guarantees a full-time government job to anyone who would like one” — 45 percent said they would be most likely to support a “candidate who supports a new program where government works with business to create more good-paying jobs in the private sector.”
The entire Democratic presidential field has endorsed making Washington D.C. a state, which almost every American demographic opposes. Only 32 percent of American adults agree with the Democratic candidates who have committed to providing undocumented migrants access to health insurance. Majorities have consistently opposed a proposal to provide Americans with a universal basic income of $1,000 per month.
Perhaps most troublingly for Democrats, no issue on either night generated a more enthusiastic round of applause than reparations, with self-help guru and political neophyte Marianne Williams receiving especially robust adulation. Just 29 percent of those surveyed last month agree with Williamson and the five other candidates in the field who have endorsed providing monetary reparations to the decedents of African-American slaves.
“If you did the math of the 40 acres and a mule,” Williamson said amid raucous applause, “it would be trillions of dollars. And I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult.” Williamson didn’t stop there. She insisted that progressives’ plans to cancel some student loan debt didn’t go far enough. Why not just wave a wand and cancel all student debt? “If we get rid of this college debt, think of all the young people who will have the discretionary spending,” Williamson pondered. “The best thing you could do to stimulate the U.S. economy is to get rid of this debt.”
“I’ve heard some people here tonight, I almost wonder why you’re Democrats,” she added in a challenge to the entire Democratic field. Williamson routinely outbid the field of conventional politicians, who attempted to remain stubbornly tethered to earth by modest concerns like feasibility and popularity. This was the institutional Republican Party’s nightmare in 2016: The candidate who cares nothing for practicability, who speaks in generalities and nostrums, and who insists that the only thing standing between the voters and their wildest dreams is the will to say them out loud and anyone advocating prudence is a spineless weasel.
Some Democrats appear to have internalized two contradictory lessons from 2016. They know that Donald Trump’s general election victory was a fluke, predicated on fewer than 100,000 perfectly distributed votes across three battleground states in the Rust Belt and the upper Midwest. At the same time, however, they have also convinced themselves that it’s now impossible to alienate a critical mass of voters by proposing wild-eyed reforms designed only to appeal to the narrowest range of partisan primary voters because Trump is president.
Fortunately for Democrats, their party’s primary voters don’t seem inclined yet to gamble on an unknown quantity in 2020. When the primaries are over, the nominee and the party he or she leads can be expected to revert to a more centrist equilibrium. But if Democrats think that the voting public won’t remember the promises they made during this primary, they have a rude awakening coming. Republicans are going to do everything in their power to remind voters of what was said in the summer of 2019.