Groundhog Day politics: Democratic idealism collides with realism

From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro are introduced for the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC on the campus of Texas Southern University Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro are introduced for the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC on the campus of Texas Southern University Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

In the long-awaited sequel to “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray will wake up to see video clips of Democratic presidential candidates deluding themselves over and over again.

Is it my imagination (nope, it’s not) that every time they take the stage, as they did again last night, they squabble at length over the same nuanced fine points of Medicare For All, the pie-in-the-sky universal health care proposal that has less chance of passing the Senate than the Phillies have of winning the NL pennant? And that this proposal, which abolishes private health coverage of roughly 150 million people, would imperil Democrats running in red states and moderate swing districts?

When Beto O’Rourke talks about gun confiscation — “hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47” — is he even dimly aware that his rhetoric plays right into the hands of the opposition GOP, which caricatures all Democrats as left-wing radicals who “want to take away your guns”? And that gun confiscation will never be enacted by a Congress that couldn’t even muster the votes to expand background checks, a truly minimal reform, even after grade-school kids were slaughtered en masse in Connecticut?

Indeed, when Cory Booker touted yet again his proposal to license gun owners, and was asked whether there was a single Republican colleague in the Senate who’d vote for that (because Republican votes would be needed), here was his answer: “You want to know how we get this done? We get this done by having a more courageous empathy…We must awaken a more courageous empathy in this country so that we stand together and fight together and overwhelm those Republicans who are not even representing their constituency.” Translation: Licensing gun owners ain’t happening.

Here’s the problem. A lot of these Democrats (aside from Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar) are pitching dreams — government health care, gun licensing and confiscation, decriminalization of illegal immigrant border crossings, and many more — that would not only put the eventual nominee at risk in a general election, but would also encumber Democratic senatorial candidates in red states that are on the ballot in 2020: most notably, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas (the latter, where Beto should’ve stayed and run). If the presidential nominee tilts too far leftward, the contested seats in those states will not go blue. Which means that even if a Democrat does manage to beat Donald Trump, the Senate will stay Republican and function as a graveyard for progressive dreams.

Centrist moderation isn’t sexy; it’s not catnip for the Democratic base. But if the first priority is to oust the most dangerous authoritarian in U.S. history, then it behooves the Democrats to practice realpolitik — to get real and talk about what will actually give them 270 electoral votes. Klobuchar rightly said last night that abolishing private health coverage is “a bad idea,” and that giving people the option to join government health care makes more sense. Buttigieg said the same thing, only better: “I propose Medicare for all who want it. We take a version of Medicare, we make it available for the American people, and if we’re right, as progressives, that that public alternative is better, then the American people will figure that out for themselves. I trust the American people to make the right choice for them.”

And that’s basically Joe Biden’s position. Will he lose steam in the polls based on anything he said last night? Will the September debate move the needle at all for virtually anyone? Not likely. The Democratic race has been remarkably stable for months, with the exception of Kamala Harris’ early spike and subsequent slide. Yes, Biden got a bit wobbly toward the end of the marathon, especially when he sought to clarify why he’d supported George W. Bush’s Iraq war resolution back in 2003 (“I said something that was not meant the way I said it”). But if anyone lost ground, it was Julian Castro, who somehow thought that sliming Biden as a dotty old fool would be his ticket to viability. Early in the show, Castro mischaracterized Biden’s centrist pitch for a health care public option, and then proceeded to harangue him: “Are you forgetting what you just said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?”

To which Buttigieg said: “This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable.”

He got that right. And while many of these Democrats continue to dream out loud about policies that will never be enacted, Donald Trump, by dint of his incompetence and malevolence, is virtually inviting his opponents to seize the middle ground. If only they can wise up enough to do it.

I’ll be joining WHYY’s “Radio Times” at 10 a.m., to talk further about the debate, along with several esteemed political scientists. You can listen live then.

This is my final column for WHYY News. Over a span of nine years and more than 2000 posts, WHYY has been a truly great host, and I am thankful. I’m launching an independent political column next week. Check my social media feeds for the website’s call letters.

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