The hidden consensus: A winning Democratic platform began to emerge in Miami debates

A blend of populism, pragmatism and social liberalism is clearly the winning formula. Democrats are getting closer

Published July 1, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Sen. Kamala Harris; Former Vice President Joe Biden (AP/Susan Walsh/Scott Olson)
Sen. Kamala Harris; Former Vice President Joe Biden (AP/Susan Walsh/Scott Olson)

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In four hours over two nights in Miami, 20 candidates sparred over the most vital question facing the Democratic Party: not who it should be for, but what. If you listened hard, you could hear the first draft of a winning platform.

Democrats must unite not just the party, but the country, or at least the parts of it — still a majority — that desire unity. The reigning metaphors of political punditry are "polarization" and "partisan gridlock," but among the people there exists a hidden consensus, waiting for some enterprising Democrat to discover and articulate it.

That consensus encompasses easily 60% of the electorate and has three facets. The first is economic populism. The second might be called frugal pragmatism. The third, social liberalism, has the weakest hold, but as the silent generation passes on and millennials and centennials swell the voting lists, it grows ever stronger. The 2020 election is do or die for the current Republicans as it may be the last time a party so riddled with racism, sexism and homophobia can hope to compete on a national scale.

Economic populism is the glue that binds the consensus. Without Donald Trump’s expropriation and Hillary Clinton’s abandonment of that issue in 2016, Clinton would be president. While every Democrat has trained hard to sound more like Bernie Sanders, few of the Miami 20 are in any real sense populists. Their approach to social issues was a ceaseless display of moral oneupmanship. Apart from some scolding about socialism, none talked about management or cost.

The debates showed a party making progress on policy but one that still has a long way to go. It helps that the field is opening up. A popular mistake in politics is overstating the impact of whatever just happened, but it’s safe to say Sen. Kamala Harris scored big and Joe Biden stumbled badly. Once again, a Biden presidential campaign may be over by Iowa. The issue isn’t what he did 50 years ago, but his lack of discipline and inability to admit his mistakes, let alone learn from them.

As always with Biden, the worst wounds were self-inflicted. All he had to say to Harris was, "I was wrong." He didn’t have it in him. What he did have in him was a states' rights riff that really did sound a bit like James Eastland, the Mississippi segregationist whose friendship Biden apparently treasured. The day after the debate, at a Rainbow Coalition meeting in Chicago, Biden gave a serviceable defense of his civil rights record. But he still couldn’t admit error, so the storm rages on.

A recurrent theme of pre- and post-debate analysis is that Democrats are in mortal danger of swerving too far left. But where’s that? Most pundits haven’t a clue. Ideas they say come out of left field are more often line drives to center. Nearly all miss the centrality of populism: the depth of public anger over political corruption and the distribution of wealth, income and opportunity. When such pundits warn Democrats not to drift left, they’re mostly warning them off Warren and Sanders.

The Democratic presidential field, like Nancy Pelosi’s House caucus, Schumer’s Senate caucus and every Democratic state house, is made up mostly of moderates. Most fared poorly in Miami. If Tim Ryan, John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Eric Swalwell or Andrew Yang have much to add to the discussion, they have till the next debate to do it.

On CNN’s post-debate show, Van Jones opined that Sanders has already won the battle of ideas but might be fading as a candidate. I think he’s only partly right. No one besides Trump has had as much impact on American political debate in the 21st century, but Sanders’ victory thus far is on message, not policy.

Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris talk about corruption and corporate greed but like Biden, remain active in the pay-to-play politics Sanders and Warren see as the root problem. See the June 16 New York Times article "Wall Street Donors Are Swooning for Mayor Pete. (They Like Biden and Harris, Too.)" Julián Castro was until recently, a classic neoliberal. According to Texas Monthly, he was a staunch free trader who once said his ideal Supreme Court justice was David Souter.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has made climate change the centerpiece of his campaign, and for that we must be glad. But in Miami he was vague on the details. Inslee claimed to have enacted the nation’s first public option on health care. It isn’t true: His bill isn’t even a weak public option, but calling it one makes him seem accomplished and more of a populist than he really is.

Sen. Cory Booker may be the worst. On Wednesday night he swore off Big Pharma money, but he took plenty before voting against allowing drug importation from Canada. As Newark’s mayor he was a leading proponent of corporate-funded education reforms. During the 2012 election he called Barack Obama’s mild-mannered critique of Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital “nauseating.” In 2016, he told African Americans not to trust Bernie Sanders. In 2014, he raised more money on Wall Street than any other senator, Democrat or Republican.

In 2009, Kirsten Gillibrand was a conservative Democratic House member from the Hudson Valley when a New York governor on the prowl for upstate support gave her Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate seat. Overnight she flipped from defender of gun rights to fierce gun safety advocate. In Miami, she flew the populist flag:

[W]e have heard a lot of good ideas … but the truth is until you go to the root of the corruption, the money in politics … you are never going to solve any of these problems. I have the most comprehensive approach that experts agree is the most transformative plan ...

When these candidates are asked about Wall Street, or the pharmaceutical or fossil fuel industries, for a few fleeting seconds they wax populist. But the natural follow-up question is, “Wow, that sounds great, but do you really mean it?” For most, the honest answer would be, "No, not really." It’s a flaw as big as any of Biden’s.

Such candidates seek to prove their mettle with social issues. Asked about Medicare for All, Castro ignored the question to pivot instantly to abortion rights. Booker didn’t heat up till the panel moved from Warren’s economic reforms to social concerns. Counting New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, there are four populists in the race, but only Sanders and Warren, now running second and third in the polls, seem to have any real shot at being nominated.

Like Biden, Sanders faces questions about his age, though his grumpy old man plays better than Biden’s tired old man. He had a strong outing, though early cable reviews suggest he’s in for the same rough treatment he got last time. Warren fared better. A CNN Iowa focus group named her the best debater. She should use those skills to call out other candidates on corporate greed and pay-to-play politics the way Harris called out Biden on the more tender issues of race.

Social liberalism is a part of the hidden consensus but moving the needle forward on social issues requires courage, tact and ingenuity. Economic populism is often the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of social liberalism go down. A lot rides on how we lead on social issues. Debates are difficult venues in which to do it, as they offer little chance for exposition but pay big dividends for mere theatricality. The temptation to moral oneupmanship is acute.

I had these thoughts watching Kamala Harris filet Joe Biden. She was right. He was wrong. But school busing as practiced in the 1960s and '70s ended because it put unbearable strain on the nation’s social fabric. Robert F. Kennedy opposed it then, and I’d give anything for the chance to vote for him now. Does Harris support it today? Where would she order it first? Why did no one ask? Lots of racists oppose busing, but not every mom who wanted her kid in a school close to home was a racist.

I had similar thoughts listening to candidates seeking to outbid each other on immigration without so much as a nod to border security — which Trump has in fact wrecked. These are complex as well as tender issues. When we talk about them, we must respect their complexity. We must also respect those we presume to educate and remember that our audience is the next convert, not the already converted.

It always helps to connect liberalism to populism. Early socialists tried to get workers to see the world in terms of class rather than race. In Miami, de Blasio got off one of the best lines of either night when he said, “to all … who feel you’re falling behind, immigrants didn’t do that to you. Big corporations did.” Want to teach justice for immigrants? Start there.

I used to say people want Democratic ends by Republican means: I meant that they want clean air and water, good schools, safe streets and fair wages from the least expensive, least intrusive, most efficient government possible. No one wants their pocket picked. Everyone wants a government that works well and on occasion even makes them proud. It’s not too much to ask.

It’s what I mean by a "frugal pragmatism." It’s as ingrained in our character as economic populism, and it’s a required and sensible compromise. Democrats should avoid fiscal as well as moral bidding wars. Those who can explain how their programs work should pause to do so, even at the expense of a good anecdote.

The big question in Miami was whether a public option can be a way station on the road to universal health care. The claim that Medicare for All costs more than we pay now is a lie. The claim that any transition to M4A is costly and disruptive is not. Sanders calls his plan "Medicare for All" because Medicare is a beloved federal program. The goal is universal health care, and the question is what’s the fastest, surest path to get there.

Progressives should consider a public option coupled with an instant expansion of Medicaid and Obamacare subsidies to cover everyone. It’s really a promise that we won’t abandon the public option that is already in Bernie’s bill, until we have a program up and running that they want and trust. I personally believe the process would consist of two stages. In year one, small businesses and the self-employed would join in. By year three, large employers would demand to be let in.

A public option isn’t a compromise with insurers, who know it would be their death knell.  It’s a compromise with millions of Americans who want to see us deliver before they sign away what little security they have. We don’t need to compromise with the fossil fuel industry on climate change, Wall Street on regulation, the NRA on gun safety or the donor class on corruption. We need only listen to one another.

The Democrats' biggest problem is that they compromise where they don’t have to, and where in fact the political cost of compromise is high. In Miami there were no questions on impeachment — Chuck Todd asked one group what they’d do about Trump if he weren’t impeached — and only a few on foreign policy, despite Trump traveling the globe lighting matches to every oily rag he finds. Democrats don’t have to compromise on either issue. The risk is that they will anyway.

America’s hidden consensus requires no compromise on economic populism. On social liberalism it requires only mindfulness and respect; on frugality only that we answer legitimate concerns of taxpayers. Democrats must grasp is that populism is the glue that binds the consensus. If we embrace it, we can win the White House, the Senate and a broad mandate to govern.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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