How far to the left the Democrats are going has been a major topic of conversation in the first months of the contest for their party’s presidential nomination. One school of thought, which includes every Republican, holds that the Democrats have taken a sharp turn to the left and may be leaving some of the voters they need behind.
As Joe Biden held a lead in the polls week after week, it began to occur to people that online progressives might not be representative of Democratic primary voters in, say, South Carolina. Bernie Sanders, the proud democratic socialist, has been losing ground to Elizabeth Warren, who calls herself a capitalist to her bones.
The first two Democratic debates offered evidence both for and against the resurgent-left thesis, as you would expect from a pair of events that featured 20 candidates and sometimes, as a result, cacophony. On one hand, most of the Democrats kept their arms down when asked whether they would abolish private health insurance. On the other hand, three of the top five would effectively eliminate it — a decade after President Barack Obama took great pains to stress that his health care law would let people who liked their insurance plans keep them.
Health care is a fault line in the party: On that topic, the debates were actually debates. Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bennet and John Delaney all warned against forcing most Americans to drop their current coverage. On other questions, the evidence was mixed because so many of the candidates tried to straddle. They neither took nor repudiated the positions that progressive activists favor.
Chuck Todd, one of the moderators, asked the first batch of candidates what they would do about the hundreds of millions of guns that would remain in Americans’ possession even if assault weapons were banned. A good question, which most of the candidates dodged. Elizabeth Warren came out for background checks and “serious research.” Julián Castro said he wanted “common-sense gun reform.” Only Cory Booker had a far-reaching and specific proposal: He called for licensing all firearms. And only Amy Klobuchar (and the next night, Eric Swalwell) suggested they would leave the majority of gun owners alone; she invoked “my uncle Dick and his deer stand.”
Most of the Democrats aren’t calling for tight restrictions on guns. They know the public doesn’t support them, and a lot of voters, including voters who sometimes back Democrats, are intensely opposed. Democratic caution on guns is not new. In the past, though, cautious Democrats prefaced any remarks on guns by explicitly denying interest in banning or confiscating guns. Sometimes they would even say that they favor a right, however limited, to own guns. That’s a note that few of the debating Democrats sounded.
A similar pattern held on immigration. The candidates did not say they would abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the highest cause of some progressive activists. But all of their emphasis and passion were spent on the ways they would liberalize immigration. They differed on how far they would go. A few candidates said they would make illegal border crossing a civil rather than a criminal offense. Kamala Harris said she would “absolutely” refrain from deporting illegal immigrants who were otherwise law-abiding; Mr. Biden, more cagily, said their deportation would not be his focus. But nobody sounded as hawkish as Mr. Obama did five years ago (“Protecting public safety and deporting dangerous criminals has been and will remain the top priority, but we are going to refocus our efforts where we can to make sure we do what it takes to keep our border secure”).
Some of the candidates were asked whether they would impose any limits on abortion. Nobody came out for any. The current candidates’ policies are not much different from those of past Democrats. Bill Clinton, too, favored federal funding to enable low-income women to obtain abortions. But the rhetoric has changed. Mr. Clinton said that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” — a nod to public ambivalence about the procedure that today’s Democrats won’t make.
On several polarizing issues, Democrats are refusing to offer the reassurances to moderate opinion that they once did. They’re not saying: We will secure the border and insist on an orderly asylum process, but do it in a humane way; we will protect the right to abortion while working to make it less common; we will protect gun rights while setting sensible limits on them. The old rhetorical guardrails — trust us, there’s a hard stop on how far left we’ll go — are gone.
There’s a political logic to this approach. Calling for gun bans or the abolition of ICE would alienate moderates, while explicitly disavowing those goals and saying why would anger voters farther to the left. The Democratic candidates are beating President Trump in head-to-head polls. Surveys show majorities for regulating guns, keeping Roe v. Wade and legalizing most illegal immigrants. The polls may also explain why open debate between left and center-left positions is taking place on health care: They show that majorities don’t want to end private insurance.
On other issues, though, even the relatively moderate Democrats are hesitant to draw a contrast between their views and ones farther left. Their silence poses a risk — actually, two risks. The lesser one is that committed progressives will nonetheless realize that the candidates are not actually embracing all of their causes. The greater one is that middle-of-the-road voters will be left with the impression that the candidates don’t share their concerns. Democrats are prepared to take that second risk because Mr. Trump seems unacceptable to most voters and demographic trends favor their party. There is abundant evidence for both points.
Of course, that was also true in 2016.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
— The New York Times