My Take on the Democratic Primary

Why I like Biden and Bloomberg, and have doubts about Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren.

Joe Biden
American vice president Joe Biden listens during a meeting in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington DC, February 2, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

I learned in 2016 not to make predictions. First Brexit happened. Then Donald Trump won the American presidential election. I didn’t expect either. Indeed, I went so far as to urge Republicans in the United States to purge Trump’s nativists from their party after what I was sure would be his defeat.

I allowed my own biases to reject what the polls showed to be very real possibilities. Rather than improve my predictions and try harder to be neutral, my resolution has been to prioritize analysis of what is happening over what could happen and own up to my biases, sometimes explicitly, so you can better make up your mind. This is an opinion blog, after all, not a newspaper.

To that end, I’m giving you my take on the Democratic presidential primaries, which kick off in Iowa on February 3. I don’t think I’m a partisan for any candidate, but my thoughts and feelings about them probably inform everything I write about the election. Best then to share them.

I’m excluding Michael Bennet, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Deval Patrick, Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang. All are polling under 4 percent nationally and far below the 15 percent support needed to win delegates in Iowa.

Joe Biden

Biden is old and so are his supporters.

They’re also diverse. Biden’s is the most multiethnic coalition of the Democratic candidates. Despite attempts by Bernie Sanders’ campaign to smear the former vice president as an apologist for white segregationists who has time and again “betrayed” black voters, most black voters seem to like him.

He also appeals to the sort of white Midwesterners who supported Barack Obama twice and then elected Donald Trump. It’s why Biden polls best against Trump overall, beating him by 4 percentage points on average.

Biden’s policies, although to Obama’s left, are more centrist than most. He counsels against Medicare-for-all if it means abolishing private health insurance, which is wildly unpopular. Unlike the other candidates, who are all running to solve what they describe as deep, structural problems in American society, Biden is telling voters all they need to do is vote out Trump this year and the country can go back to where it was.

It’s not true. Removing Trump is a necessary first step toward solving the deep, structural problems that do exist. But in order to be elected and solve those problems, a Democrat cannot be seen to be running an un-American campaign. Biden’s we’re-better-than-this is part delusion, part aspiration. It’s also the sort of message that has historically won.

Biden is the safest choice, and I wouldn’t want to take a risk when the alternative is four more years of Trump.

Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg’s strategy of skipping the first four primary states in favor of a large delegate haul on March 3, Super Tuesday — when fifteen states and territories vote — has never worked. Self-funding his campaign has disqualified him from the debates. His centrism is out of tune with the leftward shift in the Democratic Party.

Still, there must be a reason Bloomberg, a hugely successful businessman and three-time mayor of New York, is sinking a fortune into this campaign.

There is a case for Bloomberg, and Jeff Greenfield has made it. In short: Biden at some point fails and Bloomberg will be the only candidate standing who can appeal to middle-income Romney-to-Clinton voters in swing states like Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

I’m less convinced about his appeal to Obama-to-Trump voters in states like Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Then again, just flipping Florida and either North Carolina or Pennsylvania would be enough to win the election.

Bloomberg polls just 1 percentage point ahead of Trump on average. I like Bloomberg. His politics are close to mine. I do think he could win. But I have to admit that may be part wishful thinking.

Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg’s politics are fine, but I don’t think serving eight years as mayor of a city of 100,000 gives you the necessary experience to become president of the United States.

Neither do voters. Of the five top-polling candidates, Buttigieg is the only one who, according to recent surveys, would lose against Trump.

Buttigieg’s military service has made him wary of war and I applaud that. Recent American presidents have too often skipped diplomacy and allowed the Pentagon to militarize foreign policy. But without legislative experience, how does Buttigieg propose to convince a likely divided Congress to enact his policies? Without higher-level executive experience, how does he propose to run the federal government, which, with 2.8 million workers, is the largest employer in the United States?

Buttigieg talks a lot about how the older generation of politicians has failed and the country needs new thinking. I would prefer to see him put some of that thinking into action as a governor, senator or big-city mayor before trying for the presidency.

Bernie Sanders

For a self-declared “democratic” (as opposed to what?) socialist, Sanders polls surprisingly well against Trump, defeating him by 3 percentage points on average.

I suspect Sanders’ authenticity plays a role. Many people like politicians who don’t change their minds. I don’t. I fear it betrays a fanaticism, which occasionally shines through. Such as when Sanders echoes Trump in denigrating the “corporate” media. Or when he denounces a “coup” against a left-wing autocrat in Bolivia.

Sanders is not America’s Jeremy Corbyn. His policies — universal health care, debt-free college education, higher taxes on the rich, tougher regulation of businesses — would be considered mainstream center-left in Europe.

They aren’t in America and easy to characterize as socialism, especially when the candidate says they are.

Sanders claims he can appeal to working-class voters, but on what is a key issue to low-wage voters — immigration — he has moved away from them. Sanders used to argue that immigration puts downward pressure on wages. Now he wants to decriminalize unsanctioned border crossings, halt all deportations and break up not just Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which under Trump has carried out razzias in immigrant neighborhoods, but Customs and Border Protection as well.

My biggest frustration with Sanders is not his left-wing agenda, but his stubborn refusal to even think about how it might be implemented. Even in the unlikely event that Democrats win back the Senate in November, many lawmakers on the right of the party would still be uncomfortable with Sanders’ farthest-reaching proposals. His invariable response: a “political revolution” will make it happen.

I doubt it.

This Sanders does have in common with Corbyn. Rather than prepare their supporters for political reality, both men indulge left-wing fantasies. Those voters will inevitably be disappointed, whether Sanders wins or not, which could undermine their trust in democratic institutions. America saw the same thing happen on the right during the Obama years and it resulted in Trump. The left shouldn’t make the same mistake.

Elizabeth Warren

Half a year ago, Warren looked like the most promising contender to me — and she did go up in the polls. Then she doubled down on Medicare-for-all with a dubious plan to pay for it.

I don’t think cost is the main argument against nationalizing health insurance. The first question to ask is: would eliminating choice and competition lead to better health care? The experience in other countries suggests not.

Vox is doing a great series about health care around the world and although they find that single-payer, if done well, such as in Taiwan, can work, mixed public-private systems, like Australia’s and the Netherlands’, tend to do better than those that are entirely government-run.

The cost of putting all Americans on public health insurance would be prohibitive. Add to that opposition from insurance companies (who would be put out of business, costing some 600,000 Americans their jobs), doctors and hospitals (who would be paid less) and pharmaceutical companies (who would lose their patents under Warren’s plan) and Medicare-for-all looks… ambitious.

Warren knows that. It’s why she has suggested delaying Medicare-for-all until the second half of her first term, which means it’s even less likely to happen. A president gets one, may two big reforms, and he or she needs to put them in motion right away, before the midterm elections make vulnerable legislators afraid to take difficult votes.

Warren is trying to have it both ways: convincing lefties that she’s on their side while signaling to moderates that she’s not. It hasn’t convinced many of Sanders’ supporters to switch, but it has caused center-left voters to look elsewhere. Try to please everyone and you end up pleasing no one.

If you believe, as the Niskanen Center’s Will Wilkinson puts it, that the structural problem in America is a rigged system of anticompetitive rent-seeking enabled by insufficiently democratic and representative political institutions, Warren — to borrow a phrase — has a plan for that.

But I worry her clumsy attempts to appeal to the woke left — Medicare-for-all, an immigration plan that is close to open borders, videotaping a DNA test to prove Native American ancestry, possibly lying about being fired as a teacher for being pregnant — have made her toxic to the very Obama-to-Trump and Romney-to-Clinton voters Democrats need to respectively win back and keep in the party if they want to defeat Trump in November.

Warren polls no better than Trump. Nominating her looks like a risk, and, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think this is a time for risk-taking.