The most important takeaway from the second round of Democratic debates, other than the fact that Joe Biden performs better after a practice round, is that there is a deep division within the Democratic Party. Contrary to claims by many of the pundit class, the Democrats are not all in lockstep solidarity with the democratic-socialist left. Over the past two nights, several Democratic candidates sounded almost (but not quite) conservative.
In particular, there seems to be an ongoing struggle between different factions of the party with respect to two issues: immigration and health insurance. Several sharp exchanges in the debates related to whether healthcare reform plans should eliminate private medical insurance in favor of Medicare-for-all and whether illegal immigration should be decriminalized.
Joe Biden led off the second night of debates with an attack on Kamala Harris’ plan to replace private health insurance, saying, “There is no talk about the fact that the plan in 10 years will cost $3 trillion. You will lose your employer-based insurance. And in fact, you know, this is the single most important issue facing the public. And to be very blunt and to be very straightforward, you can't beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan.”
Sounding almost like a conservative, Biden continued, “The plan, no matter how you cut it, costs $3 trillion when it is, in fact, employed, number one. Ten years from now, after two terms of the senator being president, after her time. Secondly, it will require middle-class taxes to go up, not down. Thirdly, it will eliminate employer-based insurance. And fourthly, what happens in the meantime?”
Biden is on firmer ground here than Harris. The former vice president was deeply involved with Obamacare, the 2010 health care reform bill that was intensely unpopular until Republicans came close to replacing it in 2017. At that point, Obamacare suddenly gained more fans and maintains a 10-point advantage in polling.
On the other hand, the approval of Medicare-for-all fluctuates wildly in polling and is heavily dependent on the details. AP polling from January found that voters like the idea of Medicare-for-all but not the higher taxes and longer wait times that it could bring. More recently, FiveThirtyEight pointed out that more voters are on board with the idea of allowing people to buy into Medicare voluntarily than in eliminating private insurance and forcing everyone into the program.
This is underscored by the recent endorsement of Joe Biden by the International Association of Fire Fighters, who said in a statement that union members “do not support the concept of abandoning those plans for a government-run single-payer plan,” adding, “The elimination of employer-based insurance in favor of a Medicare-for-all or government-run single-payer proposal is a bad idea that punishes working families who have secured quality healthcare.”
In his opening statement on the first debate night, John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman, argued that the focus on Medicare-for-all could cost Democrats the election. “We can go down the road that Senator Sanders and Senator Warren want to take us with bad policies like Medicare for All, free everything and impossible promises that’ll turn off independent voters and get Trump reelected,” Delaney said. “That’s what happened with McGovern. That’s what happened with Mondale.”
Later that night, Delaney took on Sanders directly, saying, “His math is wrong” and warned that many hospitals across the country would close if they had to rely on Medicare reimbursement rates.
“Why can’t we just give everyone healthcare as a right and allow them to have choice?” Delaney asked. “I’m starting to think this is not about healthcare. This is an anti-private sector strategy.”
Amy Klobuchar voiced similar concerns about the Medicare-for-all plans of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “I just don’t buy… that it’s somehow not moral to not have that public option,” she said.
The other big policy disagreement between the Democrats was over immigration. When former Obama Housing Secretary Julian Castro advocated decriminalizing illegal immigration, it was Joe Biden once again who resisted the urge to pile on the popular liberal talking point.
“I have guts enough to say his plan doesn't make sense,” Biden responded to Castro. “Here's the deal. The fact of the matter is that, in fact, when people cross the border illegally, it is illegal to do it unless they're seeking asylum. People should have to get in line. That's the problem. And the only reason this particular part of the law is being abused is because of Donald Trump. We should defeat Donald Trump and end this practice.”
There was one other issue where one Democrat sounded more conservative than present-day Republicans. At one point, John Delaney mounted a spirited defense of free trade, something rarely heard these days in either party.
“So listen, this is what I don’t understand,” Delaney postulated. “President Trump wants to build physical walls and beats up on immigrants. Most of the folks running for president want to build economic walls to free trade and beat up on President Obama.”
“I’m the only one running for president who actually supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Delaney continued. “President Obama was right about that. We should be getting back in that. Senator Warren just issued a trade plan that would prevent the United States from trading with its allies. We can’t go and we can’t isolate ourselves from the world. We have to engage with fair, rules-based trade.”
At the end of the two nights, it was obvious that there are two different overlapping factions within the Democratic Party. One is the Obama faction represented by candidates like Biden, Delaney, Klobuchar. The other is the far-left faction of Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. After attempting to keep one foot on both sides of the party in recent months, Joe Biden seems to have firmly embraced his position in the moderate lane.
As I’ve argued in the past, Biden is the dominant moderate candidate in the Democratic primary while numerous strong candidates are vying for the limited number of progressive votes. Barring unforeseen circumstances such as a gaffe of Trumpian proportions or a sudden health problem, this makes Biden likely to become the eventual nominee.
It also makes Biden likely to eventually become president. As he stakes down middle-of-the-road policy positions, he makes himself palatable to the moderate and independent voters who will decide the election, voters who have been all but ignored by Donald Trump for the past three years. As Biden attacks Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, he is also inoculating himself from charges of socialism by Republicans and positioning himself for the general election.
Originally published on The Resurgent