Three big questions for the Democratic presidential field


Multi-candidate televised debates, at least the way American cable networks structure them, tend to reward politicians with loud voices, large personalities and a facility with soundbites. Donald Trump mastered the art in 2015.

This week’s debates showcased the Democratic candidates’ shortcomings more than their strengths. That was particularly true of Wednesday’s scrum. For those who want a quick recap, here are my colleagues’ takeaways from night one of the debates, and from night two.

The consoling thought for the Democrats is that it’s midsummer, and the election remains 15 months away. As our pre-debate USC/Los Angeles Times poll showed, the contest remains very fluid, with half of voters having changed their minds since April. Viewership for this week’s debates was only about 60% of the number who tuned in for June’s sessions. By the next time the candidates convene on stage, Sept. 12 in Houston, the field will be smaller and the campaigns will have had time to assess at least three big questions.

Essential Politics is published Monday and Friday.

Jan. 26, 2018



The central issue for the Democrats involves a bet on what American voters really want.

In the view of much of the party establishment, the answer hasn’t fundamentally changed: Americans want a robust social safety net, but not the taxes to pay for one; see a role for government, but suspect its competence; and tolerate incremental change more than ideological crusades. The path to victory requires keeping a careful eye on the voters in the middle.

Trump’s election bolsters that theory, they say: Although he has governed from the right, he actually ran as the more centrist of the Republicans. In his campaign, he promised to protect Social Security and Medicare, accepted same-sex marriage and eschewed the long-time GOP call for huge budget cuts to federal programs.

The Democratic left scoffs at that framework. Around the developed world, old-line centrist parties have lost ground to upstarts on the left and right, they note. Voters want dramatic change, they argue, and the path to victory is to set out a clear, compelling case and mobilize voters on your side to get it.

“We need to give people a reason to show up and vote,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts declared in her closing statement Tuesday.

That side too draws a lesson from Trump’s victory: The swing voters who delivered the White House to Trump, they say, cast ballots for him because he promised to shake up a stagnant political system that hasn’t delivered prosperity and rising living standards for average families. That’s what those voters still seek, they argue.

So far, that division has been most noticeable on healthcare, which formed a big part of both debates, with Tuesday night being the more cogent discussion.

As Noam Levey wrote, three of the party’s leading candidates, Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, have embraced policies that would end the decades-long U.S. system of job-based health insurance for most working-age people. Harris seemed uneasy Wednesday explaining the details of her plan, which differs from the Sanders approach and would preserve a limited role for private insurance.


All three would deliver on a goal the Democratic left has pursued for at least 70 years — a system in which Americans’ ability to see a doctor or go to a hospital would not depend on their economic condition and in which the risk of illness would be shared equitably across society. As Levey wrote, strategists on the left believe voters are ready to embrace that sort of radical change because of their unhappiness with the soaring costs many families face under existing health plans.

That would also mean a huge disruption of existing healthcare arrangements, something that American voters have never tolerated without punishing the party that tried it. The prospect leaves more centrist candidates aghast, as Janet Hook wrote in her analysis of Tuesday night’s debate.

“You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump,” warned former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.


Throughout President Obama‘s tenure, some on the party’s left complained of his centrism: The economic stimulus in 2009 was too small, the Affordable Care Act in 2010 did not include a public option, and the president seldom directly confronted America’s racial divisions, they argued. Environmentalists complained that Obama temporized on climate change while immigration advocates dubbed him the “deporter in chief.”

But Obama’s overwhelming popularity among Democratic voters — and the unyielding opposition he faced from Republicans — kept those complaints muted. Only once, during the summer and fall of 2011, when he flirted with a “grand bargain” budget deal with Republicans, did Obama’s hold on Democratic voters appear to slip.

In his second term, Obama moved to the left on several issues — speaking out more on racial questions, embracing sweeping policies on climate and acting to shield hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, the Dreamers, from deportation.


But the party has moved further left, and in Wednesday’s debate, several of the critiques of former Vice President Joe Biden, especially on immigration policy, took shape as criticisms of Obama. As I wrote after Wednesday’s encounter, the debate underlined how racial diversity, which is one of the Democrats’ key strengths, also creates fault lines that Trump can exploit.

Obama loyalists, including his former strategist, David Axelrod, and Neera Tanden, the head of the Center for American Progress, bridled at the criticism of their former boss. Republicans, they noted, spent a generation tying themselves to the legacy of President Reagan. An earlier generation of Democrats, they might have noted, did much the same with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But both FDR and Reagan cemented their legacies in part because their parties won more than two elections in a row — five in FDR’s case, three in Reagan’s. Hillary Clinton‘s loss in 2016 has left doubts about whether Obama was the transformational political figure he hoped to be.

Biden has defined his candidacy as a restoration of the Obama presidency. His main rivals, to one degree or another, have pledged to go beyond that. How to navigate their relationship with the Obama legacy will be a key issue for each of them in the fall.


“The Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me, practically,” Trump gleefully declared at a rally Thursday night in Cincinnati.

To some extent, that’s inevitable in primary debates. Candidates need to find ways to distinguish themselves, and with two dozen in the field, that doesn’t leave much time to go after the incumbent.


By September, the field will be smaller because the criteria for qualifying for the debates get tougher. So far, only seven candidates have qualified — the top four of Biden, Warren, Sanders and Harris, plus South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, whose supporters believe he gained some momentum from Wednesday night’s debate. Three others are close: former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur. A few others have an outside chance of making the cut.

But even with a smaller group, the Democrats will still face the problem of how to balance criticisms of their immediate rivals with attacks on their ultimate one. More important, they also haven’t yet resolved the issue that plagued Clinton’s campaign: What’s the most fruitful line of attack against Trump?

In 2016, Clinton decided to treat Trump as a political aberration, hoping to win over some Republicans by not portraying him as a natural part of the GOP and focusing on his personal flaws. In 2018, Democrats did the opposite, tying Trump and the GOP Congress together and running against their unpopular policies, especially their joint effort to repeal Obamacare.

The 2018 campaign clearly succeeded better, but it did so in an election in which Trump wasn’t on the ballot. As the campaign moves into the fall, look for Democrats to test out their anti-Trump attack strategies.


As the Democrats converged on Detroit, Tyrone Beason went to Flint, where mistrust still flows along with tainted water, but where a new generation of black activists are having some success reviving their battered city. “We’re old news, but we’re still living this,” one told him.



The Justice Department has decided not to prosecute former FBI director James Comey over how he handled the release of memos he wrote about his conversations with Trump. That decision puts to rest one recurring theme on right-wing media, that Comey would soon be going to jail for mishandling classified information. The former FBI chief still faces more investigations, however, as Del Wilber wrote.


Trump announced Thursday that he plans to impose new 10% tariffs on Chinese goods as trade talks have stalled. The tariffs, as Don Lee reported, would not take effect until September, leaving time for the two sides to negotiate. But if they do, they would hit American consumers just in time for the Christmas buying season, which could slow the economy.

The tariff announcement came just a day after the Fed cut its key interest rate for the first time since 2008. As Lee wrote, it’s a potentially risky strategy adopted, in large part, because of concerns that the trade fight may be putting the economy in danger. One of the risks, though, is that cutting rates sends a signal to Trump that he can freely escalate his actions on trade because the Fed will accommodate him.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. and China battle economically, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarked on a trip through South Asia that seeks to restore U.S. influence amid China’s rise, as Tracy Wilkinson and Shashank Bengali wrote.



Trump’s choice as the next Director of National Intelligence, Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas, has gotten very little support in the Senate. One big issue, Chris Megerian wrote, is whether Ratcliffe, who has almost no background in intelligence, will be willing to present inconvenient facts to the president, who likes aides to tell him what he wants to hear.

Also this week, the administration slapped new sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister.


Nine months ago, many moderate Democrats were threatening to try to deny Nancy Pelosi another term as Speaker of the House. Today, Pelosi has won the hearts of Democratic centrists, and she doesn’t face much serious opposition on her left, either, despite some noisy squabbles. That makes Pelosi a far more powerful speaker than either of her GOP predecessors, Jennifer Haberkorn wrote.

Pelosi demonstrated that over the past two weeks by winning passage of a government money bill that raised the debt ceiling for two years and won more money for domestic programs. The Senate on Thursday gave final approval to the two-year, $2.7-trillion government spending bill.



The administration announced it would consider plans to import prescription drugs from Canada, a move the pharmaceutical industry opposes. But as Levey wrote, a final decision is still a long ways off.


If you haven’t already read it, set aside time for Molly O’Toole’s eye-opening piece from the border, which examines one of the many contradictions in the administration’s approach to immigrants: Trump condemns Cuba but closes the door to many trying to flee.


That wraps up this week. I’m off for two weeks’ vacation. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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