February 24, 2020

For Democrats, Course Correction or Revolution?

Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), billionaire Tom Steyer, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former tech executive Andrew Yang, former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and former housing secretary Julian Castro at the strart of the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. A record 12 presidential hopefuls are participating in the debate hosted by CNN and The New York Times. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A few years back, Netflix aired a terrific series called “Bloodline” starring Sissy Spacek and Kyle Chandler in a story about a family in the Florida Keys whose members were implicated in a horrific crime. The show’s marketing tagline was particularly compelling — “We’re Not Bad People. We Just Did a Bad Thing.”

Fast forward to 2019, and that could make a very appropriate slogan for former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. From the beginning, Biden’s core message has essentially been that the American people simply need to fix a mistake and then just get things back to normal. We’re not bad people. We just did a bad thing.

More aggressive Democrats reject what they feel is an overly timid approach and instead call for much more dramatic and sweeping change. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, among others, see beating President Donald Trump as one small step toward much grander goals. On the campaign trail, in cable television interviews, and most notably in the primary debates, the candidates use issues like universal health care and free college tuition and the Green New Deal as placeholders for that broader discussion: Is this election a course correction that can put the country back on track after four years of Trump? Or is it a jumping-off point for fundamental change far beyond what the leaders of either party have attempted for many years?

This is not just a matter of ideology, as the definitions of terms like progressive, populist and centrist are too amorphous and shift too rapidly to track. Rather, it’s a question of attitude: How bold (or how reckless) should Trump’s general election opponent dare to be? Or alternatively, how carefully (or how cowardly) should Democrats work to avoid overreaching in such a high-stakes election?

The combination of Warren’s ascendancy and Biden’s struggles has intensified this internal disagreement. Party activists and donors who worry about Warren’s prospects in a general election are now fearful that Biden may not be able to stop her from the nomination. This could provide an opportunity for mid-tier candidates like Mayor Pete Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar to emerge as a pragmatic alternative to Warren. Or it could simply provide a glide path for Warren to achieve the nomination by contrasting herself as a safer alternative to Sanders.

How bold should Trump’s general election opponent dare to be?

Sanders’ diminishing poll numbers, and his seeming lack of interest in reaching out beyond the party’s most ardent progressives, make it difficult to see how he could come out on top. But his small dollar-fueled fundraising ensures that he’ll remain a force through the spring, and the recent endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an important reminder of the depths of the passion for Sanders with his strongest supporters. More likely, though, his presence on the trail will serve mainly to normalize Warren’s policy agenda, and allow her to position herself as the more talented and therefore more electable of the two leading progressive heartthrobs.

But unlike Sanders, Warren does think about how to reach out to moderate Democrats in the primary and to independent voters in the fall. That’s why the recent criticisms she’s faced from Buttigieg and Klobuchar over how she will pay for her health care plan have created a precarious situation for her. Sanders is happy to say that “Medicare for All” will require tax increases on the middle class. Warren must be much more careful, and the way she describes the funding sources for her single-payer proposal will be an important moment in the primary. 

The months between now and the Iowa caucuses in February are several lifetimes in politics. There’s more than enough time for Biden to regain his footing and to use Trump’s broadsides against him to elevate himself over the rest of the primary field. There’s also plenty of time for Buttigieg or Klobuchar to supplant him as the middle-of-the-road option for cautious primary voters, or for an overlooked candidate like Sen. Cory Booker to ascend. There may even be enough time for Sen. Kamala Harris to resurrect a campaign that has wandered far off course. 

But the central question for Democratic primary voters will remain unchanged: Does the party want a revolution or a course correction? Is beating Trump enough or do they want even more?

Dan Schnur is a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine University.