The Real Divide That Threatens Democrats

It is clear that a lot of people in the media chase stories that reinforce a narrative about how the Democrats are in disarray. As I’ve often noted in the past, that almost always means focusing on the plethora of ideas about how to reach the common goals shared by members of the party, which doesn’t demonstrate disarray, but a healthy diversity.

There is, however, one divide that is worth noting. When it comes to an approach to improving our health care system, Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently said this:

“How do we get universal coverage, Medicare for all? Lots of paths for how to do that,” Warren said. “But we know where we are aiming. And that is, every American has health care at a price they can afford. And that the overall costs in the system are held as low as possible.”

Pressed to be more specific, she added: “There are multiple bills on the floor in the United States Senate. I’ve signed onto Medicare for All. I’ve signed on to another one that gives an option for buying in to Medicaid. There are different ways we can get there. But the key has to be always keep the center of the bulls-eye in mind. And that is affordable health care for every American.”

That aligns with the approach taken by most Democratic members of congress as well as the 2020 presidential candidates. However, Sen. Bernie Sanders seems to be carving out a different path.

A Sanders supporter put it this way:

“There is a major scramble and counter-offensive happening among the Democratic Party establishment to ensure that leading 2020 candidates back off from single-payer, Medicare for All,” Waleed Shahid, the Justice Democrats top spokesman, tweeted on Saturday. “They will try to redefine M4A as a buy-in. Don’t let them.”

The important difference is whether goals like universal coverage or Medicare for All are aspirational goals we can work towards or immediate steps to demand. The divide begins to surface when anything short of the latter is negatively labeled as coming from “the Democratic Party establishment,” which automatically means that it must be rejected.

Similar to the goal of universal health care coverage, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have articulated an aspirational set of goals for combating climate change that is being called a “Green New Deal.” Upon its release, the non-binding resolution garnered 70 House cosponsors and support from every major Democratic presidential candidate. That mirrors the kind of support Medicare for All legislation has received.

Josh Barro articulated some of the push-back we’ve seen about the Green New Deal resolution.

Barro’s colleagues at New York Magazine engaged in a discussion about the bigger picture.

David Wallace Wells: This just doesn’t strike me as a bill whose details are worth debating, because I take its main points to be — not the matter of nuclear or carbon capture or urban density — but that the country should be mobilized to make a maximalist effort to honor the playbook laid by the IPCC…I think there’s value in getting a number of high-profile Dems to actually sign up for aggressive climate action and put their names to that commitment…

Benjamin Hart: This all seems to strike at the heart of many debates going on on the left now. Should an out-of-power party try to put forward realistic proposals that actually might be passed into law when it returns to governance, or should it make a louder, splashier statement of principle that is a little outlandish on the details but acknowledge where the party is on core, urgent issues?

I wonder if some of you have experienced this kind of divide in other work environments: the clash between idealists who insist on aspirational (oftentimes unrealistic) goals and the pragmatists who insists on realistic strategies to progress. I certainly have. In one case, it wasn’t until we honestly voiced these differences and let go of assumptions about the other person’s lack of commitment that we were able to effectively collaborate.

When it comes to climate change, Jay Smooth did a great job of articulating the urgency of aspirational goals while taking a shot at the kind of “horse race” coverage about it in the media.

On the other hand, as a pragmatist, here is how Barack Obama described the situation while traveling in Alaska to highlight the urgency of climate change just prior to the signing of the Paris Climate Accord.

One of the things about being president is you’re never starting from scratch, you’ve got all these legacies that you wrestle with. And obviously, the fossil-fuel economy is deeply entrenched in the structure of everybody’s lives around the world. And so from the start, I’ve always talked about a transition that is not going to happen overnight…

And regardless of how urgent I think the science is, if I howl at the moon without being able to build a political consensus behind me, it’s not going to get done. And in fact, we end up potentially marginalizing supporters or people who recognize there’s a need to act but also have some real interests at stake…

And I think that process is something that we have to take into account even when something is really important. Even when something threatens us all, we have to bring everybody along…

And the key for Paris is just to make sure that everybody is locked in, saying, “We’re going to do this.” Once we get to that point, then we can turn the dials. But there will be a momentum that is built, and I’m confident that we will then be in a position to listen more carefully to the science — partly because people, I think, will be not as fearful of the consequences or as cynical about what can be achieved. Hope builds on itself. Success breeds success.

Both Smooth and Obama acknowledge the urgency of the situation as well as the importance of developing political support for addressing climate change. But there are differences in the approaches they are advocating. Smooth suggests that laying out an aspirational document is a way to shift the conversation and build support for that agenda. Obama sought to get “everybody locked in” to achievable goals as a way to start building momentum.

Each argument contains both strengths and weaknesses, but both are reasonable ways of approaching the issue and don’t need to be at odds with each other. Given that the Green New Deal is a non-binding resolution, its role could be to lay out the end game, while specific steps that will be considered by Congress could address people’s fears and build momentum.

However, none of that will happen as long as people question the commitment of those who seek to inspire our aspirations or those who focus on realistic steps that breed success. That is the real divide that threatens Democrats. It is not “establishment vs insurgent” or “liberal vs progressive” or “populist vs corporatist.” Rather, it is passing judgement on the motives of people who emphasize different paths to our shared goals.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.