A Pragmatic Deconstruction of Centrist Arguments

One of the things we saw clearly in Tuesday’s Democratic debate was that several candidates made the so-called “centrist” argument against the progressive proposals emanating from more liberal candidates. Some of them made sense, like the fact that Warren’s wealth tax is at worst unconstitutional, and at best, will be tied up in the courts for years. Delaney was right to support the Transpacific Partnership trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration. As Kevin Carey identified in the latest edition of the Washington Monthly, Warren and Sanders get some things wrong in their proposals for free college.

But in many ways, the entire framing of many of these issues is what’s wrong. On health insurance, of the 20+ candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, Warren and Sanders are the only two who support taking private insurance away from those who prefer it. There are a whole host of alternatives being offered that would take us closer to universal coverage but don’t get thoroughly examined because everyone is busy setting their hair on fire about the “socialism” of single payer.

The overriding problem is that, on the items that are soaking up all of the oxygen, too many people are feeding into the way that these issues are being framed by Republicans. For example, a lot of people are worried about the “radical” idea of decriminalizing border crossings. Of course that doesn’t play well with most voters. But that is because almost no one is taking a look at what is actually being proposed. I’ll let Josh Marshall explain.

…this is an incredibly narrow issue in the broader immigration debate. As the advocates of decriminalization make fairly clear, the reason they want to do this is that President Trump has used this law as the hook for family separations. By and large previous administrations chose to deal with crossings as civil infractions. In other words, before President Trump, in practice it wasn’t criminalized in the first place (there were exceptions). So in practice there’s very little difference. This amounts to an argument that if we get a Democratic president, it will be a priority to formally change border crossings to only a civil offense so that a future Trump-like President wouldn’t be able to use the law for family separations in the future.

Decriminalizing border crossings does not equate to open borders. Instead, it means formalizing what had previously been standard practice: treating these crossings as civil infractions. So there would still be legal consequences, but the charges couldn’t be used to separate families or lock people up in inhumane detention centers for indefinite periods of time. If it was discussed in those terms, would the majority of voters still disagree?

One of these days, a very smart candidate is going to knock down the question moderators seem to love about whether they support providing health insurance to undocumented immigrants. There are all kinds of public health reasons for doing so. But the best response would be to simply say that that is the wrong question. The right one is to ask what those seeking political office plan to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, two thirds of whom have been here for over 10 years.

Democrats support a pathway to citizenship as part of an overall package on immigration reform. In that case, the question of health insurance becomes moot and we should be asking Republicans why they reject comprehensive immigration reform. The way this question has been framed assumes that over 11 million people will continue to live in the shadows, while the rest of us argue about which basic services they deserve. That is not good enough!

Frankly, I’m sick and tired of people like David Axelrod lecturing us all about how voters don’t support what Democrats are offering and that we’ll lose the election if that doesn’t change. There are certainly areas where candidates like Warren and Sanders get it wrong. But too many of the centrists aren’t challenging the way that so much of this debate has been framed to put Democrats at a disadvantage. Someone needs to take up the mantle of providing a pragmatic response to that drumbeat.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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