US politics: Split it down the middle

Joe Biden.

The Democrat debates will see 10 prospective presidential candidates argue why they should receive the nomination to take on Donald Trump. Bette Browne looks at the runners.

US president Donald Trump has a path to re-election and it runs through the Democratic party unless former vice president Joe Biden can tighten his grip on his party’s nomination — that’s the view of some voters in middle America, backed by a number of polls.

Taking the political pulse of America’s heartland usually involves going to Iowa state, but recently some Iowa friends came toIreland and their take on the 2020 election painted a bleak picture for Democrats seeking to win back the White House.

They said Americans start paying attention to the election only after the September 2 Labour Day holiday there and if they tune in to next Thursday’s Democratic party debate only to find candidates still bickering among themselves, it could be disastrous for the party.

“I think Biden is the only Democrat who can defeat Trump,” one of the Iowa voters told me.

If Biden is strong, people will take a good look at him but if they’re just fighting among themselves people will tune out.

And if Biden isn’t the candidate?

“I think many Democrats or independents in Iowa won’t vote at all.”

Biden seems particularly aware of this and made an appeal to such voters when he launched his campaign.

“Workers feel powerless, too often humiliated,” he said.

“How did we get to this place where they don’t think we see them, or hear them, or know them?”

Bickering at election time is nothing new, particularly for Democrats, hence the saying:“I’m not a member of any organised political party, I’m a Democrat!”

But this time the battle lines have become particularly dangerous for the party.

This is partly because some Democrats feel they lost the 2016 race against Trump because their candidate, Hillary Clinton, was tied too closely to the party’s establishment and didn’t connect with the economic desperation of many in the forgotten corners of middle America.

This time, many Democrats argue, they need a progressive candidate such as Bernie Sanders pushing policies to dramatically restructure the government and its spending priorities in areas such as health insurance and college tuition.

President Donald Trump.
President Donald Trump.

While all the candidates are united in their desire to defeat the Republican president, progressives and moderates remain deeply divided on how best this can be achieved and, so far, their divisions have been playing out very publicly on the debate stage.

If that continues, it could doom the party’s eventual candidate among many Democratic and independent voters. These voters’ views matter enormously to Republicans as well as Democrats.

It was Iowa voters, along with those in a handful of other middle American states, such as Michigan and Ohio, who helped Trump to win the White House in 2016,although Barack Obama took the state for Democrats in 2012.

It is also the state that will kick off the 2020 race when both parties hold their first nominating contests there next February, and candidates have already begun crisscrossing the state to woo voters.

“Healthcare is a big issue for us,” my Iowa friends said.

They [Democrats] are talking about taking away the healthcare plans we have and replacing them and it’ll cost us more in taxes. We don’t want that. They don’t really listen to us, they fight among themselves. They talk down to us.

A Monmouth University survey tends to support that view. It found that a majority of likely Iowa Democratic voters prefer a health plan where people can opt into the government-run Medicare insurance programme if they wish but would also have the option of staying with their current plan.

At this stage in their campaigns, however, progressive Democratic candidates such as senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want to extend the government’s Medicare insurance programme for the elderly to cover all Americans of all ages, with no additional option of choosing to hold on to their private insurance.

Meanwhile, Trump and his Republican party have branded Medicare-for-all as proof that the Democratic party wants to bring “socialism” to America. The president once put it this way: “They want to raid Medicare to pay for socialism.”

Biden, however, has made it clear that he does not support a Medicare-for-all plan without a private insurance option, so Iowans “are prepared to give him a chance”, I was told.

“He’s the only Democrats who has a chance here. He seems to understand us.”

Polls show an increasing number of voters in national polls agree with such sentiments.

Elizabeth Warren.
Elizabeth Warren.

One Reuters/Ipsos poll, for example, found that 85% of Democrats, 52% of Republicans, and 70% of Americans overall are in favour of Medicare-for-all. But when the policy involves a public option with the ability to keep a private plan, support jumps to 75% overall.

The latest poll also shows Biden’s lead as front runner is holding up over the crowded field of more than 20 Democratic presidential hopefuls. Only Warren and Sanders come anywhere close to Biden’s numbers.

The Quinnipiac University poll found Biden at 32% compared to 19% for Warren and 15% for Sanders. No other candidate registered double-digit support.

Thursday’s debate, therefore, could have a major impact on Biden’s chances as it is the first time he will be on the same stage as his closest rivals, Warren and Sanders.

BIDEN-WARREN BATTLE MAY TAKE SHAPE

Previous debates have been spread over two nights due to the fact that more than 20 candidates were participating. But new criteria for qualifying means only 10 will now take part in Thursday’s debate.

While Sanders and Warren have been on the same debate stage together, until now Biden has been on a separate stage on a separate night with other candidates such as senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. The others on the stage on Thursday will be Pete Buttigieg,Julián Castro, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang.

Booker, Harris, Buttigieg, and O’Rourke have had strong performances in previous debates, but have since faded so they will be anxiousto try to bounce back in Thursday’s debate.

It’s also possible that if Warren puts in another strong performance on Thursday she could pull further ahead of Sanders and a Biden-Warren contest could begin to take shape.

The other 10 candidates not participating on Thursday will continue in the race, but without having qualified for the debate and losing such vital national exposure, many of them are expected to drop out in the coming weeks or months.

Washington state governor Jay Inslee, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, former Alaska senator Mike Gravel and California congressman Eric Swalwell havealready dropped out.

On August 28, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand became the latest candidate to announce her exit.

This is the first debate, therefore, in which Biden will face close scrutiny from debate watchers, especially as the latest round of polling shows

him with a significant national lead in the race.

But if the debate dissolves into a shouting match between progressives — Warren and Sanders, and moderates — Biden, Booker, and others — the Democratic party as a whole could suffer serious self-inflicted wounds and imperil its candidate’s chances of winning back the White House.

Many Democrats say the party needs to heed the moderate message coming not just from middle America but from within their own ranks, as reflected in a Gallup poll showing 54% of Democrats support a party that is “more moderate”; while 41% want one that is “more liberal”.

Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders.

This finding is consistent with other polling that shows that Democratic voters are far more moderate than their candidates. So much for “socialism”.

The party’s leader in the US senate, New York senator Chuck Schumer, is also particularly alarmed at the level of squabbling over healthcare and other issues and recently warned his party’s presidential hopefuls not to become like a “circular firing squad” in their policy squabbles.

“If we get all focused on the differences, we’ll lose sight of the fact that it’s Donald Trump whose’s now trying to reduce healthcare, destroy healthcare, get rid of it for everybody,” Schumer said.

“That’s a trap that we shouldn’t fall into. No circular firing squads.”

Many in the party’s leadership are also aware that Biden appears to be the candidate that Trump most fears facing in his re-election bid.

For a start, the president would find it impossible to employ his socialist mantra against Biden, a two-term vice president who has also had a moderate track record as one of the longest-serving senators in Congress.

In addition, a Real Clear Politics average of national polling shows Biden leading Trump by nearly 8 percentage points in a hypothetical general election match-up.

Even worse for the president, a poll by his favourite TV station, Fox News, showed Biden defeating him by 10 percentage points.

And if the president can’t build his strategy around the socialist label, it may be far tougher for him to fight his re-election battle in 2020 compared with 2016 when he boosted his White House chances by demonising immigrants.

This incendiary strategy may not work quite as well in 2020, according to a recent Reuters’ analysis of public opinion over the last four years.

Reuters/Ipsos polling of 4,436 US adults in July showed that people who rejected racial stereotypes were more interested in voting in the 2020 general election than those who expressed stronger levels of anti-black or anti-Hispanic biases. In 2016, it was the reverse.

The Reuters analysis shows that Trump’s narrow win came at a time when Americans with strong anti-black opinions were the more politically engaged group.

“There is some indication that racial liberals are more energised than the racially intolerant,” said University of Michigan political scientist Vincent Hutchings, who reviewed Reuters’ findings.

“That would seem to be good news for the Democrats and bad news for the Republicans.”

Trump is also making much of Biden’s gaffes, implying he’s not intellectually up to the job. The president recently said Biden “is not playing with a full deck’’ after the Democratic frontrunner made a gaffe about poor children not being white.

“He made that comment, I said ‘whoa’,” Trump told reporters. “This is not somebody you can have as your president.”

But people seem to accept Biden has a history of being gaffe-prone during a long career in Congress, while Trump, too, has had his own share of them.

During a July 4th speech, for example, the president said that during the War of Independence in 1775 the US army “took over airports”. He also called the 9/11 tragedy the 7-11 tragedy after the US grocery store.

Kamala Harris.
Kamala Harris.

Meanwhile, as the Democrats battle on in their nomination race, the president may not have it all his own way either in his own re-election bid.

Two Republican rivals have now declared they plan to mount a challenge against him for the party’s nomination.

Former Massachusetts governor William Weld and former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh have so far announced challenges. Walsh, in his announcement at the end of August, called the president a “narcissistic sexual predator”, while Weld charged he is “unfit to be president”.

A third Repubican, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, also said in recent days that he is considering joining the race, as is former Ohio governor John Kasich, who said he is “not ruling out the possibility down the road”.

But even if more Republicans do mount primary challenges against the president, their chances of actually winning the nomination are extremely slim, since Trump enjoys 81.3% of Republican support, according to an average of recent polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.

So, for the moment at least, it seems the president can just sit back and watch the Democrats battle it out be the one to face him.

No doubt, he will enjoy the combat, but the signs are that it will turn off many voters, especially in middle America.

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