New Fronts in Old War

Charlie Cook New
October 22, 2019

There have been a host of big developments in the political world over the last 10 days—possible inflection points in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, the general election, or even both.

For the president’s overall reelection prospects, the latest revelations over l'affaire ukrainienne are disturbing, but they nevertheless fit into the broader and familiar thrust of the attacks Democrats have levied on President Trump since he won the GOP nomination in 2016—that his character is lacking, and that he brings corruption along wherever he goes.

But the fallout from his decision to pull U.S. military forces back from northern Syria opens the door for Democrats to begin attacking him on another front: basic competence. Just as sure as the sun will come up tomorrow morning, Democratic Party messaging will fall along the following lines: When elected, Trump knew very little about the job of president, to say nothing about international relations, challenges around the world, and the importance of the alliances we’ve built since World War II. They will add that his understanding of domestic policy amounted to little more than anyone else who watches a lot of cable television. Next, they will point to the many news reports that he doesn’t read much, doesn’t like to be briefed by experts, and ignores briefing materials. They will note that he is guided by his instincts more than anything else, and that those instincts are very often wrong.

As this column cautioned earlier this week, don’t expect a big drop in his approval ratings. His base of between 35 and 40 percent will stay with him no matter what. But this new line of attack could affect his ability to win malleable voters in the middle. To get to 270 electoral votes, he again will need to win three-quarters of them.

Another game-changing development came out of the fourth Democratic debate, held Tuesday night in Westerville, Ohio. In Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s first debate as a clear Democratic co-front-runner, the specifics and costs of her Medicare-for-all plan emerged as a weak point that her rivals are all too willing to exploit.

As we learned with Hillarycare in 1994 and Obamacare in 2010, a substantial part of the electorate is very distrustful of big changes in their health insurance: It cost Democrats control of the House in both 1994 and 2010, and reduced Democratic numbers in the Senate in both elections.

In a tough Oct. 16 piece in The Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein cites a study by the center-left Urban Institute, which notes that a plan like those favored by Warren or Bernie Sanders “would require $34 trillion in additional federal spending over its first decade in operation. That’s more than the federal government’s total cost over the coming decade for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid combined, according to the most recent Congressional Budget Office projections.”

Brownstein goes on to point out: “In recent history, only during the height of World War II has the federal government tried to increase taxes, as a share of the economy, as fast as would be required to offset the cost of a single-payer plan.” Syracuse University professor and Clinton administration alumnus Leonard Burman adds that there are “no analogous peacetime tax increases.” Selling such a plan, he argues, “is theoretically possible,” but “the revolution that would come along with it would get in the way.”

This is where the rubber meets to road in terms of electability. There is not any question that Warren is the most talented campaigner in the Democratic race today, and perhaps in Democratic politics altogether. She’s also put together a world-class campaign organization. But all of that may not be able to withstand the questions and attacks on some of her proposals. Apart from her health plan, there are real questions about whether her wealth tax would generate the $1.75 trillion in revenue over 10 years needed to fund her agenda—one that makes Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal look somewhat modest.

This is not to say that Warren can’t win the Democratic nomination. Today she would certainly be favored to win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, but history shows that winning one or both is not tantamount to winning the nomination. Since 1972, every eventual Democratic nominee has come in first, second, or third in Iowa and either first or second in New Hampshire. The other co-front-runner, Joe Biden, could simply place or show in Iowa and place second in New Hampshire, biding his time until the primaries and caucuses move South and West—territory where polls show Biden does much better.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on October 18, 2019