For the past week, the media frenzy over President Trump's Twitter attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color has centered on the question of whether GOP leaders will rebuke the president's divisiveness and open hostility to minorities and immigrants. Sticking with Trump, the theory goes, will further cleave the GOP from the suburban voters they need to win in 2020.
There's also been speculation that Trump's attacks on 'the Squad' will help to unite Democrats. While the president's actions may unify Democrats in opposition to the president personally, it doesn't mean that Democrats are united on policy. And, while the focus thus far in the campaign has been on differences in addressing things like health care coverage, new polling by Marist/NPR/NewsHour finds that Democratic voters are more united on economic/healthcare policy than they are on issues dealing with illegal immigration and reparations for slavery.
When it comes to differentiating themselves from the more liberal members of the 2020 primary, moderate Democratic candidates for president have staked out some clear ground on economic issues.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper warns Democratic voters of the perils of embracing the term (and the policies) of socialism: "If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer."
Senator Amy Klobuchar told a CNN townhall audience in February, that "I am not for free four-year college for all, no. I wish — if I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would. I'm just trying to find a mix of incentives and make sure kids that are in need — that's why I talked about expanding Pell Grants — can go to college and be able to afford it and make sure that people that can't afford it are able to pay," she continued.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also takes a more restrained approach to the idea of free college education for anyone who applies. "I support free public colleges for low-income and middle-income families," Buttigieg said at the June DNC debate. "I just don't believe it makes sense for working-class families to subsidize tuition even for billionaires. The children of the wealthiest of Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition."
And, of course, Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Michael Bennet have been made clear that they do not support a version of a Medicare-for-All plan that would replace private health insurance.
Of those five candidates, only one, Biden, is polling in the top tier. Part of the reason may be that even self-ID'd moderate voters are more open to progressive economic policies. The most recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll (July 15-17, 2019), interviewed 1,175 registered voters, which included 553 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. They also broke out these Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents into those who identified as progressive and those who identified as moderate. To be sure, this is just one poll, and should be taken with the obvious caveats about sample size and margin of error. Also, the issue questions asked in this poll may/may not be how they are presented — or characterized- on the campaign trail. However, I do think it provides an important look into the possible fissures within the Democratic primary electorate. As we get more data —and fewer candidates — we will be able to see if/how these fissures emerge.
Let's break the issues into two buckets: one is economic issues, and the other is race and immigration.
Not surprisingly, self-defined progressive Democrats are more supportive of all three of these proposals than are moderates. But, these policies are also popular among moderates; 55 percent support a Medicare-for-all plan that replaces private insurance, 82 percent support a wealth tax, and 67 percent support making public colleges and universities tuition free. Also notable is the fact that all but the Medicare-for-all plan get majority support among all voters — including independent voters.
Although support for these issues among progressives is not as robust as their support for issues like the wealth tax or free college tuition, it is still solid; 66 percent support health insurance program for immigrants here illegally, 54 percent support decriminalizing illegal border crossings, and 56 percent support reparations. Among moderates, however, all three are more unpopular than popular. Just 26 percent support reparations for slavery while 59 percent are opposed; 34 percent support decriminalizing illegal border crossing, while 58 percent are opposed. The least unpopular, providing health insurance to people here illegally, gets 43 percent support to 47 percent opposition. Not surprisingly, these issues are also deeply unpopular with the broader electorate - including independent voters.
Biden, of course, is getting hit from progressives for his record and rhetoric on race — from his support of the 1994 Crime Bill, to his opposition to federal involvement in busing, to the romanticizing of his working relationship with segregationists senators. But, on the debate stage in Miami, all candidates (including Biden) said they supported health care coverage for those here illegally. All but Bennet raised their hand when asked if they would support decriminalizing illegal border crossing. Biden, in a subsequent CNN interview, walked back his support for charging illegal border crossers with civil, instead of a criminal, penalty. The issue of reparations wasn't asked in the last debate, but I suspect it will come up in one of the many debates still on the docket. On this issue, as Vice News writes, six Democratic candidates for President — Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kamla Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders — support "a bill that would establish a commission on reparations—not a commitment to actual payouts or programs, to be sure, but a step toward a concrete proposal to enact them." Booker is the Senate sponsor of the House bill. In a statement to VICE, "a Biden spokesperson said the former vice president 'believes that we should gather the data necessary to have an informed conversation about reparations, but he has not endorsed a specific bill.' That means," writes VICE, "that unlike the majority of the 2020 field, Biden does not necessarily support a reparations commission..."
The fight between Democratic candidates on health care is getting tons of attention (We must have Medicare for all! The Public option is better and more politically sustainable! Save Obamacare, first!), but the fissures between moderates and progressives on immigration (and reparations) are much more significant. Thus far, at least, candidates who sit in the moderate lane aren't engaging in that fight.