Presidential Primaries: Both Parties Have Failed Us

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks in the spin room after the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)
Are Trump and Warren the best we can do? The nomination process must be reformed.

This week Joe Biden finally took a stand on the pressing issue of how transgender prisoners should be housed: “In prison, the determination should be that your sexual identity is defined by what you say it is, not what in fact the prison says it is.”

Finally, America. We have our answer.

Biden, like all the other Democratic candidates, is tripping over himself to move to the left on just about every issue. It has been quite a spectacle, watching these candidates. Ten years ago, the solution to global warming was to be cap-and-trade. Now, if you ask Democratic presidential candidates, it is laws regulating consumption — no more beef for you! Beto wants mandatory confiscation of “assault” rifles, and he is not the only one. Bernie Sanders is calling for wiping out both student loans and medical debt. So-called Medicare for All has moved from the fringe of the party to the mainstream. And most of the Democrats are all in for de-criminalizing illegal immigration.

During the Obama era, pundits in the legacy media chided Republicans for becoming a radical faction — “radical” insofar as they wanted to reform entitlements before public-debt levels hit a crisis point.

But what the Democrats this cycle are doing is another matter entirely. Combine all of these sweeping policy reforms with a growing comfort level with major structural changes to the system of government — elimination of the Electoral College, for instance — and the Democrats are on track to get to the left of William Jennings Bryan, to date the most radical major-party nominee.

What the hell is going on over there?

My read on the situation is that the Democratic candidates are courting a relatively narrow constituency in the party: predominantly white, socioeconomically upscale progressives. These voters wield disproportionate power in the early states, especially New Hampshire and Iowa. And more than anything else, they drive small-dollar fundraising, which is now more important than ever: To get into the debates, candidates have to hit basic polling thresholds, which require them to spend money very early in the cycle.

So the problem gets down to the power relations within the Democratic party. A subset of Democratic voters has so much power that it is pushing the party outside the broad middle of the country. That is the result of how the nomination system is structured. As I have noted many times, nomination systems distribute the power to select candidates to run for office. Such systems should have the twin goals of distributing power in such a way that the selected candidate reflects the preferences of the party (its leaders as well as its voters) without pushing it outside the national mainstream. But neither the Democratic nor the Republican system does that.

In 2016, we saw that the Republican system failed at both tasks. Yes, most Republican voters came around to Trump, but he was a divisive figure within the GOP during the primaries. He enjoyed a polling lead over his opponents for most of the cycle, but he finished with just 45 percent of the total GOP vote (even though he had no competition for the last month of the primaries). That is a smaller share than any Republican nominee in the modern era. And the lingering frustration that even many Republicans have with his approach to governance — if not his policy substance, which most GOP voters support — shows that some of these problems remain. And while Trump did win a narrow victory over Hillary Clinton, the broader electoral landscape that year was so favorable to Republicans (a weak opponent and the general difficulty incumbent parties have in winning a third consecutive term) that Trump probably underperformed.

Democrats might do likewise this year. Of the three candidates polling at more than 10 percent, Warren and Sanders have placed themselves far outside the mainstream of American political life. And as Biden’s comment about transgender prisoners suggests, he, too, is shifting rapidly leftward. Note also his flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds for abortion except to save the life of the woman.

Maybe Biden can hang on and win the nomination, but increasingly people are thinking that it will be a Warren–Trump general election. What a nightmare. What a failure of our party institutions to stick us with one candidate, Trump, who is widely disliked, and another, Warren, with a truly radical agenda. Is it really asking too much for our parties to give us candidates that we . . . y’know . . . can actually stand?

I do not expect any of this to change any time soon. What we need is party reform, which is basically the one issue nobody is talking about. Banning beef? Sure. Transgender prisons? You betcha. Abolishing the Electoral College? Why not. Keeping the crazies from dominating our parties? Crickets.

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