The Corner

Elections

The ‘Republican Talking Points’ Line Is the Democrats’ New Debate Dodge

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the Democratic debate in Detroit on July 31, 2019 (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

“Republican talking points” is to Democrats as “fake news” is to Donald Trump: an accusation that, despite containing some element of truth, is often deployed as a way to deflect from real debate about uncomfortable issues. Of course the most indefensible aspects of one’s political platform are going to be exploited by partisan adversaries — that’s politics, baby! — but it is intellectually dishonest to then use this simple fact as the rationale for not even discussing the policy in question.

But presidential candidates are rarely accused of intellectual honesty. The last two nights of Democratic debates were the coming-out party of the “Republican talking points” line as a way to wave off the possibility of discussing the particularities of policies such as the abolition of private health insurance, the decriminalization of border crossings, and middle-class tax hikes.

On the first night, Elizabeth Warren, under attack from John Delaney for her plan’s abolition of private health care, complained that her more moderate counterparts “should stop using Republican talking points” — a charge she repeated when challenged again in a post-debate CNN interview. Bernie Sanders, when rightly challenged by Jake Tapper on the fact that his plan would necessitate raising taxes on the middle class — something which he has openly admitted — fired back, “Jake, your question is a Republican talking point.” On the second night, this line of defense continued, with Kamala Harris responding to Michael Bennet’s indictment of her plan to eliminate employer-based health insurance by moaning that “we cannot keep with the Republican talking points on this.” Julian Castro, too, responded to the allegation that decriminalization of border crossings amounted to open borders — an indictment from his former Obama administration colleague Jeh Johnson — by lamenting that “open borders is a right-wing talking point and some people on this stage have taken the bait.”

A word of advice to progressive presidential hopefuls: Being asked to explain the most controversial aspects of one’s policy is hardly the same as the opposition’s “talking points.” And the pattern of this defense — a moderate saying “[x far-left proposal] is a bad idea” and a progressive responding that “criticizing [x far-left proposal] is a Republican talking point” — raises the question of what the party’s eventual nominee will do when that nominee runs against a Republican. A difficult, bitter general election is quickly approaching. Are Democrats aware?

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