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Let the primaries begin

Sept 24,2019
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Stephan Haggard
The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.

There is at least a 50 percent chance — probably better — that U.S. President Donald Trump will be defeated in the 2020 presidential contest. But victory could depend on whom the Democrats nominate. The Democratic field started to narrow, as only the top ten candidates — measured by polls and donations — took part in the third Democratic party debate. Where do the primaries stand?

Despite the large field, it is increasingly clear that only three or four candidates are likely to remain viable when the primaries begin in February. Among this group are two white men that would be the oldest nominees ever: Joe Biden (76) — Barack Obama’s Vice President — and Bernie Sanders (78), an avowed Democratic socialist who posed a serious primary challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The only other candidate to gradually emerge from the field is Harvard law professor and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, probably the candidate with the greatest intellectual depth. The rest of the field is strong and diverse, but remains mired in single-digit support.

Despite repeated calls for unity, these three top candidates represent extremely diverse policy approaches. Biden has embraced the Obama legacy and positioned himself as a moderate capable of appealing to the party’s diverse base and attracting moderate “swing” voters, those who voted for Trump but could switch allegiances back to the Democrats.

Sanders and Warren have advocated sweeping economic and political reforms. These ideas could face the same type of resistance from voters that Moon Jae-in has confronted in pursuing reform of chaebol and raising the minimum wage.

By far the most important issue for the Democrats is health care. Korea, too, faced battles over universalizing its health care system. But progressive presidents gradually expanded coverage after the transition to Democratic rule, and now most Koreans are at least satisfied with their coverage.

In the United States, health insurance is public for those over 65. But a large share of Americans get insurance through their employers and thus ultimately through private insurance companies. And many are uninsured altogether.

President Obama took an incremental approach, demanding that individuals get coverage but expanding incrementally by providing subsidies for poorer households; the system left private insurance intact. Biden has embraced this effort, promising to push it forward to gradually cover all citizens.

Warren and Sanders, by contrast, have embraced more ambitious universal coverage that looks more like the Korean system. In advancing their plans, they have been forced to admit that taxes will necessarily rise and those with private insurance will ultimately be forced into the public system.

This fight on health care is repeated in a number of other policy areas as well. The left of the Democratic party has outlined an ambitious Green New Deal that promises to cut carbon emissions to zero on a completely unrealistic timetable. Warren and Sanders are highly critical of big business, routinely criticizing pharmaceutical companies — one of America’s most innovative industries — insurance companies, banks and the fossil fuel industry. And as in Korea, Warren and Sanders have promised to increase the minimum wage and provide a more robust social safety net.

The issue is not the merit of these proposals. The issue is their political viability. The Democratic Party is now fighting over strategy as much as substance.

For the moderates — Biden and others seeking that mantle — it is all about swing voters who left the party for Trump in 2016. But the left has a strategy as well. They claim that Hillary Clinton lost because of lack of enthusiasm, and particularly among younger voters. Fresh bold ideas will energize the Democratic vote, even if those ideas will probably face resistance in a Senate still likely to be held by Republicans.

Sadly, I fear that the moderates are right. Liberals overlook the fact that the base of the party is highly likely to vote against Trump anyway; the key issue is what moderate voters do. The left also overlooks the extent to which its more unrealistic proposals energize Republicans.

What about foreign policy? As always, it plays less of a role in American elections than it should, but several trends were visible in the debate. First, the Democrats are united in getting the United States back to a foreign policy that is more multilateral and that embraces our allies.

On trade, the Democrats had a hard time saying how they differed from Trump. Several candidates bemoaned the lack of a strategy and said they would reverse harmful tariffs on agriculture and consumer goods. But most also wanted to see the U.S. stand up to China and pursue trade deals that had stronger labor and environmental components.

None of these fights may matter; Trump may well self-destruct. But if Democratic voters veer too far left and the party narrowly loses the general election, the world — not only the United States — will be subjected to four more years of Donald Trump. That would be an extremely high price to pay.