When Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax proposal came up during the October Democratic debate in Ohio, Pete Buttigieg was ready with a big statement. From the perspective of the “industrial Midwest” that he calls home, Buttigieg said, plans like Warren’s were all too familiar—the work of “Washington politicians, congressmen, and senators saying all the right things, offering the most elegant policy prescriptions,” who can’t get anything done in the real world. In the end, “nothing changes,” Buttigieg lamented—and “the empty factories that I would see out the windows of my dad’s Chevy Cavalier when he drove me to school” remain empty.
The attack encapsulated the Democratic primary perfectly. You can’t throw a rock at the 2020 field without hitting a rival of Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s who says their platforms are fantasies that insult the common sense of regular heartland Americans.
Buttigieg had plenty of company in October. “I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice,” said Amy Klobuchar when the subject of “Medicare for All” came up. “What really bothers me about this discussion, which we’ve had so many times, is that we don’t talk about the things that I’m hearing about from regular Americans.”
Joe Biden, in his comments about universal health coverage, complained that Sanders and Warren’s plans would adversely affect a hypothetical family involving “a fireman and a schoolteacher.” (Women can be firefighters too, Joseph!) Plain ol’ folks, using the wisdom they’ve honed by doing the family budget with an adding machine at the kitchen table of their farmhouse, know that it would be impossible for the United States to pay for universal health care or public college programs, and that such utopian daydreams are the domain of activists and eggheads you’d find inside liberal “bubbles”—a Harvard faculty lounge, say, or on a collective farm in Vermont.
The antidote to such sheltered, unrealistic dreaming, these candidates have argued, is their own willingness and ability to unite the country’s regular folk behind more modest plans. Said Klobuchar: “You know, this isn’t a flyover part of the country to me. The heartland is where I live. And I want to win those states that we lost last time.” She described having worked closely with the late John McCain, suggesting that the experience would help her persuade “independents and moderate Republicans” to vote for her. Biden—who calls himself “Middle-Class Joe” and often mentions that he grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania—also cited his friendship with McCain. He has said that he will be able to pass legislation through Congress because Republicans will have an “epiphany” about national unity after Donald Trump is removed.
In November’s debate, Buttigieg made a similar argument: “I’m running to be the president for that day the sun comes up and the Trump presidency is behind us, which will be a tender moment in the life of this country. And we are going to have to unify a nation that will be as divided as ever.” He explained that he’s demonstrated the ability to unify as mayor of South Bend, Indiana: “I know how to bring people together to get things done. I know that from the perspective of Washington, what goes on in my city might look small, but frankly, where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small.” (Buttigieg’s present appeal to any given individual might be best measured by how much the “frankly” in that sentence makes them want to puke.)
Biden and Buttigieg are the candidates for voters who think Sanders and Warren are too extreme on policy, but also for the ones who want the election, purely on the level of tone, to be about “bringing the country together” instead of leading one group to victory over another. (The phrase pops up repeatedly when voters and elected officials give their endorsements of Biden and Mayor Pete.) This pitch has been very effective. Together, Biden and Buttigieg have the support of about 40 percent of the Democratic electorate nationally and in Iowa. Their support skews older, which tracks with a New York Times poll of Iowa that found that while “85 percent of voters under 30 said they preferred a nominee promising fundamental change,” 7 in 10 of those older than 65 wanted a candidate who would bring back “normalcy in Washington.”
Unfortunately, “bringing the country together” to the state of “normalcy” those voters are envisioning is, given current circumstances, an impossible goal. A Monday Bloomberg story makes this point not just by interviewing former members of Congress (like ex–Republican Rep. David Jolly, who calls Biden and Buttigieg’s visions “unrealistic,” and former Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, who says a unity platform would have “very little” chance of succeeding) but by confirming with current elected Republicans that they find every potential Democratic nominee objectionable. Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn tells the news service that Biden and Buttigieg’s rhetoric is just cover for “the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party” and that their policy goals, however limited, will not have bipartisan support. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz complains that the “Democratic field” is moving “further and further left” and posits that political polarization in the U.S. is attributable to the party’s “anger” and “rage” toward Trump. None of this is compatible with the premise that the Republican caucus will support a Democratic president’s agenda after having a tender, sensual post-Trump epiphany.
What Jolly and Frank based their assessments on—and what Blackburn and Cruz were acting out—is the story of the last 12 years in American politics. Barack Obama took office amid consensus rejection of his Republican predecessor’s policies; he’d won the general election by 7 percentage points. Nonetheless, he designed his first major initiative, the Affordable Care Act, by borrowing conservative ideas and consulting with corporate lobbying groups. The result? The ACA was denounced by Republicans as an act of Marxist aggression, got zero GOP votes in the Senate and one in the House, and is still the target of Republican-led lawsuits that seek to overturn it.
The backlash to Obama’s presidency, of which Trump’s nativist 2016 campaign was an expression, finalized the realignment of U.S. political parties. One is a multiracial coalition, and the other is a vehicle for white cultural and racial grievance. The former does tend to have more mass support than the latter, but that advantage is negated politically by the disproportionate power allocated to white, rural states by the Senate and Electoral College, the reality-free zone established by Fox News and associated right-wing media outlets, and the existence of party primaries. Elected Republicans don’t cooperate with elected Democrats because they don’t have an incentive to.
One way to resolve this impasse besides Constitution-level structural reform would be for Democrats to nominate someone so compelling and persuasive that Republican voters themselves push their representatives to cooperate with them. But even Obama could not accomplish this, despite being a generationally charismatic and intelligent figure who enjoyed wide support from non-Republicans for the various compromise positions that he proposed.
Given that Republicans failed to be drawn into political fellowship by the Obama method when it was being proffered by Obama himself, it is hard to see how Obama’s increasingly erratic vice president or a 37-year-old Harvard/McKinsey guy will be able to do the trick. Trump’s current approval rating within his party is 90 percent, and head-to-head polls in battleground states generally show competitive races in which, if anything, Biden and Sanders do a bit better than Warren and Buttigieg, which confounds any ideologically driven theory of what the electorate wants. A recent Monmouth poll showed that Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg are all viewed more unfavorably than favorably by the general public. The case that policy moderation, “heartland” (i.e., white and noncoastal) roots, and nonconfrontational rhetoric will crush Trump in an electability landslide does not, at this point, have much evidence to support it.
If indeed there is a significant chunk of independent and Republican voters who are ready to support a Democratic unity candidate, they are hiding from the people who conduct polls. And when you ask Republicans and Republican-leaning independents whether Trump should be removed from office and replaced by Mike Pence—which would seemingly be a much easier pill to swallow, if they were really ready to move on so long as the alternative wasn’t a hardcore leftist—they say no. There hasn’t been a Republican backlash against Trump’s abusive immigration policies or nominations of extremist judges. Republicans like what Trump is doing; why would they vote for Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg?
A lot of Democratic voters know all of this. Polling information is available to everyone. Obama’s presidency happened in public. News reports about the intransigence and conspiratorial mindset of Trump supporters are everywhere. Biden and Buttigieg are appealing to voters who either don’t follow the news or have chosen to ignore its lessons, particularly the older ones who had their expectations set during eras in which structural factors made cross-party support more common. Many of these people live in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other putatively noncosmopolitan* places and, for all I know, work as firefighters and schoolteachers. But that doesn’t mean they don’t live in a bubble, too. To premise their votes on the expectation of a cleansing nationwide disavowal of the MAGA belief system, they have to forget what their Republican neighbors and fellow citizens have been saying and doing for years. For God’s sake, Iowa is the place where Rep. Steve King has been elected to Congress 12 times. Here’s a little homespun saying: When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
Correction, Dec. 11, 2019: This sentence initially identified New Hampshire as a noncoastal state when, in fact, there is a nice little piece of New Hampshire right there on the Atlantic Ocean between Massachusetts and Maine. Sorry, New Hampshire!