Biden and Buttigieg Are Road Kill if They Stay in the Middle Lane

Michael Tomasky

So the moderates have started to unload on the lefties. That’s the story line in the wake of Elizabeth Warren’s bumpy rollout of her Medicare for All funding plan last week. They smell a chance to arrest her momentum.

So Joe Biden took a swipe at Warren on Medium.com without naming her: “Some call it the ‘my way or the highway’ approach to politics. But it’s worse than that. It’s condescending to the millions of Democrats who have a different view. It’s representative of an elitism that working- and middle-class people do not share: ‘We know best; you know nothing.’ ‘If you were only as smart as I am you would agree with me.’ This is no way to get anything done.”

Pete Buttigieg bought a ticket for the Bash Warren Express, too. “We will fight when we must fight, but I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fighting that we start to think fighting is the point,” he said at last Friday’s Iowa Liberty & Justice Celebration, just hours after Warren released her plan.

It was inevitable that Warren was going to absorb hits like that once she became a, or the, front-runner. They would have come even if she didn’t open herself up to attack with a plan that, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, even some of her admirers found perplexing. But given that she did that, the hits were double-inevitable.

They’re understandable, but I don’t think flicking jabs at Warren is going to get them very far. No. If the “moderates”—a word I don’t like, because their programs are pretty liberal; to the left of what Barack Obama ran on in 2008—want to steal a march on Warren, they need to do something else. They need to talk about themselves, not her.

Specifically, they need to say: Look, my plan isn’t moderate! My plan is big and bold and powerful! Are you kidding me? Ten years ago, a public option was considered too radical for the Democratic Party to pass. Now it’s some gutless sellout position? Give me a break. 

They’re not doing much of that. In debates and interviews, when they start talking about their plans, they tend to emphasize things about how their health-care plans are more realistic, less expensive, more reasonable. 

I saw Buttigieg being interviewed on Morning Joe Monday. Mika asked him about Warren’s health-care plan and his, and he said: “We need to make sure there is an ironclad explanation of how to fund things. What I’m offering is something that can very clearly be paid for with a combination of a rollback of the Trump corporate-tax-rate cut and the savings we’re gonna get by allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies… My plan is better because it’s dramatically more affordable and because it allows you to choose your plan.” 

To be fair, he did also say that his plan—an option for people to buy into Medicare, basically—represented a “bold change that would be the biggest thing we’ve done to Medicare since we implemented it in the first place.” But he didn’t emphasize it. He kinda snuck it in there. But that sentence should be what he wants listeners to take away.

My point is this: Biden, Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar are all fighting for the “middle lane” here, so all will exhibit a natural tendency to pitch themselves as reasonable and responsible, unlike Warren and Sanders. I get that. They want to reassure general-election voters—and probably to some extent the media.

But at the same time, they don’t want to come across as visionless incrementalists, either. They don’t want to let Sanders and Warren and their supporters paint them as do-nothings.

Biden in particular ought to be saying something like: “There’s this line out there about me that I just want some kind of ‘Restoration.’ That I just want things to go back to being the way they were before Trump. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have an agenda, and it’s a big agenda. Public option. A $15 minimum wage. A Green New Deal. A big infrastructure plan. Plans to protect and strengthen workers that even Sanders and Warren don’t have. So I have a lot I want to do. Don’t be fooled into believing that I just wanna get in there and host ceremonies and hand out medals.” Talk like that could do him a world of good with primary voters.

And Warren, for her part, may now be entering a phase where she needs to take a little of the edge off her leftism (I don’t like that word very much either; all these labels miss important nuances). She might want to think about reassuring voters that she doesn’t seek eternal class conflict, which fairly or not is increasingly the tag on her. Even a lot of voters who adore her and want class conflict are a little nervous about whether that’s the path to electability.

The next debate is in two weeks—Wednesday, Nov. 20 in Atlanta. These debates, especially the last two or three, have been about the two ideological camps drawing lines in the sand. Maybe next time, the advantage will go to the candidate who blurs them a little and surprises people and shows that he or she can’t just be put in one ideological box. The Democratic Party has a lot of those boxes, and the nominee is going to be the person who checks the highest number of them. 

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