The same day that the head of the Democratic National Committee told a group of Iowans that the party’s “unity is our greatest strength,” the top-ranking Democrat in Congress ripped apart a chief policy proposal of two leading 2020 presidential candidates.
The dichotomy between the feel-good vibes of DNC Chair Tom Perez and the cold-water dousing delivered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the push for Medicare for All portended what appears to be one of the more trying weeks for Democrats to date. At a time when President Trump is on the precipice of impeachment, the opposition party finds itself in an increasingly dour state, with a renewed sense of fright about the prospects of the president’s re-election and infighting between the primary candidates heating up in uncomfortable ways.
At the heart of the internal friction is Sens. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) advocacy for Medicare for All, with the former introducing an expansive—and potentially unwieldy—set of provisions to pay for the multi-trillion-dollar health-care overhaul this past week. In remarks to Bloomberg News on Friday, Pelosi offered a pointed warning to the two (and other Democrats in general) that the idea would prove to be a disaster for national Democrats looking to emerge victorious against Trump in less than one year’s time.
“You must win the Electoral College,” Pelosi said. “What works in San Francisco does not necessarily work in Michigan,” she said. “Protect the Affordable Care Act—I think that’s the path to health care for all Americans. Medicare for All has its complications.” It wasn’t the first time Pelosi sharply criticized the universal health-care proposal. But it was the most direct attack on its potential general-election ramifications.
By Monday, other Democrats echoed the speaker’s blunt political warnings, noting, in part, new polling from The New York Times and Siena that in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina—critical Electoral College states—Trump lags behind former Vice President Joe Biden, who does not support Medicare for All, but does better than Warren or Sanders in some states, who do.
Former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who narrowly lost his re-election contest in 2018, told The Daily Beast that if Warren or Sanders were to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2020, Democrats would effectively be ceding Florida to Trump.
“The answer is yes,” Nelson, who is backing Biden’s candidacy, said when asked if Florida is gone if Warren or Sanders win the nomination. “I say this with the greatest respect and admiration and friendship for those other senators who embrace Medicare for All. But the hard reality is, it is going to be a stretch too far for the Democrat candidate.”
Warren’s campaign did not return a request for comment. But Nina Turner, Sanders’ campaign co-chairwoman, told The Daily Beast that Democrats will simply have to get over their aversion to the universal health-care plan under a hypothetical Sanders administration.
“When he is the nominee, there will be no more hiding from this,” Turner said. “Neoliberal Democrats will have to accept the fact that they will have a presidential nominee who will fight like hell for Medicare for All.”
Murshed Zaheed, a partner at Megaphone Strategies and former leadership staffer for Harry Reid, said Pelosi’s comments “do not hurt Sen. Warren or Sen. Sanders at all.”
“Nancy Pelosi is just not in touch with the majority of Democratic voters. If she was listening to the people, she’d know the majority of voters actually support Democrats running on Medicare for All,” Zaheed said.
It is a truism of national politics that Democrats will go through several dozen bed-wetting periods during the course of a campaign—so much so that the phrase “Dems in Disarray” has become one of the more overused clichés in all of punditry. And several top operatives cautioned that the party’s fears that they’re blowing the Trump rematch—or, worse, delivering self-inflicting wounds heading into the election—were vastly overblown. One top Democrat said internal polling of swing states was much rosier than what the Times and Siena’s study showed. Others chalked up the increasingly public frictions to the tides and turns of a primary race.
“This is a frenzied period,” Brian Fallon, a Democratic operative who worked on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, told The Daily Beast. “We’re entering the home stretch before Iowa.”
But even Fallon conceded that the party had entered a period where “there’s a lot of crossfire.”
In recent days, Biden has escalated attacks on the financing of Warren’s Medicare for All plan, with his deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield saying that it would, in fact, raise middle-class taxes by redirecting employer contributions toward employees’ health-care coverage. To which, Warren shot back, by questioning the logic and accusing Biden of “running in the wrong presidential primary”—an assertion that Biden, in an email to supporters, called “almost laughable.”
The two were hardly the only top-tier Democrats fighting in recent days. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg suggested the presidential primary has already winnowed to a two-person race between himself and Warren in an appearance he made on Showtime’s The Circus.
He later backtracked. But the line earned him some raised eyebrows from Democratic contenders and operatives. Among them was Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who has in recent months plummeted in several early-state and national polls, and recently uprooted much of her campaign staff to refocus on Iowa. “It’s naive for him to think that at this point, that the fate of this election has been determined," Harris told CBS’ Face the Nation.
Even the lower-tier candidates have been getting into the act. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) has spent the last few weeks campaigning against Hillary Clinton, who suggested Gabbard was being propped up by Republicans as a third-party candidate; and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) mocked Buttigieg by noting that the budget he had as chancellor of the Denver Public School system was “about three times the size of a certain municipality in the state of Indiana.”
There was even fighting among the candidates who supported Medicare for All over the merits of their respective proposals. Sanders, who has made writing the “damn bill” the signature of his campaign’s platform, has taken steps in recent days to draw distinctions between his approach to financing the plan compared to Warren’s. Warren, who’s known on the campaign trail as the candidate with “a plan” for nearly every facet of governance, was met with significant pushback.
“I think the approach that we have, in fact, will be much more progressive in terms of protecting the financial well-being of middle-income families,” Sanders told ABC News on Saturday, arguing that Warren’s proposal could ultimately have a “very negative impact” on middle-class job creation.
But that squabble, others feared, was akin to two boat captains yapping at each other over who had the best chair arrangement for the decks on the Titanic.
“Some people in the Democratic Party want to use the Jeremy Corbyn strategy,” James Carville, a Democratic strategist who ran former President Bill Clinton’s campaign, told The Daily Beast, referencing the British Labour Party leader who has failed to convert a left-wing resurgence into electoral victory. “There’s this whole thinking where ‘the Democrats are going to win so we need to be bold,’” he added, “but no, look at the U.K.”
“I don’t want to be the party of Jeremy Corbyn,” he said. “It worries me.”
UPDATE: Faiz Shakir, Sanders' campaign manager, sends along the following statement in reaction to Nelson's comments.
"Former Senator Bill Nelson's wing of the Democratic Party has too often stood with corporate donors and against the working class. When Bernie is the nominee, you better believe that is going to change. The Democratic Party will once again be a working-class party built with grassroots support and donations."