The 2020 Democrats again take the debate stage Thursday, filling millions of family rooms across America with their faces and voices. With the field of presidential contenders essentially cut in half, it will be a very different event than the previous two sessions. For the first time, all the front-runners will be on the stage the same evening. Pundits have already started to handicap the event and create the narratives that will invariably dominate the post-debate news coverage.
The composition of the field tells us a great deal about what Democrats value. The number of candidates on the stage who have ever run a business has fallen from four to one. The field is dominated by the three A’s – academics, attorneys, and activists.
The three White House aspirants with business experience who failed to make the cut — John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, and John Delaney — are too practical to make the big policy promises that capture the hearts of the liberal base of the Democratic Party. They comprehend the unintended consequences of these sweeping agendas and were unwilling to fully embrace them. They equivocated when it came to eliminating private health insurance, making college “free,” and imposing a new “wealth tax” on the richest Americans. Their reluctance to participate in this attack on the free market system rendered them irrelevant inside their own political party.
This isn’t surprising. There appears to be a fundamental disdain for successful business people among Democrats. In 2016, Michael Bloomberg was greeted with chants of “one-percenter” as he stood up to support Hillary Clinton at the party’s convention. Howard Schultz was accused by Democrats of being a billionaire egomaniac – despite providing tens of thousands of jobs to returning soldiers, and health care, tuition reimbursement, and stock options to hundreds of thousands of employees. Some of the attacks on Schultz were motivated by fears that he would run as an independent and possibly compromise Democrats’ 2020 chances of defeating President Trump. Yet Tom Steyer, who along with Bloomberg has been one of the most dedicated financial supporters of Democrats, received similar treatment when he decided to run as a Democrat. The ridicule with which his campaign has been met should send an unmistakable message: “We love your money, but not you.”
Some will argue that this isn’t news. Arnold Schwarzenegger often pointed out the Democrats’ institutional confusion by suggesting that “you can’t love jobs and hate the people who create them.” Once upon a time, the party of Franklin Roosevelt accepted this as a tenet of the faith. Over the last three decades, however, party elites have been steering their brethren in a different direction. Since Michael Dukakis’ disastrous 1988 campaign, Democrats have tried to argue that they support the private sector and economic growth. With this campaign they are amending that stance. The new credo is: “We support economic growth, provided it’s driven by government programs.” With all due respect to Bill Clinton, “the era of big government,” which never really went away, is back with a vengeance.
This approach carries consequences both electorally and from a governance perspective. The Democrats are effectively working for President Trump by rejecting the private sector. He wants to position this race as a choice between socialism and capitalism; they are beating him to the punch. Instead of a referendum on Trumpism, the election could turn on the relative merits of two competing economic systems. While polls differ on the number of voters who prefer socialism, the average is less than a third of Americans. Those tend to be younger citizens who vote less frequently.
From a governance perspective, it also likely means any new administration would be long on big government programs. If this is the direction our country takes, I hope Democrats take a moment to evaluate prior big government engineering. Yes, Medicare has helped take care of our most vulnerable citizens, but it’s also helped usher in four decades of runaway health care inflation. Medicare Part D has enabled many Americans to afford their prescription drugs, while simultaneously driving up the costs for millions of others. Likewise, the $150 billion we’ve spent every year trying to make higher education accessible to more Americans hasn’t led to affordability; rather, it’s led to inflation. Democrats would be wise to involve some of those business people they so easily cast aside — the ones who understand how markets work. Otherwise, they may win the White House while designing a future filled with unintended consequences, further antagonizing an already alienated American electorate.
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