That didn’t take long.
Barely a month into the 2020 Democratic primary, rifts between the party’s liberal and moderate factions burst open this week — pried loose by an intra-party feud over health care and taxes that could define the battle to take on President Donald Trump.
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It started with Sen. Kamala Harris’ comments at a town hall Monday that she backed eliminating the health insurance industry in order to achieve Medicare for all. Distancing herself from the proposal on CNN the next day, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), cautioned against immediately “changing our entire insurance system where over half of Americans get private insurance.”
It wasn’t just health care. By the end of the week, Democratic contenders were sparring over taxes — specifically the wave of proposals to soak the ultra-rich.
“I’m a little bit tired of listening to things are pie in the sky, that we never are going to pass, are never going to afford. I think it’s just disingenuous to promote those things. You’ve got to do something that’s practical,” implored former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a billionaire.
Elizabeth Warren wasn’t having it. “Billionaires like Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg want to keep a rigged system in place that benefits only them and their buddies,” she shot back.
Though still gentle in comparison to the barbs traded by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the height of the 2016 primary, the week’s skirmishes over health care and taxes have come unexpectedly early to the 2020 contest, presaging a volatile year ahead. And despite Democrats’ focus on Trump’s cratering public approval ratings, the week served as a reminder of the party’s own divisions, raising warnings about the prospect of improving Trump’s hand.
“We have no center in either party, and we have extremes in both parties,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist based in New York. “The question is, ‘How does that work itself out? Not well. Not well because it creates greater conflict … If you have greater conflicts, how do you get together around one candidate? The only joining force here is dislike of Donald Trump.”
Policy disputes are a typical part of contested presidential primaries, and Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the Democratic National Committee, said they are likely to be especially pronounced in a contested race where “you’ve got a bunch of smart people who have been thinking and working in policy for all of their lives.”
“When people step into this arena and get engaged, you’re not going to wait until the very last minute to say how you’re different from your opponent. You’re going to lean into it,” said Harrison, a former South Carolina state party chair. “I think it’s good for the Democratic Party to decide where it is, what it wants, what it values, and what’s going to be the hallmark for the party going into 2020.”
Yet Mike McCauley, an Obama campaign and administration alumnus and Democratic strategist in South Carolina, said he’s been surprised at how early the policy debate has emerged — particularly when the field of candidates isn’t even set.
“But when you have a field that’s this open, maybe that’s how you separate the wheat from the chaff,” McCauley said. “Folks either step in the mud or they shine.”
McCauley lauded Harris’ decision to appear in the CNN town hall this week in Iowa — “I think it took a lot of guts,” he said.
And McCauley predicted that the Harris campaign’s decision to stick by her answer on Medicare for all and eliminating the private health insurance market, while providing the context that she’s also backed less far-reaching bills in the Senate, would strike an early chord not just on the far left, but beyond.
“Owning where you’re at and who you are and not trying to quibble about it or turn tail earns respect from people in places like South Carolina — or Iowa and New Hampshire, for that matter,” he said.
On Thursday, Sanders added to the early catalog of progressive policies coming out of prospective presidential campaigns, introducing legislation that would expand the federal estate tax. Sanders’ office said his plan would raise $2.2 trillion by taxing estates of people who inherit more than $3.5 million — far lower than the current $11 million threshold.
Sanders’ proposal followed the release of Warren’s “ultramillionaire” tax proposal. Harris has proposed an alternative tax break, meanwhile, focused more squarely on middle-income earners. Her plan would give a $6,000 tax break to families earning up to $100,000 annually.
Amid the policy push by progressives, Bill Bloomfield — a prominent California donor who ran against former Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman as an independent in 2012 — said there’s an opening for a moderate Democrat like Bloomberg, whom Bloomfield plans to support if he runs.
The Democrats staking out progressive positions on health care and tax policies, Bloomfield suggested, “are fishing from a small pond.” Meanwhile, Bloomfield said, Bloomberg’s plainspoken, practical approach, combined with his positions on gun control and the work he did to help elect Democrats in the 2018 midterms, give him areas where he can appeal to a broader Democratic electorate and become a surprise in Iowa and New Hampshire, Bloomfield said.
He also sees the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat ex-mayor as the most formidable challenger to Trump in the general election.
“If I were Donald Trump,” Bloomfield said, “I would hope like heck that the nominee isn’t Michael Bloomberg.”
Among progressive Democrats in the top tier of the 2020 field, policy differences on issues ranging from health care to taxes and climate change are relatively minor, and so far, they have drawn less attention than potential candidates’ biographies. Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Sanders and Barack Obama, said Democratic voters are more likely to consider a candidate’s record in 2020 than any policies they propose.
“I think it’s the past that is going to be evaluated a lot harder than these Senate bills that folks are introducing now to try to get some media attention,” he said.
And the week also showcased Democratic unity when Schultz announced that he was considering an independent run for president.
Fearful that a third-party candidacy could siphon votes from the Democratic nominee, potentially handing Trump a second term, Democrats of every stripe piled on Schultz this week, relentlessly criticizing the former Starbucks chief executive.
“He’s kind of uniting the Democrats,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa. “So the people who maybe felt they were far apart on health policy or tax policy are now all kind of agreeing that we don’t like the way that he’s attacking us.”
On that issue, he said, “You almost see all the different factions uniting.”