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Ramesh Ponnuru: Warren can go far left, just not on these issues

Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg News on

Published in Op Eds

Democrats, never averse to hand-wringing, have found a new reason for it in a poll showing President Donald Trump beating Sen. Elizabeth Warren in enough battleground states to win re-election.

Some Democrats are worried that a woman will not be able to win an electoral majority, or that this particular woman's personality will not wear well with swing voters. Another concern is that she -- and also Sen. Bernie Sanders -- are taking the Democratic Party too far to the left for its own good.

I'll leave it to others to debate Warren's personal appeal, except to note that if Democrats think that the issue of her history of claiming Native American ancestry has been put away, they're dreaming. Instead, let's look at the sometimes bitter arguments Democrats are having about their ideological positioning.

The common theory that candidates who are perceived as moderates do better than candidates who are perceived as extremists is in fact true. That's the consensus of the academic literature on the subject. Voter perceptions of what constitutes extremism are not, however, uniform. Many Democrats seem to regard Trump as a far-right leader. During the 2016 election, however, voters generally thought of him as less conservative than previous Republican nominees, perhaps influenced by his promises to ensure health coverage for all and protect entitlements.

But being too far left in general is less of a problem for Warren and like-minded Democrats than some of the specific left-wing positions she has taken. Some progressive stances aren't political vulnerabilities at all. If Warren came out for an $18 minimum wage -- more than twice the current federal pay floor -- it would be a leftward shift, but probably not one that would cost her votes in the general election. Her call for a wealth tax is another popular left-wing proposal. Her plan to expand Social Security benefits puts her to the left of many previous Democratic presidential candidates (and is terrible public policy) but would likely enhance her appeal to the public.

Other positions are much riskier. Voters don't have much tolerance for the higher energy costs that a carbon tax, which Warren has endorsed, would entail. Outlawing the private health insurance on which most Americans rely, as she has endorsed, is unpopular. So is taxpayer funding of abortion. Less than a third of Americans share Warren's enthusiasm for expanding immigration.

Some of the commentators who have warned Democrats away from such stances are conservatives who dislike Trump. This has led some progressives to dismiss the warnings, saying there's no reason for Democrats to court a few Never Trump pundits. On these issues, though, the warnings reflect the views of most voters.

Another argument some progressives make to ignore the polls is that Republicans will label Democrats socialist nutcases whatever they do, so Democratic candidates should not be inhibited by that criticism. Conservative activists sometimes use similar reasoning: They'll call us extremists no matter what, so let's just be extremists. The argument is usually wrong, whoever is making it. It amounts to saying that since the other side is going to fire at you in any case, you should be sure to hand them deadlier ammunition.

A candidate weighed down by unpopular positions could nonetheless win in 2020 if conditions lift her. If the economy were to collapse before the election the way it did in the fall of 2008, a Democratic challenger to Trump could take all manner of out-of-the-mainstream positions and still emerge victorious. But the more such positions a Democratic candidate takes, the more favorable the conditions will have to be.

 

If a policy prize is valuable enough, it can of course be worth taking risks to get it. What's odd about so many of the ones Warren has taken is that the potential rewards are so limited. A President Warren would almost certainly find it impossible to get a prohibition on private health insurance through Congress. And what pressing national need would expanded immigration address? The scourge of tight labor markets?

That's why some Democrats are worried about Warren as the Democratic nominee. The more of these positions she takes, the more her campaign itself is becoming a big bet with a light payoff.

About The Writer

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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