Reviewing Political Conversations In Our Series 'Opening Arguments'

Mar 22, 2019
Originally published on March 22, 2019 8:04 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, Rachel, it'd be hard to say that the 2020 presidential campaign has no ideas in it. Of course, the president, who sought drastic changes in U.S. policies, is running again. And the Democrats who want to replace him are aiming for big changes of their own.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But they don't really agree about how to manage those differences. And those differences were revealed in interviews that we have done here on MORNING EDITION, where we've been listening to some of the opening arguments from some of the prominent declared candidates in the Democratic field - five of them so far. So let's start off by listening back to some of those notable exchanges.

INSKEEP: Why don't we start with the candidate you interviewed who has really been setting the pace for the Democratic field?

MARTIN: And he's not even a Democrat. We're talking about Bernie Sanders. He is, of course, an independent from Vermont. It's his second time around. He has run for president before as a Democrat. And he has built a career around one idea - economic equality, but really, "Medicare for All." He's a self-described democratic socialist. He knows that's a word that is frightening for some people, Republicans. Even some Democrats don't like it. I asked him why he insists on holding onto that term.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BERNIE SANDERS: What I mean by democratic socialism is that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, we can provide a decent standard of living for all of our people. That's just the reality. That's not utopian dreaming. That is a reality.

MARTIN: So Bernie Sanders planted his flag in that idea many, many decades ago, and has long felt out of touch with the mainstream of Democratic politics.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MARTIN: They have all seemingly caught up to him now.

INSKEEP: He is the mainstream...

MARTIN: Right, he has become the mainstream.

INSKEEP: ...At least rhetorically. But we also interviewed Cory Booker of New Jersey. Now, he's a guy who has endorsed Medicare for All. But listen to what happened in our interview when we started talking about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: Suppose you win the election. Democrats win the Senate. It's a really good 2020 for Democrats. You go out there and push for Medicare for All, which is something you've endorsed, if I'm not mistaken.

CORY BOOKER: You know, let me just tell you what I have endorsed...

INSKEEP: OK.

BOOKER: ...'Cause I'm on a lot of bills.

INSKEEP: All right.

BOOKER: And this is where I think we start tumbling into reflexive partisanship.

INSKEEP: Now, he eventually clarifies he has endorsed Medicare for All, but also supported other measures that are more modest, like changing the eligibility age for Medicare, for example. And Booker is simply taking a different approach. His selling point is to argue for building consensus, for bringing people together somehow in a partisan time. And it's clear that what he wants is something that can get a lot of support and can pass.

MARTIN: And this is really a central tension within the Democratic field. Let's bring in NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. What do you make of what you've been hearing in these conversations?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: The fact is that there is this tension within the Democratic Party. It's something I call pugilists versus pragmatists. You've got some of these folks who want to fight. They want radical change. And they are laying out their big vision. And then you have pragmatists, who kind of - they know how to legislate. They want to legislate. And they want to move incrementally, perhaps, in a certain direction. But that's not an easy sell in a primary.

INSKEEP: Rachel, isn't Amy Klobuchar an example of one of the pragmatists?

MARTIN: She is indeed. And she has gotten a little bit of flack for how she's talked about what's become a Democratic priority - the so-called Green New Deal. She has called this something that's aspirational. At the same time, she wants to be crystal clear that she still supports it as an idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: I'm actually a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal. And that's because I think it is so important to stop just talking about and admiring the problem, that we have to actually get these things done in a big, bold way.

MARTIN: Although you did call it an aspirational document.

KLOBUCHAR: Well, that is for a reason because I think most people agree - including some of the primary sponsors - that we won't be able to get all this done in 10 years. But if we don't start and we don't capture the energy of young people that want to move on this issue, we're going to go nowhere.

MARTIN: She clearly knows that this is an issue young voters care about. But she doesn't think that it's something that can be realistically achieved - not, at least, in the near term.

MONTANARO: Well, she needs to make that sell. You know, Klobuchar is trying to say that she would find common ground on things like agriculture, human trafficking and school safety. But she said she'd stand her ground on big things that Republicans and President Trump certainly aren't likely to help out with, when you think about - in particular - gun restrictions.

INSKEEP: There's another issue where many of the Democrats are signaling left, and that's reparations for slavery and discrimination. Several of them have said this is important, I favor doing something, but we have to study what it is. The closest we heard to a concrete idea came from Kamala Harris of California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KAMALA HARRIS: You can look at the fact. And anyone can tell you, who's a mental health specialist...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...That when people have experienced trauma and it has been undiagnosed and untreated, you will see certain public health outcomes.

INSKEEP: But even she's not making a concrete proposal.

MARTIN: But there are some candidates in the field who are explicitly saying, I'm a radical; if you want a revolution, I'm your candidate.

INSKEEP: Like Elizabeth Warren.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ELIZABETH WARREN: It's big structural change in politics, big structural change in the economy and big structural change in Washington.

INSKEEP: Domenico, when I listen to Elizabeth Warren, I think of how different she sounds from President Obama just a few years ago. He used to restrain his rhetoric. He'd say, we can make a better country if the rich pay a little more in taxes. She is pretty explicit in saying, the rich should pay a lot more in taxes, and it's still not all that much.

MONTANARO: You know, the thing about Elizabeth Warren is she's the person who really makes the case most strongly for her vision of the country and how to get there. You know, she talks about radical change, but it's not creating a democratic socialism change like Bernie Sanders would. It's doing it within the confines and constraints of capitalism. She sort of takes it within her regulatory framework and figures, OK, here's where to turn the screw, and has a very strong case to make on what she wants done for the country.

INSKEEP: Am I wrong, guys, to think that while for all we know, all of these candidates may be wrong in their ideas, that there is an intellectual ferment in American politics that is somewhat rare in this moment?

MONTANARO: Well, I think that right now you're seeing the Democratic Party in a moment of change, a moment of flux. A lot of it is obviously a reaction to President Trump. But part of it's also a reaction to President Obama because there were people on the left who were upset with some of his more pragmatic ways of doing things. And some of them really want to shoot for the stars.

And they're not listening to pragmatism after losing in 2016 with Hillary Clinton who was, you know, really the pragmatist's pragmatist. And now, you know, having all these folks who are able to set out a major vision for the country in reaction to President Trump, some people worry that Democrats are overcorrecting. And that's obviously something that's going to be tested during this campaign.

MARTIN: And it's worth remembering, all these people, whoever comes out on top as the nominee, has to also appeal to independents, Republicans, if they want to win. Domenico, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome.

INSKEEP: So that's some of what we've learned from five opening arguments from prominent declared presidential candidates. We expect a few more of these opening arguments. And we're covering many other candidates in many other ways in the months to come on MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.