What Are The Boundaries of a Good Fight?

This article represents one view on a complex issue. For a different perspective, see The Case For Democratic Infighting.

Workers get the stage ready for the Democratic presidential primary debate, Tuesday, July 30, 2019, at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

With more than 20 candidates competing for the Democratic presidential nomination, each is vying for a way to rise from the pack.  This is perhaps not true for Joe Biden since he is the best known and currently leading in the polls.  As such, he was a target of criticism in the first debate, especially from Kamala Harris, whose attacks on Biden were a major news story for the following few days. 

There are some voices that have pointed out that attacks on fellow Democrats only serve to help President Trump.  Those voices have been countered by others defending debate as essential to the democratic process in order for the public to ascertain the positions of the candidates.  In truth, nobody wants a process without candidates criticizing each other.  Perhaps the real question is how far should a candidate go in attacking a fellow Democrat.  As scholars have put it, “what are the legitimate bounds of debate?”

There should be no argument that disagreements over policies must be part of the political process whether between opposing parties or within a party.  For example, there are real differences among Democratic presidential candidates regarding “Medicare for all.”  Bernie Sanders and some others on the left would eliminate private insurance so that all Americans are covered by a government-run single-payer system.  In contrast, Joe Biden would enhance the Affordable Care Act to allow for a public option for those who wish to opt into such a program, while allowing others to keep their employer-provided insurance. 

This is a legitimate policy debate.  Sanders, however, argues that only a single-payer system could purge “corporate greed” from the health care system.  Does this mean that anyone who proposes keeping private insurance for those who want it is an advocate of corporate greed? By treating a differing health care proposal as a sign of being a pawn of large corporations, Sanders is converting a policy disagreement into a question of character. Legitimate debate over issues within the party should not be used to sully the motivation and principles of your opponent.

Another argument heard in the debate and in speeches is the application of 2019 principles to decades-old actions.  Attacks on Biden’s support of the 1994 crime bill, when he was a U.S. Senator from Delaware is one example.  Cory Booker has been very vocal about the flaws in that bill, including the resulting increase in the prison population.

Some context is essential.  That bill was passed 25 years ago in a very different environment.  The crime rate was high and Democrats had lost three straight presidential elections by substantial margins due, in large part, to the alienation of white males.  In fact, crime has come down considerably since then.  What seems excessive now might have been the right thing to do a quarter-century ago.  And, of course, harkening back several decades has a disproportionate effect on a candidate with a long record. 

Senator Harris resorted to this tactic as well when she criticized Biden for his prior opposition to busing.  The methods used for achieving racial balance in public schools have a long and complicated history.  Busing itself, however, had not been a major topic for decades.  Does Senator Harris really want to resurrect that issue in this presidential campaign?  If she is on the ticket, would she want to sell the virtues of busing to the working-class white voters essential for victory in the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin?  Words have consequences.  Is a sound bite in one debate worth bringing such a divisive issue back into the public consciousness?

Identity politics can be another red flag.  Certainly, Democrats do not engage in anything close to Trump and other Republicans in the use of race and color.  Their tactics are exemplified by immigration policy, including the separation of families, and attacks on “the Squad,” four young recently elected congresswomen of color, claiming they hate America. 

On the Democratic side, it is more subtle.  Representative Tim Ryan talks about how his constituency is made up of working people of the Midwest.  Fair enough.  However, he goes further, claiming the party is controlled by coastal elites.  While elites, by definition, control institutions, political parties, corporations, and the nation as a whole, the concept of coastal elites conjures up images of caviar and Champagne at some billionaire’s Hamptons beach house.  He added to the us v. them theme by introducing the concept of those who shower after work.  This adds to class warfare in that it differentiates between those who get dirty and sweaty on the job as opposed to those who work in air-conditioned offices.  This is inaccurate and unfair considering all the union members, teachers and hospital workers who support the Democratic Party. many of which, it can be assumed, leave work in a lesser state of hygiene then when they arrived.

While no candidate will use the phrase often seen in social media, “old white guy,” there are more subtle ways to raise the age issue.  “New ideas” is an Orwellian way to say that a candidate is old.  Ironically, there are more new ideas coming from Elizabeth Warren than any other candidate.  She is 70.

There is no real argument that candidates should refrain from attacking each other.  We do not need to be told of the necessity of the exchange of ideas, and even arguments, in a democratic society.  The arguments, however, must be fair and stand on their own, not as buzzwords for something else. As members of the body politic, we need to go beyond the face value of the words in order to ascertain their true meaning. Those uttering those words must understand how those words will be understood by the American people.

Another Take:

This article represents one view on a complex issue. For a different perspective, see The Case For Democratic Infighting.