Paul Krugman: Does is really matter who the Democrats choose?

At this point, the Democratic presidential nomination is very much up in the air. Not only is it unclear who will be the nominee; it’s unclear whether the nominee will be a centrist like Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar, or a representative of the party’s left like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Whoever wins, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the other side.

So I’d like to offer an opinion that will probably anger everyone: In terms of actual policy, it probably doesn’t matter much who the Democrats nominate — as long as he or she wins, and Democrats take the Senate too.

If you’re a centrist worried about the gigantic spending increases Sanders has proposed, calm down, because they won’t happen. If you’re a progressive worried that Biden might govern like a Republican, you should also calm down, because he wouldn’t.

In practice, any Democrat would probably preside over a significant increase in taxes on the wealthy and a significant but not huge expansion of the social safety net. Given a Democratic victory, a much-enhanced version of Obamacare would almost certainly be enacted; “Medicare for All,” not so much. Given a Democratic victory, Social Security and Medicare would be protected and expanded; Paul Ryan-type cuts wouldn’t be on the table.

Why do I say this? Consider first the lessons from three years of Donald Trump.

In 2016 Trump ran as a different kind of Republican, promising that unlike other candidates, he wouldn’t slash social programs and cut taxes on the rich. But it was all a lie. Aside from his trade war, Trump’s economic policies have been straight right-wing orthodoxy: huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, attempts to take health care away from tens of millions of Americans. And lately he has been talking about possible cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

The point is that even though Trump commands humiliating personal subservience from his party, he hasn’t caused any significant shift in its policy priorities.

Now, the Democratic Party is very different from the GOP — it’s a loose coalition of interest groups, not a monolithic entity answering to a handful of billionaires allied with white nationalists. But this if anything makes it even harder for a Democratic president to lead his or her party very far from its political center of gravity, which is currently one of moderate progressivism.

It’s still far from clear who will come out on top in the primary, but it’s enough to think about what would happen if either of the two current front-runners, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, were to become president — and also have strong enough coattails to produce a Democratic Senate, because otherwise nothing will happen.

Sanders has a hugely ambitious agenda; Medicare for All is just part of it. Paying for that agenda would be difficult — no, Modern Monetary Theory wouldn’t actually do away with the fiscal constraint. So turning Sanders’ vision into reality would require large tax increases, not just on the wealthy, but on the middle class; without those tax increases it would be highly inflationary.

But not to worry: It won’t happen. Even if he made it to the White House, Sanders would have to deal with a Congress (and a public) considerably less radical than he is and would be obliged to settle for a more modest progressive agenda.

It’s true that Sanders enthusiasts believe that they can rally a hidden majority of Americans around an aggressively populist agenda and in so doing also push Congress into going along. But we had a test in the midterm elections: Progressives ran a number of candidates in Trump districts, and if even one of them had won they would have claimed vindication for their faith in transformative populism. But none did; the sweeping Democratic victory came entirely from moderates running conventional campaigns.

The usual take on this progressive setback is that it raises questions about Sanders’ electability. But it also has a very different implication: Moderates worried about a radical presidency should cool it. A President Sanders wouldn’t be especially radical in practice.

What about Biden? The Sanders campaign has claimed that Biden endorsed Ryan’s plans for sharp cuts in Social Security and Medicare; that claim is false. What is true is that in the past Biden has often been a Very Serious Person going along with the Beltway consensus that we need “adjustments” — a euphemism for at least modest cuts — in Social Security. (Actually, if you go back a ways, Sanders turns out to have said similar things.)

But the Democratic Party as a whole has moved left on these issues, and Biden has moved with it. Even if he has a lingering desire to strike a Grand Bargain with Republicans — which I doubt — he would face such a huge intraparty backlash that he would be forced to back off.

So in terms of policy, here’s what I think would happen if Sanders wins: We’ll get a significant but not gigantic expansion of the social safety net, paid for by significant new taxes on the rich.

On the other hand, if Biden wins, we’ll get a significant but not gigantic expansion of the social safety net, paid for by significant new taxes on the rich.

One implication, if I’m right, is that electability should play a very important role in your current preferences. It matters hugely whether a Democrat wins; it matters much less which Democrat wins.

But my main point is that Democrats should unify, enthusiastically, behind whoever gets the nomination. Any moderate tempted to become a Never Bernie type should realize that even if you find Sanders too radical, his actual policies would be far more tempered. Any Sanders enthusiast tempted to become a Bernie or Bust type should realize that these days even centrist Dems are pretty progressive, and that there’s a huge gap between them and Trump’s GOP.

Oh, and all the Democrats believe in democracy and rule of law, which is kind of important these days.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.