Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

Election 2020 Elizabeth Warren

When credible Democratic candidates like Elizabeth Warren (shown here late last month in Chicago) play to the party’s extreme fringe, they risk alienating crucial centrist voters.

You would think these days would be good ones for those of us who loathe Donald Trump.

In the past two weeks, seated face-to-face with Russia’s murderous dictator, he trivialized interference in our elections; he’s the target of a new and credible rape charge; and he revealed a staggering ignorance of basic political terms during an overseas news conference.

Yet he may have still come out ahead.

That’s because one of the most promising Democratic presidential candidates — Elizabeth Warren — pledged in a debate that she would take away private health insurance and force everyone into a national health care program.

For goodness' sake, the attack ads write themselves: Democrats want to take away your private health insurance even if you like it.

I gather that the far left of the Democratic Party demands purity even at the expense of victory. Or perhaps it believes that its radical vision for change will attract a deluge of first-time voters in swing districts in such numbers to offset the moderately left and centrist voters it will turn off.

What fantasy.

It’s as if they want to run up even bigger margins in New York and California, as if that will matter if Trump again wins narrowly in the flyover states he won in 2016.

Beyond demanding purity from presidential candidates, the far left also targets other Democrats.

Take Cheri Bustos, a Democratic member of Congress whose northwestern Illinois district includes my childhood home of Rockford. Bustos won comfortably last year for the fourth time in a district that Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election.

And let’s be clear: She is one of the true heroes of Democratic politics, as one of 31 winners in 2018 in districts that Trump won two years earlier.

But recently she was pictured atop a HuffPost article describing how a group called Roots Action is targeting her and 14 other Democrats they say deserve primary challengers. They even have a name for these villainous moderate Democrats — the “Bad Blues.”

In its statement, Roots Action says: “While most insurgent primary campaigns will not win, they’re often very worthwhile ― helping progressive constituencies to get better organized and to win elections later. And a grassroots primary campaign can put a scare into the Democratic incumbent to pay more attention to voters and less to big donors.”

Put another way, let’s threaten Democratic officeholders from the left in difficult swing districts, pushing them into positions that will make them more vulnerable in a general election. Heck, as part of this process to develop far-left candidates for future elections, maybe they will move the U.S. House back to Republican control.

That should boost progressive causes.

Bustos earned special ire by being strongly pro-incumbent as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In its message, Roots Action said, “Bustos, a member of the corporate-allied New Democrat Coalition, is out of sync with large numbers of progressive constituents.”

In the HuffPost story, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, another far-left group, praised the hit list as a sign of the times. That group backed the insurgent candidacies of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, who unseated Democratic House incumbents in New York City and Boston, respectively.

Yes, because if Democrats can just replace mainstream Democrats with radical Democrats in a handful of deep blue urban districts like those two, well then, Trump and congressional Republicans will shake in their boots.

After the presidential debates, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks was on point when he said Democrats “sometimes talk as if they’re campaigning for Brooklyn” on the PBS NewsHour.

In his column, Brooks elaborated: “The debates illustrate the dilemma for moderate Democrats. If they take on progressives they get squashed by the passionate intensity of the left. If they don’t, the party moves so far left that it can’t win in the fall.”

In a Hill-HarrisX poll reported on The Hill website last winter, only one in 10 registered voters want the equivalent of Medicare for all if it means eliminating private health insurance plans. But that doesn’t give pause to the far left.

A New York Times story focused on health care as a divisive Democratic issue for the 2020 race, alarming given that the issue was a source of strength for the party against Republicans in 2018.

“The challenge is to avoid alienating both the progressives, whose support they will need in the primary, and the more moderate voters, without whom they cannot survive the general election,” the article said.

Look, I don’t care if Bernie Sanders doesn’t realize his time has passed as a relevant presidential candidate. Let him come across as self-righteous, perpetually angry and hoarse, pounding away at this extremist model for health care.

The problem comes when more serious candidates like Warren feel compelled to take such polarizing positions.

She has been gaining momentum by running on a populist economic platform that is starkly different from Trump’s in its villains — he blames immigrants and liberals for working-class woes; Warren correctly blames a rigged system of unregulated capitalism that screws the middle class.

That’s a winning issue.

Kamala Harris, likewise, has gained ground recently by demonstrating toughness and passion taking on Joe Biden over her personal story on race. She said after her debate that she understood the crucial health care question to be whether she personally would give up private health insurance for a government-run plan and not to mandate doing so for everyone, but her hand was still up in the air in front of millions of viewers like Warren’s was. And when real Democratic contenders like them are seen talking about eliminating private health insurance, they hand the political right a cudgel that will help Trump.

Simple as that.

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