Editor’s Note: Terry McAuliffe was the 72nd governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 2014-2018 and Chair of the National Governors Association from 2016-2017. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Beyond Charlottesville” about the white nationalist violence in Virginia in 2017. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
During the last two months, I’ve done over 40 events supporting Democrats running for office in Virginia’s 2019 elections. Despite the proximity of Northern Virginia to Washington, DC, it feels like a world apart. Instead of questions about impeachment or socialism or Russia, Virginia Democrats want to hear solutions on the cost of health care, fixing roads and improving K-12 education.
It’s a mirror to the disconnect across the country: While political insiders debate ideological labels or legal theories about whether or not President Donald Trump obstructed justice, Democratic primary voters are rightly asking: What are you going to do for my family and my community? And, at town halls across the country, Democratic House members have faced an overwhelming number of questions about the impact of specific policies and few on the issues that seem to consume Washington, like impeachment.
The challenge for Democrats in 2019 and 2020 is to ignore the noise of ideological litmus tests and instead capitalize on our advantage on key issues that directly impact American families.
Take, for example, health care. This is an issue where Democrats have an overwhelming advantage. After our strong defense of the Affordable Care Act in the face of Republican efforts to repeal protections for pre-existing conditions and eliminate coverage for millions of Americans, we are rightly identified as the party that is on the side of the people.
And the policies being pursued by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats are overwhelmingly popular. Last month, the House passed legislation that would reduce the cost of prescription drugs by ending some of the tactics that big drug companies use to prevent generics from coming to market. These efforts have the support of 88% of Americans, according to recent Kaiser Family Foundation polling. Only five House Republicans supported these efforts.
Other immediate actions to tackle drug prices, like the idea I have been promoting to end tax breaks for drug company advertising, and a longstanding Democratic policy of allowing the government to negotiate lower prices with drug companies, earn broad majority support as well, even among Republican voters, according to the same poll.
So, on health care, Democrats have the trust of the American people and overwhelmingly popular new policies that would immediately help average people by reducing costs, and deeply unpopular opponents in Republicans who simply follow the orders of the drug companies and other health industry special interests. It was a key part of the recipe for our win in the 2018 elections and provides a clear blueprint for success in 2020.
Yet some in the Democratic Party are focused on a debate over legislative details on a proposal called “Medicare for All.” This has led to competing proposals over the timeline of universal government insurance, how to handle the millions of Americans who like their current insurance plan, and the difficult-to-calculate costs of such a plan.
Suddenly, instead of focusing on the top priority of working families (immediate health care cost reduction), some Democrats are debating hypotheticals about the manner or timing in which private health insurance is phased out years in the future.
Health care is just one example of this challenge and opportunity for my party.
Another one is education. Democrats have a clear advantage on education funding after fighting Republican cuts to K-12 and higher education in Washington, DC, and in states, but some in the party have a different focus: debates about universal free college education, which would ultimately include children of very wealthy parents.
For many people struggling to pay for job training and technical education, free college for all can feel like the wrong priority.
Look at how Democratic governors have been able to build strong brands around concrete plans to improve people’s lives. It’s the reason we now have Democratic governors in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – the states that narrowly handed Trump an Electoral College majority.
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As CNN reporter Eric Bradner wrote at the time, “The recipe for a Democratic comeback in the Great Lakes region was straightforward. Candidates largely ignored Trump. Instead, they focused on health care as well as bread-and-butter budget issues like funding for schools, roads and infrastructure.” And that is exactly how I broke a 40-year electoral precedent to be elected governor of Virginia in 2013.
As voters in early states interact with 2020 presidential hopefuls, they should challenge those candidates to directly explain how their proposed policies would benefit an average family in their community. Candidates who are unable to clearly answer that question are not ready for prime time and certainly not ready to take on Trump.