At the second Democratic debate, when pressed to defend the cost of Medicare for All, liberal Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., accused their more moderate opponents of repeating “Republican talking points.” The regrettable phrase resurfaced at the latest Democratic debate, when Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., criticized Warren for dodging questions about the cost of her proposed programs.

The cost of Warren and Sanders’s extensive proposed reforms warrant scrutiny, but their casual dismissal of fiscal realities is far more disturbing. The exact fiscal impacts of Medicare for All would depend on the plan’s finer details, but any single-payer system would boost government expenditures by trillions, and a few neutral analyses predict total costs would increase. These are facts, not “Republican talking points,” and Warren and Sanders’s refusal to be transparent about the costs of their proposed programs is troubling.

If the progressive candidates continue to use the phrase “Republican talking points” to rebuff criticism, then the phrase could become equivalent to President Donald Trump’s mantra of “fake news.” Trump’s refusal to accept facts and his brazen denial of inconvenient truths is why nearly two-thirds of Americans believe he is dishonest. 

Trump’s untruthfulness is not a strength, and it is certainly not a quality Democrats should try to emulate. If Democrats are to prevail in 2020, the nominee must be perceived as honest, well-tempered and likable. These are all traits the public believes Trump lacks, and Trump’s poor character evaluation is a major reason for his dismal approval ratings among independents, who are the key demographic for 2020. Trump won the group in 2016, but their dim views of Trump’s character and their high disapproval of his job performance is advantageous for the Democratic nominee in 2020.

However, this advantage assumes that the Democratic nominee is viewed more favorably. Trump’s character ratings were about as low in 2016 as they are now, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also perceived as untrustworthy and unlikable, enabling Trump to overcome his low favorability ratings.

To avoid a repeat in 2020, the Democratic nominee must build a reputation of trustworthiness and authenticity, and it is fair to question whether Sanders and Warren are capable of this task. Aside from their “Republican talking points” line, both candidates have come under scrutiny for dishonesty and evasiveness. Sanders has been frequently corrected for repeatedly overstating U.S. health care costs relative to other developed countries, and his campaign’s evasiveness following his recent heart attack drew scrutiny. 

Warren, for her part, has insisted she has substantial Native American ancestry throughout her professional career, but a DNA test last year proved otherwise, forcing Warren to apologize to Native American groups and eliciting mockery from Trump. Warren also created controversy after claiming she was forced out of a teaching job for being pregnant, which seemed to contradict previous statements and board records.

Sanders and Warren’s untruthfulness reflects a larger trend on the progressive left in the Trump era. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a leader of the progressive movement, has frequently disregarded the facts during her advocacy for progressive reforms. In December 2018, Ocasio-Cortez grossly mischaracterized the nature of Department of Defense accounting errors, claiming that the funds supposedly unaccounted for could have funded 66 percent of single-payer health care. The claim was rated “Four Pinocchios” by the Washington Post’s fact-checker, but when pressed on the claim in an interview with Anderson Cooper, Ocasio-Cortez defended herself, saying that “there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually and semantically correct than about being morally right.” Ocasio-Cortez’s defense was troubling — being morally and factually right are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, her defense essentially excuses lies told for some greater purpose, which sounds suspiciously similar to the logic used by some Republicans to defend Trump’s lies.

Of course, this problem is not exclusive to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Joe Biden has come under fire for grossly exaggerating and even fabricating stories on the campaign trail. After factoring in Biden, all three Democratic frontrunners have spotty recent records when it comes to the truth.

This trend is alarming, since the Democrats’ greatest advantage against Trump is the president’s poor character. Trump has told a staggering 13,400 lies in less than three years, accounting for 76 percent of his total public statements, according to PolitiFact. The facts are on the Democrats’ side it is unnecessary and irresponsible to distort the truth. If the Democratic nominee cannot earn a perceived “character edge” over Trump, the president could very well ride the strong economy and his incumbency edge to re-election. Now is not the time for Democrats to abandon the truth.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu.

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