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In our opinion: The race to please party purists distracts from real voter concerns

FILE - In this March 16, 2019, photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a rally in Henderson, Nev. One of the big questions facing Sanders is whether he could translate his upstart success from 2016 into front-runner
In this March 16, 2019, photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a rally in Henderson, Nev.
John Locher

If news-deprived travelers were to land in the middle of a Democratic presidential rally, they might walk away thinking the country is desperately trying to liberate people trapped in the nation’s capital, or that some strange university called the Electoral College is the greatest threat to American life and must be eliminated.

None of that, of course, mirrors the reality of average American priorities, but such is the way of a candidate trying to prove his or her loyalty to party insiders.

Distractions, not discussions, have captured America’s attention.

Gravitating to the extremes only to dance toward the middle during the general election has long proven an effective campaign strategy for Democrats and Republicans alike. But racing too quickly to validate fringe ideas in so crowded a primary could entirely remove from the public debate the conversations Americans actually need.

Among those are solutions on health care, the economy and immigration — the top three voter concerns according to Gallup’s poll during the 2018 midterm cycle. Statehood for Washington, D.C., did not make that list. Nor did eliminating the Electoral College or disposing of all airplanes.

Many voters said climate change was “extremely/very important,” but only after first listing trade policy, taxes, foreign affairs and gun policy. As New York Times columnist David Brooks describes it, the Democratic rush to the left isn’t a primary, it’s a purity test.

Pleasing party faithfuls can lead to some early campaign cash, but the risk is large. Sound bites spread across the internet ad nauseum and give the average voter more reason to believe politicians are out of touch with general society.

Republicans, too, are complicit in sidestepping top voter concerns. President Donald Trump pledged recently to keep fighting the Affordable Care Act in the courts and touted a forthcoming Republican health care plan — a good sign productive congressional debate on the nation’s highest concern was around the corner. Now, the country reportedly won’t see that plan until after the 2020 election.

To their credit, Senate Republicans have floated a bill to protect people with pre-existing conditions, and most Democratic candidates have at least outlined the type of health care system they would support. But the country isn’t much closer to cheaper premiums or lower drug costs.

Nor has anyone from either party brought to a vote a viable immigration solution since the situation of asylum-seekers at the southern border has reached crisis levels.

It’s time for a reality check. Politicians need to see what their constituents want, and candidates must anticipate what the country actually needs. The sad truth is political campaigning demands candidates raise funds and gain the support of the active (and more extreme) party members. That means initially cozying up to donors and party purists, but that must not distract from the key issues with which they will ultimately wrestle once in office. Doing otherwise is a failure to represent the American people.