A couple of decades ago, the food vendors that plied the streets of major U.S. cities were a case study in monotony. Even though they were technically competitors, the hot dog carts and halal stands that crowded the corners tended to sell the exact same products at the exact same price. A cart’s competitive advantage consisted solely of its location; this gyro happens to be more convenient than the exact same gyro being peddled across the street.
At some point, somebody had a eureka moment. “What if, instead of selling the exact same thing as everybody else at the same price, I offer something different?” that person must have thought. And so today, the mobile food business offers a veritable cornucopia, with dishes as varied as Venezuelan arepas and Vietnamese pho.
Food truck and cart impresarios have embraced a central tenet of the marketplace that Edward Chamberlin identified in his 1933 “Theory of Monopolistic Capitalism”: product differentiation. To succeed in a competitive marketplace, the theory goes, you have to sell what makes you unique.
This is a lesson that seems lost on the roughly 782 Democrats running for the presidency. They’re like the hot dog vendors of yesteryear, stressing not what makes them different but just how similar they are to the rest of the field.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment is just the latest example of a candidate’s failure to differentiate himself. Mr. Biden, who leads the national polls among Democrats, had long opposed taxpayer-funded abortions; but now, just like the rest of the field, he’s for them.
Similarly, all the leading Democratic candidates support some version of “Medicare for All,” rejoining the Paris climate accord, repealing all or most of the 2017 tax cuts, legalizing millions of unauthorized immigrants, and banning assault weapons. Those who differ, even minutely, are quickly chastened. Mr. Biden endorsed a “moderate” climate plan before immediately pivoting to a more aggressive policy after suffering a small bit of criticism.
What is striking is how many voters this strategy leaves out in the cold. While most Americans think at least some abortions should be legal, for instance, all polling suggests that either a plurality or outright majority of voters back the Hyde Amendment. Then there are the millions of Americans who back an expansive welfare state while curtailing illegal immigration. (A lot of these are the vaunted Rust Belters, who twice backed Barack Obama and then voted for Donald Trump.) Yet not one Democrat has embraced a remotely hawkish position on immigration. Even Bernie Sanders, who correctly characterized open borders as a “Koch Brothers position” in 2016, now sings from the same hymnal as the rest of the Democratic field.
With no policy issues to separate them, it’s little wonder that the race has instead focused on each candidate’s characteristics: Is Joe Biden too handsy? Is Bernie Sanders too old? Is Pete Buttigieg too young? Is Elizabeth Warren too shrill? And, by the way, can anyone tell the differences among Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan, and Eric Swalwell? (No Google image searches allowed.)
The irony, of course, is that the man they’re all running to unseat showed the wisdom of the differentiation strategy in 2016. Candidate Trump surged to victory in the Republican primaries by torching party orthodoxy on immigration, health care, taxes, trade and foreign policy. Indeed, on most of those issues, he was the only one out of a crowded field who took a different position from the rest. That paid off, big league.
That Mr. Trump has as president — with a few notable exceptions such as tariffs — largely junked that winning strategy and toed the discredited and unpopular Paul Ryan line on policy is one of the enduring mysteries of his presidency. Almost as mysterious as the decision of 23 Democrats to offer up the same sad hot dogs as everybody else.
⦁ Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.
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