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The Democrats’ Dilemma

Looking ahead to 2020

Although the crucial mid-term elections are a mere two weeks away, it never takes long before most political conversations turn to the question of the 2020 Democratic nominee. So while the outcome of 2018’s contests is still very much up in the air, let’s focus on an election still two years away.

Well, of course, 2020 is not two years away, except on the calendar. It is two weeks away, because as soon as the 2018 results are known (and they may not be on November 6th because of close contests and run-offs), every pundit will scrutinize the tea leaves to assess whose White House aspirations were helped or hindered by the mid-terms.

Many people seem distressed that there is no obvious Democratic frontrunner and seem worried that such uncertainty dictates that the nominee in 2020 will be unable to pull the party together. Such unity will be needed to defeat the almost inevitable Republican nominee, Donald Trump (unless he has become tired of winning all the time and decides to retire). My two-word answer to those worries: Barack Obama. In the era of social media and cable TV, the most unknown personality can be catapulted into notoriety in a matter of days regardless of credibility or worthiness. Think: Michael Avenatti. Yes, there will be a scrum of candidates, but it will be whittled down pretty quickly to a few credible (if not predictable) survivors.

This situation is far preferable to having a well-known, easily identified party leader who appears to be the inevitable nominee.. Such a person would certainly be the target of years of unrelenting criticism, second-guessing, background investigations, examination of years of voting records (if a legislator) and media undercutting. She or he might be the “front runner,” but would emerge badly scarred and weakened. Moreover, a spirited contest for the nomination is good training and tends to allow more talented and strategic candidates to emerge while weeding out those whose famous name or inevitability provided them temporary frontrunner status. (Admittedly, the process is not foolproof. Think: oh, never mind.)

But the caucus and primary process for selecting the eventual nominee can be very problematic in 2020. It favors someone popular with the activist base that is over-represented in the nomination selection process. Almost invariably, that process selects someone on the left side of the Democrats’ ideological spectrum (although as the Clinton-Sanders race showed, not necessarily on the extreme left). In preparation for just such a battle, many of the prospective candidates are already lining up to support policies that appeal to the microcosm of voters who will select the nominee: Medicare for All, free college tuition, a reconstituted ICE and an immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship, a massive jobs program, subsidized student loans, as well as other meritorious policies that are vulnerable to the easiest Republican attacks of irresponsibility on spending, big government and deficit creation that spells tax increases. Leftist candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been notably vague on how to pay the multi-trillion dollar cost of these initiatives. That silence may work in safe Democratic congressional districts, but it will not cut it on the presidential stage.

Defeating Donald Trump in 2020 is going to depend on Democrats meeting some very basic strategic objectives:

  • don’t alienate independents and disenchanted Republicans who might be willing to entrust Democrats to reverse course on some of the dangerous wackiness of the last two years;
  • figure out how to win back some of the white, blue collar vote that swung from Obama’s “change” message to Trump’s “revenge” appeal;
  • at the same time, motivate the progressive youth and minority vote whose participation is crucial for both 2018 and 2020.

Unfortunately, these objectives may be contradictory – youth voters and alienated blue collar Democrats might have a hard time reconciling. It doesn’t take many of them to walk away from the party to cost Democrats crucial states and the 2020 election, as we all painfully know.

Selecting a nominee who has a broad appeal beyond the base will be the Democratic challenge, and it may become more difficult due to changes in the selection procedure. In the troublesome Mid-West this year, several mainstream Democrats defeated more liberal challengers in gubernatorial primaries; since those are states any Democratic nominee must win in 2020, it will be instructive to watch the outcome of the midterm races in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

The DNC’s decision to pare down the influence of super-delegates at the 2020 convention in order to eliminate checks on the popular will was, in my view, a bad idea. Professionals who understand how to win elections, not just excite crowds, should be engaged in the strategic decision of picking a nominee if it appears the caucus/primary process has gone off the rails. And with Democrats, it just might. Super-delegates should not thwart the public will as expressed in caucuses and primaries, but their engagement in the process cautions potential nominees to heed party as well as personal best interests.

California’s decision to move its primary from June to the beginning of March will benefit candidates who have appeal to the more liberal end of the spectrum, which includes a few California possibilities like Kamala Harris and Eric Garcetti. But California is a reliably Democratic state regardless of the nominee, unlike Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to pick a few states arbitrarily. One rationale for beginning the nominating process in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire is to allow unknowns a chance to show their stuff, win an early contest, and thereby compete in raising funds needed to compete in costlier states. It will be difficult for lesser-known candidates to raise the money needed in California so early in the process, which may well sink their chances before they get out of the starting gate.

So the real challenge facing Democrats for 2020 is not whether there will be a nominee, but whether the process created for selecting that nominee is capable of selecting someone with the breadth of appeal needed to compete against a wily demagogue. We will begin to be able to answer that question on November 7.

John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center, worked for 38 years in the House of Representatives, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker/Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. This post was originally published on John’s blog, Domeocracy.

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