Electability or Ideology: What is the Winning Strategy for Democrats in 2020?

Contemporary American life is tinged with a pervasive sense of doom. The future is looking gloomier now, two years into Trump’s presidency, than it has at any other time since the Great Recession 10 years ago. Even then, our leaders had compelling answers to our questions. Who did it? Wall Street. How are we going to fix it? Bail out the banks. No matter how one feels about these answers, they got us through the recession, and they came from President Obama. He gave us hope during dark times. President Bush did the same 8 years earlier in the aftermath of 9/11. That is the power a president can have: a president can lift up the people and inspire the nation to surmount the insurmountable. 

America needs a lift right now. But Trump is the opposite of inspiring. After all, he regularly tweets in all caps and frequently tells the world that America is under attack. How can anyone feel hope when the president of the U.S. is an alarmist? If you are on the right, you might take these claims at face value, and if you are on the left or in the middle, you might see these claims as part of the problem. Either way, the result is similar: Trump infuses American life with angst.

Unfortunately, the problems we face are so complex, diverse, and global, that it is not clear how any one nation, party, movement, or leader could even begin to address them. According to the Eurasia Group, a think tank full of academics whose sole job is to take their best shot at predicting the future, “the world's decision-makers are so consumed with addressing (or failing to address) the daily crises that arise from a world without leadership that they're allowing a broad array of future risks to germinate, with serious consequences for our collective midterm future. The overwhelming majority of geopolitical dynamics that matter are now headed in the wrong direction.” Weakening U.S. political institutions and global alliances, divisions within the EU, autocracy in China, regional conflicts in the Middle East, rising populism/nationalism, decentralization of dangerous technologies, inadequate responses to climate change — the Eurasia Group’s list of reasons for worry goes on. Add to these the facts that we are probably damaging our brains with our phones, that automation will potentially put millions of people out of work over the next 10 years, that supermassive companies like Amazon currently pay no taxes (remember when the French nobility didn’t want to pay taxes in the lead up to the French Revolution? Déjà vu), and that there are more guns in America than people, and suddenly the low-key apocalyptic mood of your average liberal American begins to look less like melodrama and more like prudence.

Onto this perilous stage have stepped the new election season’s Democratic challengers. They will each attempt to win the chance to defeat the orange man in 2020. If one of them succeeds in winning the presidency, that person will then have the opportunity to address all of the above problems and prevent the apocalypse. Saving us from the end of the world is a tall order, of course, and it is not reasonable to expect a single candidate to solve all of our problems. But whoever the Democrats choose to lead them needs to be able to inspire our nation to address a large number of these issues immediately and make significant progress on the others soon, or else… well… or else we get to see whether or not the U.S. government will survive in its current form long enough to see the Earth degrade from climate change over the course of the rest of this century. It really is that simple.

So who are the would-be Democratic saviors?

Broadly speaking, the candidates have positioned themselves to answer three types of questions: electability questions, social justice questions, and economic questions. These question types line up nicely with the concerns of the Democratic base, but the candidates have distinguished themselves from each other by prioritizing these questions differently.

For instance, the electability questions cover topics like can the candidate energize the Democratic base? And is the candidate appealing to moderate suburban republicans? And does the candidate have the right personal style to successfully take on Trump directly in televised debates? The underlying premise of these questions is that nothing else matters if the Democratic candidate can’t beat the incumbent in the general election. On this front, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Vice President Joe Biden have the strongest positions, given that they have had the most high profile dust-ups with the president himself so far. Warren, who uses the word ‘fight’ in more of her messaging than any other potential candidate, recently took on the president’s attacks regarding controversial remarks she made about her Native American heritage to lukewarm results. Bernie Sanders has fared slightly better against Trump, but his scrappy activist appeal on the Left has not translated into solid support from older Democrats and African Americans. Meanwhile, Joe Biden has taken on Trump with surprising success, suggesting in 2016 that he would beat Trump up “behind the gym.” That pugnacious attitude is what Democrats are looking for, and Biden seems to have found a workable angle. The main problem with Joe Biden is that he is Joe Biden. Then again, Trump is Trump, so maybe Biden’s loose talk, which was a weakness in 2008, is a strength in 2020.

When it comes to social justice questions, those three perform far less favorably than other potential candidates. Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Cory Booker, and former HUD secretary Julian Castro, for instance, have all had various levels of experience confronting Trump and the GOP head-on, but their appeal on issues such as race, immigration and criminal justice reform make them compelling candidates for Democrats concerned by rising racial tensions and systemic oppression of minorities. Julian Castro is still a fairly obscure politician for most Democrats, but his Mexican heritage and background as an Obama cabinet member make him an attractive option for Obama Democrats who want to rebuke Trump’s immigration policies. Kamala Harris is similarly well positioned to take on Trump on immigration and criminal justice given her experience as a criminal prosecutor and her strong support among Black and Latino voters. However, she is a centrist when many Democrats are looking for a Leftist. Finally, Cory Booker is the first Black senator from New Jersey, and has a long track record of working on criminal justice reform. His challenge will be to explain why voters should choose him and not Kamala Harris, who has most of his strengths with the added benefit of being appealing to women.

The social justice questions surrounding women’s rights and gender issues benefit Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard just as much as they benefit Senator Harris. The echoes of Hillary Clinton’s unbroken glass ceiling loom large over the 2020 field. Along with Warren and her stylistic opposite, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who defeated a GOP candidate during the midterms last Autumn with a gentle, pragmatic message of calm political discourse, these are the five women who are well positioned to break the glass ceiling at the moment. Gabbard, a veteran and Hawaiian congresswoman, has been hawkish on wars in the Middle East, winning her points among some Hillary supporters while potentially putting her at odds with anti-interventionist Democrats. Worryingly, Gabbard also had ties to anti-LGBTQ groups in the past, which she now disavows. That tainted past puts her well behind other activists like New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has been fighting sexual assault in the military and on college campuses since long before the #metoo movement. Gillibrand also supports leftist policies such as The Green New Deal and Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for all plan. If Gillibrand can successfully navigate the legacy that Hillary Clinton left her with (Gillibrand is a Clinton protégé and holds the former senator’s seat), she could be the unifying force that the Democrats need, so long as they are willing to forego the symbolic rebuke of the GOP that would come from putting a Black or Latino politician in the White House.

The economic questions are perhaps the most compelling fault lines along which the candidates have attempted to differentiate themselves. Bernie Sanders set the tone for social democratic policy objectives in 2016, and Elizabeth Warren recently joined him in his call for protectionist border policies. Warren and Sanders also offer Democrats the best hope of fighting the rising income inequality and corporate tax evasions that have presaged political revolutions throughout history. Few other candidates are so well positioned to address the economic worries that have plagued Americans since the Great Recession. Booker’s connections to Wall Street put him in an awkward position with leftists, and others will struggle on these questions as well, such as the millionaire former congressman John Delaney and businessman Andrew Yang. Delaney is a centrist who does not support Sanders-style Medicare for all or the Green New Deal, and so will likely suffer the same fate that Gabbard and Harris will among hard leftists, but Yang has struck out on his own into novel and uncontested territory. Yang has a bold vision to use universal basic income to address the coming crisis of automation, a crisis that threatens to put millions of truck drivers, call center reps, and retail workers out of work over the next decade. Both Yang and Delaney have also made arguments to moderate republicans that could increase their electability and position them well for a competitive race in the Iowa caucuses. 

One candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, currently suffers from a lack of name recognition just like Julian Castro, but he offers a distinct angle for liberals who are concerned with social justice as well as age: he is 37 years old, and he is gay. Buttigieg’s sexual orientation makes him a novel candidate on its own, but his age highlights a weakness of the Washington veterans who currently lead the field. Elizabeth Warren is 69, Joe Biden is 76, and Bernie Sanders is 77. Warren may not take as much flak from critics for her age since Trump is 72, but Biden and Sanders will need to convince the Democratic base that they will live long enough to realize their visions. However, the age difference between Buttigieg and his Baby Boomer rivals raises concerns that go beyond health and longevity. The fact that Buttigieg is almost young enough to be a Millennial forces Democrats to confront the generational differences in policy goals between older Democrats, who tend to be more concerned with the economy, and younger Democrats, who tend to be more concerned with social justice and climate change. 

Most of the candidates support The Green New Deal or something similar. Only Delaney and Gabbard have not supported the resolution (Gabbard has yet to comment), but they have both demonstrated strong support for green legislation. Still, their refusal to join with the other candidates who all either cosponsored The Green New Deal or support it explicitly puts them in danger of failing to heed the clear environmental focus of the Democratic base. Climate change is the top concern for Millennials, and any candidate who wants to attract youthful energy to their campaign would do well to focus on climate change specifically and frame economic questions around it. Warren has already made the case for a tax on millionaires to fund the Green New Deal, and Sanders has proposed a similar strategy for addressing climate change. Harris, Booker, and Gillibrand all co-sponsored The Green New Deal, and Castro and Klobuchar have both stated their support for it. This is all good news for gloomy Democrats who want a President who will put climate change at the top of the list of priorities.

Finally, we come to Beto O’Rourke. While he has not yet formally declared his candidacy (neither has Biden), O’Rourke’s strong performance in the Texas primaries last year all but guarantees that he will run. He has been called the ‘wild card’ candidate, in part because of his record setting grassroots campaign, which poses a direct challenge to Sander’s and Warren’s well-oiled grassroots machines, and in part because his personal magnetism and Obama-style charisma is unique in the field. However, along with his Obama-style charisma comes an Obama-like ability to snub progressive ideological commitments, which may be a strength among centrist Liberals who might otherwise support centrists like Gabbard and Harris. As Jonathan Chait wrote in the Intelligencer, “O’Rourke’s short career has allowed him to avoid being pinned down on every item in the party platform. He generally occupies the center of the Democratic Party, and often expresses broad sympathy for left-wing policy goals while suggesting he favors a more pragmatic alternative.” The combination of charisma and ideological flexibility poses a huge threat to Bernie Sanders, who spent much of the 2016 race hammering home the connection between authenticity and ideological purity. O’Rourke has the star-power appeal that might unite the party, so long as Democrats are willing to sacrifice many of the apocalypse-averting policy goals they say they care about. Since voters often go for charisma over substance, if all they want is to win in 2020 and nothing else, O’Rourke might be their man.

The major caveat to all of this is the obvious detail that the race is very young, and a lot can (and will) change between now and the Iowa caucuses next year. However, at this early stage, the Democrats seem to be in a tight spot. No single candidate embodies everything they are looking for: a female, minority, ideologically progressive social justice activist who supports The Green New Deal and who also has the kind of charisma that brought past liberal heroes to power. Kamala Harris comes very close to ticking all of these boxes (if only she were more progressive!), and O’Rourke has the charisma to be successful (if only he were more progressive too!), but so far, none of the other candidates seem to be the savior that ‘doomocrats’ (sorry) are looking for right now. Perhaps the one thing Democrats can count on is the ‘anyone but Trump’ vote. No matter how the primaries play out, and no matter who the Democrats ultimately choose, there is a very good chance that the party will unite behind the candidate in order to oust President Trump. Of that they can be almost certain.

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