Andres Oppenheimer

Miami congresswoman says Democrats won’t pick ‘socialist’ to run in 2020. Is she wrong? | Opinion

Bernie Sanders in Miami

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rallied a crowd in downtown Miami during the 2016 campaign.
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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rallied a crowd in downtown Miami during the 2016 campaign.

Are the Democrats going to commit political suicide by picking a leftist candidate to challenge President Trump in 2020? It’s possible, perhaps even likely. But Miami congresswoman Donna Shalala is confident that it won’t happen.

I sat down with Shalala this week and asked her about the latest news in the race for the Democratic nomination: Sens. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” and Elizabeth Warren, members of the party’s left wing, are among the most talked about Democratic contenders.

A CNN poll released this week shows Sanders in second place with 20 percent of the vote, behind former Vice President Joe Biden — who has not yet officially announced his candidacy — with 28 percent. California Sen. Kamala Harris comes in third, with 12 percent of the vote.

But when I asked Shalala about the growing angst among Democratic moderates that the party will veer sharply to the left, adding fuel to Trump’s assertions that the Democratic Party has become “socialist,” Shalala shook her head in disagreement.

“I do not think that the candidate will be to the left of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Maybe a little center-left, but I think most of them will be like me, safety-net capitalists,” Shalala said. “That is, to believe in a safety net for poor people and to give people more opportunity.”

Unconvinced, I reminded her that many of the more than a dozen Democratic hopefuls have adopted Sanders’ ideas on taxing the rich, and several are proposing a shift to the left on issues such as Venezuela and Israel.

“But there are so many left candidates that they are going to split the vote among themselves,” Shalala responded. “That’s why I don’t think we’re going to end up with one of them.”

And the recent midterm elections showed that voters elected mostly moderate Democratic candidates, she said.

“The party knows that we cannot win the Midwest, we cannot win Florida, we cannot win any state in the South unless we have a candidate that is not too far to the left.” Shalala said. “And we can’t win the presidency without winning Florida.”

Shalala and her South Florida Democratic colleagues are fighting their own battle within the party, supporting House leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican legislators on Venezuela.

After leftist Rep. Ilhan Omar recently criticized the Trump administration for supporting Venezuela’s National Assembly President Juan Guaidó — who has been recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s legitimate president — Shalala and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, a fellow Democrat, traveled to the Colombia-Venezuela border to make a strong statement in support of Guaidó.

“There is no daylight between us and the Republicans on the issue of Venezuela,” Shalala told me. “We couldn’t be stronger in our support for Guaidó.”

She added that Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have passed bipartisan bills to deny members of Venezuela’s armed forces any purchase of weapons, offer humanitarian aid and deny visas to Russian and Chinese citizens who do business with the Venezuelan dictatorship.

Even more surprising, Shalala is urging the Trump administration to be tougher on Cuba.

“Maduro is being kept in power by 20,000 Cuban troops, Cuba is getting free oil from Venezuela. So we need to squeeze Cuba as well, because if they can’t get the oil, they can’t stay in Venezuela,” Shalala said.

She added that she’s not proposing a naval blockade, but additional economic sanctions to push European countries to stop doing business with Cuba as long as the island’s dictatorship continues keeping troops and advisers in Venezuela.

Shalala is certainly not getting the national attention of her left-wing freshmen Democratic colleagues Omar and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who have become media stars with a huge social-media following. But I hope Shalala is right in saying that the Sanders-Omar-Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party will not prevail in the race for the Democratic nomination.

If it does, Trump will win in 2020, and the Democrats’ left wing will be responsible for helping re-elect the least credible and most divisive president in recent U.S. history.

See Andres Oppenheimer’s full interview with U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala on “Oppenheimer Presenta” at 8 p.m. Sundays on CNN en Espanol. Twitter: @oppenheimera