The New York Times recently ran a gentle look at the Democratic Party’s lineup of the most likely 2020 presidential candidates. And with the midterm elections only about four months away, that means some formal 2020 campaigns will begin to organize in six months or even less. There will be a lot to discuss about how the individual candidates rate and who fills this lane or occupies that space among the Democratic faithful. But rather than get into a critique of this or that candidate at this stage of the game, there are a few fundamental questions to consider when thinking about the emerging 2020 dynamic.
One fundamental question: Who is the “anti-Trump”? In other words, who is the candidate that offers the most vivid contrast to the president? If President Trump was at least in part a backlash to President Obama, what does a backlash to Trump look like? Or do the Democrats think that Trump is so flawed that the person who isn’t the president will automatically win in the general election?
Next, do issues matter in 2020? Or is it all about being the non-Trump candidate? Republicans everywhere are hoping the Democrats are in the process of shooting themselves in the foot by galvanizing around a new set of wedge issues such as advocating for sanctuary cities, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), promoting single-payer healthcare and even raising doubts about capitalism itself. Republicans want to believe that this lurch to the left represents the Democrats’ abandonment of the center, which would make it easier for the GOP to present a rational voice — especially if the Democrats never get around to having a clear economic message. And if the economy is experiencing relatively robust growth and Democrats appear to be against all the policies that produced the good times, the Democrats will be reduced to shouting left-wing platitudes while Republicans can claim that a vote for a Democrat is a vote for economic decline.
We won’t have to wait until 2020 to see whether Democrats are going too far. Another article in the New York Times suggests that the 2018 midterm races are offering something of a test for Democrats. The Times’s Alexander Burns notes that, “Younger progressives have battered entrenched political leaders, ousting veteran state legislators in Pennsylvania and Maryland and rejecting, in upstate New York, a congressional candidate recruited by the national party. … The pressure from a new generation of confrontational progressives has put Democrats at the precipice of a sweeping transition, away from not only the centrist ethos of the Bill Clinton years but also, perhaps, from the consensus-oriented liberalism of Barack Obama.”
In other words, are Democrats in no mood for the type of temperate and stylistically moderate candidates who won for them in 1992 and 2008? Could either Clinton or Obama be nominated by today’s Democratic Party?
History says a party almost always gets two terms in the White House, so 2020 should theoretically favor the incumbent. But with Trump, who knows? Today, with his erratic trade policies rattling farmers and some manufacturers in the heartland, Republicans in Congress showing no confidence in his handling of Russia and the daily unflattering Trump-related dramas that constantly lead the news, Democrats must sense opportunity.
It is too early to take today’s headlines and extrapolate to November 2020. But from what I see, the Democrats probably can’t help themselves. It may be easy for Democrats to think they can win with anyone and therefore have no need to occupy the sensible center. But Democrats could be heading for a classic case of underestimating their opponents and overestimating their own appeal. If they don’t have a sweeping victory in November taking control of the House and if they lose more than one Senate seat, the Democrats should take heed. They are setting up the right dynamic for a Trump reelection.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post