Democrats try to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Democrats are off to a fast start in their efforts to blow the 2020 presidential election.

Sure, Donald Trump’s job approval ratings from reputable polling firms still sit in the low- to mid-40s, and congressional investigations are likely to keep the president, his family and his administration on the defensive.

And yes, the 2018 midterms showed what a united Democratic Party looks like and that college-educated whites are swinging to the Democrats in reaction to Trump.

And of course, Trump trails a generic Democrat in early polling, confirming the view that a clear majority of American voters want change in 2020.

But even with all that, the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Democratic Party has already succeeded in taking the heat off Trump and making the party appear so far left that moderates may not be able to support its nominee for president.

If they continue their early successes, this band of ideological purists may “save” their party from a pragmatic progressive who could actually win the White House, thereby handing Trump a second term.

The recipe for victory

The Democrats’ winning strategy for 2020 ought to include three straightforward steps:

  1. Make the 2020 presidential election about Donald Trump — about his tweeting, his language, his flagrant untruths, his lack of empathy, his efforts to belittle his adversaries, and his affection for authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman and Kim Jong Un.  As much as possible, make the contest a referendum on his performance, agenda, character and style.
  2. Select a presidential nominee who can energize the Democratic base, including progressives, younger voters and non-whites.
  3. Select a presidential nominee who can attract the votes of swing voters, including those suburban women who helped create the Democratic House wave last year.

This recipe for victory doesn’t require a nominee with a particular ideology or agenda.

A progressive/liberal or a moderate/pragmatist could be elected, as long as he or she completes each of the three steps.

But it’s clear the more extreme the nominee ideologically, the harder it is for the party to appeal to swing voters, including college-educated whites.

The most progressive elements of the Democratic Party will pooh-pooh the notion that an uber-progressive nominee can’t win.

They’ll cite Hillary Clinton’s defeat and insist that Bernie Sanders would have won in 2016. And they’ll argue that getting the party’s base out is crucial to victory, and only hopefuls like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren can do that.

But while an appealing uber-progressive might be able to win under the right circumstances, the chances shrink as the nominee moves further left.

The road to victory still usually depends on winning less ideological voters.

The present reality

So how have the Democrats done in positioning the party for next year’s election? Since the midterms, the party has done an abysmal job of making the 2020 contest about Trump.

The leaders of the Corbyn wing of the party — including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — have sought to make everything about themselves and their agenda.

While it’s true that the old quip “Freshmen in Congress should be seen but not heard” is no longer relevant, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib have been unusually vocal and controversial.

Whether it is a proposed “Green New Deal,” criticizing Israel and raising questions about the allegiance of American Jews, or announcing an intention to file an impeachment resolution, the freshman trio have done things to draw attention to themselves and their personal agendas.

The national media, of course, has amplified their statements and agenda, which has taken attention away from Trump.

In baseball terms, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal (co-sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey) is a hanging curveball for the GOP to mash over the fence.

Progressives haven’t worked out the details or the cost of specific steps, allowing Republicans to attack it as a radical, exorbitantly expensive, unrealistic agenda.

Similarly, Omar’s comments about Jews and Israel made her look anti-Semitic, intolerant and radical, undercutting the Democratic argument about Trump’s intolerance and meanness.

Tlaib’s initial steps toward impeachment do what party leaders have been trying to avoid for months — they make the Democrats appear partisan and petty, more interested in destroying Trump than in pursuing policies that are good for the American people.

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer try to define the Democratic Party in broadly appealing terms, thereby keeping the nation’s focus on Trump, the Corbyn wing is more interested in pushing its agenda, which makes it easier for the GOP to turn the 2020 election into a choice, not a referendum.

Hidden danger

Right now, core Democratic groups appear energized, primarily because they find Trump’s agenda and behavior offensive.

They turned out in the midterms, and polling suggests they remain angry and energized.

The danger here is that if the Corbyn wing pushes impeachment, it puts congressional leaders in a difficult position and risks splitting the party.

If leadership appears to be blocking the Sanders/Warren/Ocasio-Cortez agenda, and the party nominates someone not sufficiently to the left, some progressives could become estranged, sitting out the 2020 election.

For now, Trump’s behavior and the Democrats’ agenda on health care, guns, immigration, climate change and economic inequality is keeping liberals and progressives energized.

But the party’s standing among swing voters is currently fragile. It’s not clear whether Democrats will nominate a ticket that appeals to them, but the more the party is defined by Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez et al, the more it risks pushing swing voters and moderates into Trump’s camp.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Sanders, Warren and others seeking the presidential nomination are likely to continue stirring the pot on issues now that they are in campaign mode.

And Ocasio-Cortez and her friends on the Democratic Party’s left flank are unlikely to grow quiet over the upcoming months. Indeed, they may grow increasingly bold in their willingness to challenge the party’s leadership.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 12, 2019.

Can a senator be nominated and win the White House?

The abundance of sitting senators running for president seems to confirm the old joke that a senator looking into a mirror sees a future president. But it doesn’t say much about whether the Senate is a good springboard to the White House. Historically, it has not been.

Sitting senators have underperformed in contests for presidential nominations, with only three of them moving directly to the White House — Warren Harding, John Kennedy and Barack Obama.

As University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden wrote in a 2002 Political Science Quarterly article titled “United States Senators as Presidential Candidates,” the Senate “has seldom been the presidential incubator or nursery it ought to be given the ambition, visibility, resources, and records of both current and former members of the institution.”

But that has not stopped a horde of senators from jumping into the 2020 Democratic race for president.

Sizing up the field

So far, six of them are pursuing White House bids: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bernie Sandersof Vermont.

In addition, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown could well join the field, and Oregon’s Jeff Merkley has been considering the race. (Note: Both Brown and Merkley took a pass on the race.)

Once again this year, senators are getting the lion’s share of the attention.

Part of this has to do with the national media’s familiarity with them, but, as Burden points out, senators have many assets, including campaign experience, the ability to raise large amounts of money, and name ID. And yet, he writes, “statistical evidence shows that poor performance of senators [in getting nominated for president] is more than coincidence.”

Of course, this year could be different, just as 2008 was, when two senators, Obama and John McCain, faced off in the general election.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime senator, is considering a bid this time, and he would automatically jump into the top tier of contenders if he runs.

But the rest of the current field, apart from the senators, look underwhelming.

It includes a mayor, a former congressman, a sitting congresswoman and a former Cabinet official. A handful of current and former governors are also expected to join the field at some point. And governors and former governors have a way of surprising.

Early in the 1976 cycle, few people gave Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter much of a chance, certainly not any of the five senators running — Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, Lloyd Bentsen and Robert C. Byrd.

And in 1988, while Massachusetts governor and eventual nominee Michael Dukakis was taken seriously, former Sen. Gary Hart and sitting Sens. Biden, Al Gore and Paul Simon got plenty of early attention.

This year’s potential crop of sitting and former governors who are considering the contest — Steve Bullock of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jay Inslee of Washington and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia — seem likely to stress their pragmatism and electability, as well as their executive experience.

That message may not resonate with Democratic activists and voters, who appear more ideological and confrontational.

Past is prologue?

So, how should we evaluate the past performance of senators in presidential contests as we predict their potential for 2020? I looked at the last 15 presidential elections — meaning the last 30 nominees by the two major parties, going back to 1960 — and found nine nominees were incumbent presidentssix were current or former vice presidents, six were sitting or former governors, eight were sitting or former senators, and one was a businessman who had held no previous office.

It’s not surprising that sitting presidents and incumbent or former vice presidents would be successful winning party nominations.

Party activists and donors knew them, and their connection to a presidential ticket gave them a certain stature and experience that other hopefuls lacked.

That hardly suggests senators can’t be nominated or even that they face a substantial disadvantage. But can senators win if they are nominated?

Of the last 15 presidential election winners, six were incumbent presidents and two were sitting or former vice presidents.

That accounts for more than half of all presidential winners since 1960.

Of the remaining seven, four were sitting or former governors, two were senators and one had no previous political experience.

Of the 15 nominees who lost, three were incumbent presidents, four were sitting or former vice presidents, two were sitting or former governors and six were sitting or former senators.

That may reflect the challenge senators face explaining their records or doing their jobs while simultaneously running for the White House, but it hardly leads to the conclusion that senators can’t be elected president.

(For the purpose of those breakdowns, I used the most recent position held. So for instance, Richard Nixon, when he ran in 1960, was counted as a sitting vice president, even though he was a former senator. When Nixon ran in 1968, he was counted as a former vice president. And when he ran in 1972, he was counted as an incumbent president.)

Changing times

Given the onetime conventional wisdom that senators have a hard time getting elected president, I wondered whether that conventional wisdom still holds.

Sandy Maisel, a Colby College government professor and longtime student of American politics, doesn’t think so.

He told me American politics has changed in many ways, from fundraising to weaker parties and more media coverage, and those developments have changed the nominating process.

“The office you hold is no longer important,” Maisel says. “Can you excite people? Can you raise a lot of money? And, in a cycle like this one, can you find a niche that distinguishes you from the large field? That’s more important, not the office.”

Sounds about right to me.

 Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 26, 2019.

GOP rebranding operation is underway – with Democratic help

I have told this story before, but it is well worth repeating.

Shortly after the Democratic sweep of 2006, I spoke to two Democratic leaders in Congress who told me the same thing. It was all well and good that their party had taken control of both chambers of Congress, they said, but what would matter for 2008 — and the next presidential contest — would be how Democrats behaved over the subsequent two years.

Those veteran Democrats insisted that the party needed to show voters it could govern, that it was made up of thoughtful, generally pragmatic people, not wild-eyed extremists who simply wanted to destroy President George W. Bush and return to their tax-and-spend ways.

Democrats face the same challenge today, but they are endangered by a double-pronged attack that makes their task more difficult than it was in 2006.

A perfect foe

Republicans have launched a campaign to redefine Democrats as a gang of radicals who want to undercut basic American institutions and beliefs.

The GOP line goes something like this: These extremists want to turn the United States into Venezuela and destroy democracy and the free market. As House Republican Conference rapid response director Chris Martin wrote recently in a widely distributed e-mail, Democrats are “obsessed with embracing socialism.”

Republicans understand the limits of President Donald Trump’s appeal, and most recognize he won’t change between now and November 2020. They are stuck with an unpopular, tweet-happy president, so the only way to win a second term for Trump is to increase the Democratic Party’s negatives, thereby making its eventual presidential nominee toxic.

I’ve been writing about congressional elections for almost 40 years, and this approach has been standard strategy for decades. When you have a weak nominee and can’t improve his reputation (favorable rating), you try to destroy his opponent (drive up his or her unfavorable rating).

That’s exactly what Trump and the GOP did in 2016, especially after the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump boasting of grabbing women by the genitals exposed him for what he is.

Republican strategists are well aware that Trump has normally fatal liabilities, so they are going to spend the next year demonizing the Democratic Party as extreme.

That way, no matter whom the Democrats nominate, Trump can paint his opponent with the broad brush of radicalism and socialism.

It’s a good strategy, particularly when it is the only one available. What is the alternative — talking about Trump’s empathy, tolerance, dignity and commitment to inclusiveness?

His supporters don’t need convincing. They adore him. And his critics will never be convinced he is worth supporting. So, the focus of the campaign is voters who don’t like Trump but are worried about what the Democrats might do if they controlled Washington.

Republicans can and will point to the economy to promote the president’s re-election, but 2018 already taught us that a strong economy doesn’t in itself guarantee a winning election for the GOP.

The only strategy available to Republican consultants and talking heads is to make Trump the lesser of two evils — and that means starting off by re-branding the Democratic Party as dangerous, radical, anti-democratic and, yes, evil.

Some free help

The second attack on Democratic leadership’s efforts to prove that the party is ready and able to govern comes from within the Democratic Party itself.

Progressives are angry at Trump and impatient with their own party. They want “real change,” which often means pushing the rhetorical and legislative envelope.

We all understand why progressives are tired of waiting. While Republicans saw Barack Obama as a dangerous radical who wanted to change “our way of life,” liberal Democrats thought him insufficiently aggressive in pushing many issues. Those same Democrats feel as if their agenda has been ignored for years, both by Republicans, who have controlled the White House and/or Congress, and by “establishment” Democrats.

Now, with the country’s demographic profile changing and the Democratic Party no longer dominated by old, white men, party progressives have started to flex their muscles, if only by beginning a conversation about new policy directions.

The mainstream media, fascinated by “firsts,” “isms,” conflicts and personalities, has already been giving outsize coverage to freshman legislators and new voices, as has the conservative media, for very different reasons.

Luckily for Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been able to manage her caucus so far.

But the developing presidential race will make it more difficult for leaders to keep the party together and to encourage all voices to remember that anything they say will give ammunition to the GOP.

There is nothing wrong with the various elements of the Democratic Party discussing, and even arguing, about policy options and priorities over the next year, even though some proposals will play into Trump’s hand and the Republican strategy of defining Democrats as a gang of Nicolás Maduro-loving radicals.

But all Democrats best not forget what those two Democrats I already mentioned told me more than a dozen years ago: If Democrats don’t win the next presidential election, then winning Congress (or the House, in the current case) will turn out to have been a much shallower victory for them than it initially seemed.

Note: An almost identical version of his column first appeared in Roll Call on February 12, 2019.

Democrats are right to be wary of Howard Schultz

The frenzy over businessman Howard Schultz’s announcement that he is considering an independent run for president is understandable.

Democrats think President Donald Trump is headed for defeat in a one-on-one general election contest, and anything that changes that trajectory improves his re-election prospects.

Unfortunately, few of the people who panicked about Schultz — or praised him — seemed to look at the numbers. So, let’s do just that.

First, let’s stipulate that if he runs, Schultz will position himself as fiscally conservative and socially progressive. He’ll stress his business credentials, pragmatic approach, centrist views, commitment to tolerance and diversity, and frustration with the two parties.

Let’s also note that Schultz has very deep pockets and would be the ultimate outsider and disruptor, giving him appeal to many voters, especially if the Democrats nominate an extreme liberal.

Let’s also acknowledge that American politics has become something less than predictable.

The impossible has already happened, so something else impossible could happen again.

But while more than four in ten Americans identify as independents, let’s not get carried away about Schultz’s chances.

Many independents are closet partisans, just as many “weak” partisans actually vote as if they are strong Republicans or strong Democrats. That’s just how people behave.

They like to think of themselves as more independent than they really are.

With Schultz positioning himself as a moderate and independent, he’s unlikely to find support among partisans and the most ideological.

Those voters are strongly attached to one of the two parties, and his moderate message won’t resonate with them.

Mapping it up

O.K., let’s turn to the numbers — that is, to the states.

The national election actually is a collection of state contests, with the winner needing 270 electoral votes.

For years, Gallup has ranked states on the basis of a number of measures, including Trump’s job approval/disapproval, self-identification as Republican/Democrat or independent-leaning Republican/Democrat, self-identification as conservative/liberal, and religiosity.

I’ve gone through the lists and identified nine states plus the District of Columbia, with 139 electoral votes, that are among both the most liberal and the most Democratic: California, Connecticut, D.C., Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Voters in these states would be less likely to find Schultz’s positioning appealing. (The list does not include five states that made one list but not both: Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey and New Mexico.)

I found 16 states, with 96 electoral votes, that are among the most conservative and the most Republican: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

These states would be even less likely to vote for Schultz than would the liberal/Democratic states because of Schultz’s very limited appeal in rural, socially conservative areas. (Again, this list does not include three states that made one list but not both: Alaska, Louisiana and West Virginia.)

The two lists of the most partisan and ideological states account for 235 electoral votes, leaving Schultz and the two major party nominees to compete for 303 electoral votes, 30 more than needed for a victory.

Schultz would need to win 270 of the remaining 303 available.

In other words, he’d need to virtually sweep the “competitive” states.

But remember, the so-called competitive list includes Alaska (3 electoral votes), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Louisiana (10), Maine (4), New Jersey (14), New Mexico (5) and West Virginia (5), which make either the most partisan or the most ideological list, but not both.

Many or all of these states would be difficult — or impossible, in the case of West Virginia — for Schultz. (For convenience sake, I have assumed Nebraska’s and Maine’s electoral votes are not split.)

Some “competitive” states that didn’t make either list for partisanship or ideology also seem like a stretch for Schultz, including Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina and Texas.

Culturally, Schultz seems most out of touch with the Trump states, which limits his options about where to compete. Does anyone really think that he is going to carry the Deep South, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma or Idaho?

His only hope of getting 270 electoral votes is to swipe states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut from the Democratic nominee, and to win swing, suburban states that are clearly trending Democratic, including Colorado and Virginia.

House always wins

To the extent that he can do that, he all but destroys the Democratic nominee’s chances. But what if Schultz fails to reach 270 electoral votes but does well enough to deny an electoral vote majority to either of the major party nominees? In that case, the House would select the next president (with each state getting one vote), and that would be Donald Trump.

Republicans currently hold a majority of 26 House delegations, to 22 for the Democrats. Two states (Michigan and Pennsylvania) have equal numbers of Republican and Democratic members, so they would not vote. But might not GOP House members faced with four more years of Trump look for another option, like Schultz?

No. That wouldn’t happen. Partisans behave like partisans, and House Republicans are not an independent, centrist bunch.

It’s certainly possible that voters will take a look at Schultz and decide that they don’t like him, don’t want him as president or regard him as little more than a spoiler.

A year from now, everyone may be wondering why anyone got excited about a Howard Schultz candidacy.

But it is more likely that, if he runs, Schultz becomes a factor in the 2020 presidential contest, if only because of his resources and the extreme positioning of the two parties.

A detailed look at state politics suggests that Schultz’s chances of winning the presidency outright are small, probably microscopic.

If he has any impact, it will be among suburban voters, a group that was significantly more Democratic in 2018 than in 2016.

Schultz isn’t likely to have much appeal among Trump’s rural, culturally conservative, white evangelical base. And that means he would be likely to do much greater damage to the Democratic nominee’s vote than to Trump’s. And that’s why Democrats have reason to be worried about Schultz’s candidacy.

(Note to readers: If this column seems vaguely familiar, it may be because you may recall a similar analysis in my Feb. 16, 2016 column about Michael Bloomberg.)

 Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 7, 2019.

Presidential Questions for the Democrats, Part II

In my last column, I raised three questions Democrats need to answer about the kind of nominee they want in 2020. Do they want an insurgent outsider, do they need someone with experience and must they have a woman and/or African-American on the ticket? In this column, I look at three other questions Democrats need to address.

Does likability matter?

One person’s idea of “likable” undoubtedly is very different from another’s, so it’s wise to be cautious when trying to generalize about likability in politics.

I have a problem with people who are arrogant and smug, while I tend to prefer those who are personable, down to earth, funny and even-keeled.

Personally, I’ve found Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to be intense and angry, two traits I don’t associate with likability. (Yes, I know. He’s passionate because he wants to save the country.)

The same goes for Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Both men strike me as gruff, in part because they don’t smile much.

Of course, they may come across much differently when they are with friends and family and not discussing politics.

In my view, Elizabeth Warren comes across like a schoolmarm. Again, not someone I’d want to have a beer with — in spite of her “Hold on a sec, I’m gonna get me a beer” comment.

I haven’t seen that much of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, but he seems more intense, less likable.

On the other hand, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York seem likable to me — easy to talk to, down to earth, personable and relaxed.

I’d put former Vice President Joe Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and California Sen. Kamala Harris into the same category.

But those are just my views.

Each reader will have his or her own opinions. And many Democrats will focus on ideology, not likability.

Many will find candidates they agree with as being likable, and those they don’t agree with as unlikable.

Still, it’s hard to deny that politicians like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan benefited from their personable style and appeal.

Does the Democratic nominee need to out-Trump Trump?

President Donald Trump is going to run a brutal re-election campaign. He’ll attack again and again, belittling and besmirching his opponent.

Not everyone will be able to stand up to Trump’s attacks, or peel off some Trump voters, thereby changing the election’s equation.

If Democrats want someone who can bring back swing voters and white working-class voters, they’ll have options.

Biden certainly has shown strength in the past with blue-collar voters.

Hickenlooper, a businessman-turned-politician, might appeal to some upscale, suburban swing voters.

But if Democrats are looking to someone with a message and style that could give particular trouble to Trump, the obvious answer could be Brown.

The Ohio senator is an aggressive campaigner, to put the kindest spin on his reputation.

His position on trade and his emphasis on economic fairness has made him a favorite of organized labor and working-class voters who distrust corporate America.

His economic populism would undoubtedly appeal to some Trump voters, and he’d certainly have a chance of carrying Ohio in the general election.

Trump won 52.1 percent of the vote in the Buckeye State in 2016, with a victory margin of 8.6 points. Brown received 53.4 percent of the vote last year, winning re-election by 6.8 points.

But Brown has his liabilities, of course. Would women and non-whites get excited about him? And would suburbanites find his populism and style appealing?

Turn to the left or to the center?

For many Democrats and those in the media, the question of electability invariably leads to another: Does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters, moderates and suburbanites, or does the party need to energize core party constituencies, thereby getting enthusiastic support from progressives, blacks, Hispanics and younger voters?

Each time I’ve been asked this question over the years, I’ve given the same answer: “Yes.”

Both parties need party loyalists and swing voters, ideologues and pragmatists.

Even against a polarizing incumbent Republican president with limited appeal, the 2020 Democratic nominee may need to outperform Hillary Clinton among progressives, minority voters and white suburban swing voters to win the White House.

Of course, appealing to very disparate elements of one party isn’t easy to do.

Nominate someone too far to the left in order to energize progressives, and that candidate risks losing those suburban voters who were so important to the party in 2018.

Pick a nominee regarded as measured and moderate, a true pragmatist, and that person could perform well in the suburbs but lose enthusiasm among progressive and younger voters, who are demanding change and a new agenda.

There is a way to bridge this gap, of course.

Bill Clinton already did it.

But it requires a skilled politician who can show empathy, pragmatism, a commitment to progressive principles and an openness to new ideas and solutions, all at the same time.

Can Harris do that? Klobuchar? Biden? Others?

As Democratic activists and voters select their favorites, they will be looking at all these and other questions.

But not all their answers will be of equal value.

Some Democrats may prefer a fresh face but will end up supporting Biden, making their decision on other considerations.

Or, they may prefer a progressive who plays to the base, yet opt to vote for Klobuchar or Harris, again for other reasons.

So the key question is not necessarily who Democratic voters like now, but what characteristics and qualities they will be looking for in February and March of 2020 — and how they prioritize their many preferences.

For some, the most important question may be a very simple one: Who is most likely to defeat Donald Trump?

 Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 31, 2019.