Do Democrats Need a Backup Plan?

With many surveys showing multiple Democratic hopefuls leading President Donald Trump in hypothetical 2020 ballot tests, Democrats should feel confident they can deny the incumbent president a second term. But many don’t.

In spite of the huge field, the Democratic race is muddled because of questions about Joe Biden’s campaign skills, the progressive agendas of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the difficulty in finding a nominee who can appeal to a variety of constituencies, from the party’s base to suburban swing voters to possibly even working-class white women.

A series of hiccups by Biden on the campaign trail, including in the initial debates, ought to bother party pragmatists, who correctly see the former vice president as the Democrat with the broadest appeal.

If Biden continues to stumble and his candidacy ultimately implodes, pragmatists will need to find a new standard-bearer. At the moment, there is no obvious alternative.

Sanders and Warren are both so far left that many question whether they can win suburban voters generally and college-educated voters in particular.

Warren has potentially broader general election appeal than Sanders — at least she has never embraced socialism. But she certainly isn’t a pragmatist, given her attitudes toward business and her support for “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal and canceling student debt. While Warren has moved up in the polls, Sanders’s candidacy, which looks weaker now than it did four years ago, limits her ability to unite populist progressives.

California Sen. Kamala Harris would seem to be an obvious alternative should Biden implode, but her performance in the second debate and her shifting position(s) on Medicare/health care raise questions about her candidacy. So far, she seems unwilling to position herself as a pragmatic progressive, even though that would likely benefit her.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has had his moments in the early going, but he remains stuck in the mid-single digits in national polls, and his youth and questionable appeal to minority voters limit his prospects.

The rest of the Democratic field has an even longer road to travel. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has done well in debates but lacks charisma. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke has not answered questions about his substance and heft. And Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who as much as anyone has explicitly positioned herself as a pragmatic progressive, has so far made little headway, let alone caught fire.

All of this leads to an obvious question: As late as it is in the election cycle, is there still time for someone with proven broad appeal to enter the race?

The ideal candidate

If you are a Democratic strategist responsible for winning back the White House in 2020, you would want someone smart, thoughtful and knowledgeable. You would prefer someone with Washington, D.C., experience, but not someone who is seen as “too Washington.” You would look for someone personable, charismatic and relatable. And of course, the ideal candidate wouldn’t have a lot of political baggage, thereby keeping the focus on Trump.

Finally, thinking about the primaries and the general election electorate, you’d want someone who can energize the Democratic base and appeal to suburban swing voters, particularly white women (and men) with a college degree. If he or she could also win some white, working-class voters, particularly women, that would be icing on the cake.

Add up those qualities, and one name jumps out: Michelle Obama.

No, the former first lady is not running for president, and she has disavowed any interest in doing so. But she would have plenty of assets if she did run, she might have a better chance of defeating Trump than anyone currently in the contest.

A Princeton graduate with a degree from Harvard Law School, Obama is a dynamic speaker. Empathetic and passionate, she appears sincere, authentic and dignified. It’s no wonder that she connects with so many people. Can’t you imagine her on the same stage as Trump?

The former first lady has never sought or held elective office, but that might even be an asset. Certainly, Trump proved it isn’t a requirement.

She’d benefit from her husband’s current standing. A year and a half ago, Gallup asked adults how they viewed Barack Obama’s job performance during his time in the White House. In hindsight, the survey found 63 percent approved.

recent Aug. 11-13 Fox News poll found 95 percent of registered Democrats with a favorable view of Barack Obama. Among all voters, his favorable rating was 60 percent.

Of course, the former president has some baggage, and it would be transferred to his wife. His critics would become hers, and Trump would surely run against a “third Obama term.” But given Barack Obama’s electoral performance and current polling, the 44th president of the United States would be a clear asset for his wife.

Clinton redux?

Some Democrats believe that Hillary Clinton’s loss shows that a woman can’t win. But Clinton had tons of baggage that Michelle Obama doesn’t have, and Obama could change voters’ perceptions about electability with an effective campaign and strong showing in the polls.

From an electoral point of view, the former first lady reaches exactly the audiences that Democrats need. She could turn out her husband’s voters, and she should have strong appeal in the swing suburbs and among younger and minority voters.

If the Democrats are fortunate, they’ll find that the president is so weak next year that almost any nominee with a “D” behind his or her name will win. Indeed, that’s the case right now, with Biden, Warren, Harris and Sanders all leading Trump in recent national surveys.

But, it’s difficult to count on that some fifteen months before the election.

Democrats have a large and interesting field. And yet, only Biden — or at least the Biden of 2008 — looks to have broad enough appeal to give Democrats a clear advantage in 2020. If he implodes, the party would need to look elsewhere for a standard-bearer. That person may now be stuck in the lower tier of the Democratic contest, or may have already ruled out a bid.

Admittedly, the idea that Michelle Obama would change her mind and seek the Democratic presidential nomination is ridiculous, especially late in the contest. It’s absurd. It can’t happen. In fact, it’s about ridiculous and absurd as Donald Trump running for president and winning.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on August 20, 2019.

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.