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:
- 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.
- Select a presidential nominee who can energize the Democratic base, including progressives, younger voters and non-whites.
- 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.
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.
Two early surveys show former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, holding a lead over Republican Rep. Marcia Blackburn in hypothetical ballot tests of this year’s Senate race.
Those polls, along with kind words about Bredesen from retiring Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker, have raised the contest’s profile and heightened the buzz. But it’s best to be cautious about the former governor’s prospects as you watch the race play out.
A businessman and former two-term mayor of Nashville before he was elected to his state’s highest office, Bredesen has received bipartisan praise over the years for his leadership and pragmatic approach to government.
“He was a very good mayor, a very good governor, a very good business person,” Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, said recently. But that reputation may not be enough to elect the Democrat in November.
There is a huge difference between running in a state or local contest and running in a federal race. State and local offices are less about ideology and more about leadership, pragmatism and management skills.
Federal campaigns and elections are much more about “hot-button” issues that divide the parties and the country. That’s why Kansas voters could elect Democrat Kathleen Sebelius as governor in 2002 and 2006 but have not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.
It’s the same reason why Republican Linda Lingle was elected governor of Hawaii but crushed when she ran for the Senate. And it’s the same reason liberal Maryland voters could elect Republican Larry Hogan as governor but not give Republican Senate hopefuls even a passing glance.
But in Washington, D.C., Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas about taxes, government, entitlements, abortion rights, gay marriage, gun ownership, immigration and — at least traditionally — government spending. Party allegiance is much more important when voters decide who to send to Capitol Hill.
Bredesen was never seen as a liberal, partisan Democrat, and his early poll numbers suggest that Tennessee voters still regard him as a moderate and pragmatist.
But Republican operatives will unload on the former governor during the next six months, portraying him as a tool of Democratic Senate leader Charles E. Schumer, House leader Nancy Pelosi and every liberal Democrat they can stuff into a television commercial.
Indeed, shortly after Corker offered his complimentary comments about Bredesen, a Blackburn spokesperson responded that “Phil Bredesen will be a solid vote for Chuck Schumer and Obama, Clinton-era liberal policies, and Tennesseans are not interested in that.”
Can Bredesen respond to those charges effectively, or will Republicans succeed in painting him as just another liberal Democrat who will vote with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders?
Unless Bredesen can convince voters that he will be independent, the state’s Republicans and conservatives will return to their default position, which means supporting the GOP nominee.
But while I remain cautious, even initially skeptical, about Bredesen’s chances of winning a Senate seat in what is an increasingly conservative and Republican state, I certainly don’t dismiss his prospects. He is a quality candidate.
The initial videos run by Bredesen and Blackburn show why even national Republicans are now worried about their hold on the open seat. One Republican I spoke to about the videos told me that Bredesen’s was ten times better than Blackburn’s.
Bredesen’s December campaign announcement video, a two-and-a-half-minute spot, featured the candidate talking to viewers. Dressed in a plaid shirt and vest and sitting on a porch, the ad immediately reminded me of spots by former Sen. Fred Thompson and Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Thompson, an actor, was phenomenal talking to the camera, and Bredesen is as good — serious, a little folksy, sincere and clear-spoken.
He mentioned the economy, health insurance, the opioid crisis and Congress borrowing money. Then he talked about his business background, his mayoral experience and his successes as governor, noting that he didn’t hike the sales tax or institute a state income tax.
As he talked, the camera pushed in very slowly, drawing the viewer in. “We need and deserve something better than we are getting from Washington. And we need and deserve a senator who can make that happen. I’m applying for the job,” said Bredesen as the screen fades to black. It’s a spectacular video.
“Solutions” is a 30-second spot that features the Democrat talking to the camera about his accomplishments as governor. “Ought to Do” is a 30-second ad that features Bredesen, dressed in a suit and tie and speaking off camera, talking about the president, who carried Tennessee by 26 points in 2016.
“I’m not running against Donald Trump,” he says. “I’m running for a Senate seat to represent the people of Tennessee. I learned a long time ago to separate the message from the messenger. There’s a lot of things I don’t personally like about Donald Trump, but he’s the president of the United States, and if he has an idea and is pushing some things that I think are good for the people of Tennessee, I’m going to be for it. It doesn’t matter where it came from. And likewise, if I think it’s not going to be good for Tennessee, I’m going to be against it. I think that’s what senators ought to do.”
In contrast, Blackburn’s announcement video, released back in October, had her talking to camera about her ideology. She described herself as “a hard-core, card-carrying Tennessee conservative” and “politically incorrect.”
She then attacked the “Republican majority in the U.S. Senate” for not overturning Obamacare, calling that “a disgrace,” and complaining that too many Republicans in the Senate “act like Democrats.”
The congresswoman then turned to her support of guns and opposition to abortion before stressing her support for Trump’s proposed border wall and the fact that she stands for the national anthem.
Blackburn’s video probably played well with the GOP base, an important fact given the state’s partisan bent. She is well-spoken and personable.
But she relishes the role of “bomb-thrower” and spends almost as much time complaining about those in her party as she does about Democrats.
That should tell you something about her message — and the limits of her appeal.
The question remains: Can Bredesen get enough usually Republican voters to believe that he is a truly independent Democrat, or will he be buried under an avalanche of GOP attacks?
I don’t know the answer yet. We will all learn more as the contest develops. Keep watching.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 26, 2018.