The Steyer Boomlet

Once again, there’s a new “hot” candidate. This time it’s billionaire Tom Steyer, who hit double digits in new Fox News polls in Nevada and South Carolina, thereby qualifying him for Tuesday’s CNN/Des Moines Register presidential debate — the last debate before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.

Of course, other surveys show Steyer in the low-to-middle single digits in the first two states with Democratic contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, and weak showings in those two states could affect his standing in the subsequent state contests.

The reason the Democratic former hedge fund founder is anywhere in any poll on this planet is that he has spent millions of dollars in advertising, first to promote the impeachment of President Donald Trump and now his own candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Steyer has so far spent more money on his campaign than all of the other candidates combined except for Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who like Steyer is trying to buy the Democratic nomination.

If the Fox News numbers in Nevada and South Carolina are correct, they would at the very least suggest that Steyer could be mucking up the Democratic contest, adding yet another dose of uncertainty to an already uncertain race.

Some Democrats are still looking for a perfect candidate to defeat Trump, and a billionaire liberal businessman who says the entire system is “broken” might be appealing to some.

But, of course, there is plenty of reason to believe that this Steyer boomlet isn’t very meaningful and that if and when Democrats look at him at greater length, they’ll find him unappealing as the party’s standard-bearer in November.

Poll factor

Up to this point, the Democratic front-runners have ignored Steyer, but if they see him as a real factor in the race, he’ll get much more attention from them — and from the national media, in general, and the Iowa debate moderators, in particular.

Where did he get all his money? What businesses and companies did he invest in?

For a party that seems uncomfortable with millionaires and billionaires, Steyer would be a strange choice.

Yes, he can say that he has spent his money for good causes and to fix the system, but he is still a billionaire who is trying to buy the nomination.

Like Trump, Steyer thinks that government is broken and that only a radical remake of the country — its laws and the Constitution — will make the system open to the people.

One of Steyer’s wackier proposals involves his support for term limits. “You and I both know we need term limits … that Congress shouldn’t be a lifetime appointment,” he says in one TV spot that he rolled out in November to air in the four February states. “But members of Congress — and the corporations who’ve bought our democracy — hate term limits. Too bad.”

Much like Trump, who throws words around as if they have no fixed meaning, Steyer must know that members of Congress aren’t “appointed” and that they don’t serve for a lifetime, unless the voters continue to reelect them every two or six years, depending on the chamber.

They certainly don’t have a “lifetime appointment,” the way federal judges do. Moreover, where is the evidence that corporations “hate term limits?”

One of the reasons why limiting terms is such a bad idea — it was bad when conservatives promoted them as a way to create more open seats when they were in the minority, and it is a bad idea now that a liberal Democratic hopeful is proposing them — is that term limits would empower unelected Hill staffers and lobbyists, who would be the only people to understand the details of legislation and have policy expertise.

House members wouldn’t be in Congress long enough to become experts in most matters of public policy.

Trump 2.0

Steyer reminds me a lot of Trump. He’s never held elective office but thinks that he is his party’s — and the country’s — political savior.

Everything is broken. Everything is corrupt. Let’s throw everything out and start over. Representative government? Forget it. Let’s have a national referendum on issues (thereby empowering those who can dominate the airwaves during the national discussion leading up to the referendum).

From a purely handicapping point of view, I’m skeptical that Steyer has much staying power in the race. His anti-establishment, liberal message of the evils of corporations will resonate with some, but many of those Democrats already have their favorites (such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).

And once the media and the other Democrats turn their fire on Steyer — if they ever do — he’ll have to spend time on the defensive answering questions. That’s not an ideal situation for a billionaire former hedge fund founder running for the Democratic nomination.

Changes in key electoral groups between 2016 and 2019 also present problems for Trump. As the midterms showed — and polling conducted since then has confirmed — he has lost ground with younger voters, college-educated whites, suburbanites and especially white women with a college degree.

Finally, Trump’s prospects depend to a considerable extent on the Democrats — on whom they nominate, how united they are and how energized the party’s constituencies are. Some Democratic tickets would have a better chance of mobilizing the party base and reaching out to swing voters than others. In other words, candidates and campaigns still matter.

Trump’s path to a second term rests on larger losses in the popular vote and narrower victories in a few states with crucial electoral votes. That is a possible scenario, but hardly one that should leave Republicans brimming with confidence.

The president has damaged himself by alienating large chunks of the country, and his behavior over the next year is likely to give Democrats more ammunition to use against him. The only question is whether the Democrats will find a nominee who can take advantage of Trump’s fundamental weaknesses.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on January 13, 2020.

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.