Biden, Unions and the Politics of 2020

Shortly after former Vice President Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, he received his first union endorsement. “I couldn’t be more proud to have the International Association of Fire Fighters on my team,” Biden tweeted in response. “Unions built the middle class in this country — and as President, I’ll fight to strengthen them and grow the backbone of this country.”

As CNN noted, “Biden has long enjoyed close ties to labor groups and often attributes his political ascent to unions, referring to them as the ones who ‘brung me to the dance.’” But while Biden’s strength among working-class voters is one reason some observers see him as potentially able to win back Democrats who defected to Donald Trump in 2016, his initial comments about the IAFF endorsement at least raise a question about priorities and strategy.

Biden was born in 1942 and was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Unions were a strong economic force then, and they carried significant political clout, with large, politically active memberships and financial muscle. But the percentage of American workers belonging to unions peaked in the mid-1940s and has been falling ever since.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10.5 percent of wage and salary workers were members of unions in 2018. Many of them were in government, so union membership among private-sector workers was a microscopic 6.4 percent.

Of course, the distribution of union members around the country is not uniform. Most union members live in states that are already normally Democratic.

Of the 11 states where union membership in 2018 constituted at least 15 percent of the employed, Hillary Clinton carried nine: New York (23.8 percent), Hawaii (21.3), Washington (18.8), Connecticut (16.9), New Jersey (16.2), Rhode Island (16.1), California (15.5), Minnesota (15.2) and Illinois (15.0).

Trump won two of them, Alaska (18.1) and Michigan (15.6), which is normally a Democratic state.

Union membership as a percentage of all employed stood slightly above the national average in one key swing state, Pennsylvania (12.0), but it was well below the national average in three other states that could decide the presidency in 2020: Wisconsin (8.3), Florida (5.6) and North Carolina (3.4).

Appeals to unions and union members may be effective in many already rock-solid liberal and Democratic states — making unions still relevant in Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses — but it is hard to see how organized labor will change the political equation for 2020.

Of course, in a general election against Trump, Biden’s pro-union, pro-working-class message could appeal to some Americans who are not union members (or union households) but have a favorable view of unions.

An April 25-May 1, 2018, survey by the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of adults had a very or somewhat favorable view of labor unions, while only 33 percent have a very or somewhat unfavorable view of them.

And when Pew followed up by noting the decline in union membership and asking whether that development has been “mostly good” or “mostly bad” for working people, 51 percent said “mostly bad” and 35 percent said “mostly good.”

Trump surely will run on the economy, and a Democratic nominee who is too far to the left on the issue, such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, would make it easy for the president to argue that Democrats will drive the economy into a ditch.

Biden should be more difficult to paint with that broad brush.

But it’s difficult to believe that any Democrat is going to win the White House by focusing on the economy — not with an April national unemployment rate of 3.6 percent and strong gross domestic product growth.

No wonder 51 percent of respondents told the April 26-May 1 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that they approved of Trump’s handling of the economy.

Instead, the Democrats’ best path next year appears to be on cultural issues and non-economic concerns, including health care, gun control and climate change, as well as the president’s personality and character issues, and “change.”

Those issues energized core Democratic groups and swing voters in 2018.

The question is how Biden addresses those concerns and whether Democratic voters can get excited about him and his agenda.

Unions surely continue to be a part of the Democratic coalition, and any Democratic nominee who can improve on Hillary Clinton’s showing with blue-collar workers and whites without a college degree will be formidable next year.

But Democrats are probably better off trying to turn out their 2018 coalition again in 2020 than trying to recreate the non-college/working-class coalition they relied on before Trump. And that may require Biden to be the proverbial old dog who learns new tricks. He’ll need to avoid falling into old patterns and relying on old messages, even as he appreciates those who initially brought him to the dance.

This column appeared initially in the May 7 issue of Roll Call.

Age, Change and the Democrats’ Challenge

Is the Democratic race for president — and possibly even the 2020 general election — going to boil down to a choice of aged front-runners (or incumbent) versus a younger challenger who represents generational change? It’s certainly possible.

President Donald Trump, the oldest person ever to assume the presidency when he was inaugurated in 2017, turns 72 in June. It wouldn’t be without precedent if Democratic voters — and eventually the electorate as a whole — saw the 2020 election as an opportunity to make a statement about the future and generational change.

It has already happened a couple of times in recent memory.

President Dwight Eisenhower left office in 1961 at the age of 70 after serving eight years in the White House. His successor, Democrat John F. Kennedy, was just 43 when he was elected president the previous year.

The contrast between Eisenhower and Kennedy was obvious, as was the charisma gap between the Massachusetts Democrat and his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, who was only 47 but represented continuity.

Thirty-two years later, in 1992, another Democrat ran for the White House on a message of generational change. Bill Clinton was 46 when he was elected president, making him the first baby boomer in the White House.

The Republican incumbent Clinton defeated, President George H.W. Bush, was 68 when he sought re-election. He had also served two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan, whose presidency ended when he was 77 years old.

Again, there was an obvious charisma gap between Clinton and Bush.

History repeats?

Now, 28 years after that 1992 election, Democrats face a quandary: Do they nominate a senior citizen or someone much younger who can portray the sitting president as part of the past?

The answer, to some extent, depends on the kind of campaign Democrats want to wage. Do they want a contest about ideology, issues and policy or about change, hope and character?

Four announced Democratic hopefuls are old enough to collect Social Security: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (age 77), Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren(69), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (68) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (67). And that doesn’t count former Vice President Joe Biden(76), who is widely expected to enter the race.

On the other hand, two hopefuls are under 40 — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (37) and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (37) — and three others are in their 40s: former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (44), former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (46) and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (49).

Six announced candidates and potential hopefuls fall between the two extremes: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (52), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (52), Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (54), California Sen. Kamala Harris (54) and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (62).

Of that latter group, Harris offers the greatest contrast with Trump, a younger, female, multiracial Californian.

The Feb. 24-27 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked voters how comfortable and enthusiastic they would be with a potential nominee who had certain characteristics.

Only a third of those responding said they would be comfortable or enthusiastic with someone over 75 years of age. On the surface, that’s not great news for older hopefuls, especially Biden and Sanders.

But there is no way of knowing how many voters are so uncomfortable that they wouldn’t vote for a candidate in his or her mid-70s, especially since recent ballot tests have shown the two oldest names tested, Biden and Sanders, leading the pack.

Not the norm

But Trump is not Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan or George H.W. Bush.

He is relatively new to elective politics, and he has a certain kind of charisma — at least to about 40 percent of the public. And unlike Nixon in 1960 and Bush in 1992, Trump doesn’t yet represent the status quo, even though he is the incumbent.

His entire message is about disruption, destroying the “deep state” and sticking it to the elite and the establishment.

That means Trump might not be as vulnerable to some form of “change” message as Nixon and Bush 41 were.

There is another side to that coin, of course. Polls consistently show a plurality (often a majority) of voters won’t vote to re-elect Trump next year, and the enthusiastic response among Democrats to O’Rourke and Buttigieg can’t be ignored.

Neither man is a typical politician or presidential hopefuls, and they have different styles. The Texan asks a lot of questions but provides few answers (at this point), while Buttigieg has been more combative against Trump and explicit about his views and personal values.

Harris remains the most interesting case. The California senator (and former state attorney general) is relatively new to national politics, having been elected in 2016, and has plenty of charisma.

Half Tamil (Indian) and half Jamaican, she is a woman of color who projects a knowledgeable and substantive view of politics and policy.

She will certainly have great appeal among women and nonwhites, two demographic groups that are crucial to winning her party’s nomination next year and to turning out base voters next November.

But would she do better than Hillary Clinton did among white, working-class voters, particularly in the Great Lakes states?

Depending on the economy, the Democrats may be able to run a basic “change” message in 2020. But party strategists can’t count on that being enough.

They may well need a nominee, and a ticket, that can offer a much bigger message about the future and what kind of country most voters want this to be.

In theory, any of the candidates can offer that kind of message, since Trump’s America is so different from what we have come to expect over the last six decades, from both parties.

Democrats need to figure out who can best deliver that message and inspire voters — Democrats, independents and non-Trump Republicans — about the future and what form that “change” message takes.

Note: This column appeared initially in the April 2, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

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.

What Do Democrats Want in a President? Part I

Democrats have a hoard of hopefuls aiming for their party’s 2020 nomination, so what qualities and characteristics are Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees likely to value?

Electability is certainly a factor, but what makes a potential nominee electable?

I’ll save the all-important ideology question — does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters or move left to energize core constituencies? — until my next column, but there are plenty of other questions that Democratic voters must address over the next 12 to 15 months.

Here are a few:

Can a candidate be ‘new’ more than once?

When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 race on April 30, 2015, he wasn’t taken very seriously by political handicappers. He seemed too far left, couldn’t match Hillary Clinton’s fundraising machine, wasn’t even a Democrat and appeared too disheveled for this media age.

But Sanders caught on as an “authentic,” quirky, progressive alternative to the “establishment” Clinton. He was passionate and sincere, a fresh voice with principled ideas.

Is Sanders still the candidate of change, new ideas and authenticity, or did his magic potion have a 2016 expiration date?

Can he really compete with other, newer, younger candidates — like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former San Antonio Mayor/former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro — who will attempt to carry the mantle of change, energy, progressivism and authenticity?

Count me as skeptical that it’s now possible to be “new” more than once.

Of course, in the past, some unsuccessful presidential hopefuls proved resilient.

Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic nominee in 1956 after losing decisively in 1952. Republican Thomas E. Dewey lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 but was nominated again four years later — and lost to Harry Truman. And Richard Nixon lost in 1960 but won the GOP nomination and the presidency eight years later.

But those were different times. Barack Obama never could have been nominated back then. Nor could Donald Trump.

We live in impatient times. Candidates don’t want to wait their turn, and the party establishment has withered.

Fundraising has changed, as has media coverage. That’s made charisma and oratory more important than preparation for office, longevity and maturity.

I expect there will be a new “Bernie Sanders” this cycle, but it’s unlikely to be Bernie Sanders.

I’m even skeptical about Joe Biden’s chances, even though he starts at or near the top in most polls, and even though I believe he would have won the White House had he been the 2016 Democratic nominee.

Selecting Biden as the party’s nominee may seem too much like going backward instead of marching into the future to Democratic voters.

Must the ticket include a woman? An African-American?

The eventual Democratic nominee will need to roll up big margins among women and non-whites, two groups that make up the backbone of the party.

Clinton carried women 54 percent to 41 percent and non-whites 74 percent to 21 percent in 2016, but two years later, Democratic House candidates carried both groups by even wider margins — winning women 59 percent to 40 percent and non-whites 76 percent to 22 percent.

Given Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s successes battling Trump, the victories by female candidates in 2018 and the infusion of energy provided by progressives of late, I simply can’t imagine a Democratic ticket without a non-white or a woman.

Both groups are crucial in offsetting the GOP’s advantage with men and whites.

The more important question is whether the party needs both a person of color and a woman on the ticket. I start off thinking the answer is “probably.”

A party that stands for diversity and inclusiveness must prove its commitment when putting together a national ticket.

This certainly doesn’t mean that a white man can’t be nominated for president or vice president by the Democrats — or win the White House.

Biden, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, O’Rourke and others have obvious assets in a crowded contest. But female and minority voters will have such a large role in selecting a presidential nominee that they may well prefer to nominate someone who looks like them.

And a ticket with a woman and/or an African American could help turnout among those crucial groups. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is black, Indian-American and a woman, checks a number of boxes.

Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar must also be in the conversation as appealing to women, just as Booker will have appeal to black Democrats.

Is experience an asset or a liability?

Obama jumped into the 2008 presidential contest on Feb. 10, 2007, about two years after he became a senator.

Trump never held elective office (or even a significant appointed post) when he won the White House. He defeated a woman who had been first lady, senator and secretary of State, and who was making her second run for president.

Does experience matter at all to Democratic voters? Or do they care only about speaking ability, charisma, newness and enthusiasm?

Is having served three terms in the House and a few years on the El Paso City Council enough (O’Rourke)? How about serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pete Buttigieg)? Is a couple of years in the Senate enough if you were previously attorney general of California (Harris)?

Newer contenders have shorter voting records, or none at all. Some have had little or no connection with Washington or Congress.

Is that what Democrats are looking for, or after Trump do they want someone who knows the ins and outs of legislation and D.C.?

If experience is still an electoral asset, Biden, Brown, former two-term Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and even Sanders have an important credential.

But if it isn’t an asset, other hopefuls may be better positioned.

These three questions are only the tip of the iceberg as we try to answer the question “What matters to Democrats as they put together a national ticket?”

In my next column, I’ll look at some other considerations, including ideological positioning.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 29, 2019.