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.

Can GOP’s Mandel Ride Trump Wave in Ohio?

If you’re looking for a 2018 Republican Senate challenger who has embraced Donald Trump, you need look no further than Ohio’s Josh Mandel.

Trump’s surprising eight-point victory over Hillary Clinton in the Buckeye State would seem to augur well for a Trump-like messenger, but Mandel’s prospects against incumbent Sherrod Brown (D) look increasingly iffy given the emerging landscape of next year’s midterm elections.

Mandel, who was elected state treasurer in 2010 and reelected four years later, lost to Brown by six points, 51%-45%, in 2012. That was double Barack Obama’s three-point win (51%-48%) over Mitt Romney in Ohio. The GOP hopeful, who served in Iraq with the Marine Reserves, has oozed political ambition since he first ran for student government president at Ohio State University. After college, he was elected to the Lyndhurst city council and then won two elections for the Ohio House.

Mandel made it very clear early on that he wanted a re-match against Brown, and party leaders rallied around him. But while the state treasurer is a proven vote-getter and experienced candidate in a Trump state, he faces an uphill run. (Mandel also faces another pro-Trump GOP hopeful in the race for the Republican nomination, businessman Mike Gibbons.)

During the Obama years, the midterm election dynamic helped Republican candidates, who could run for change and against the Democratic president. But now, with the GOP firmly in charge and an unpopular Republican sitting in the Oval Office, Democratic incumbents, challengers and open-seat hopefuls will tap the electorate’s nervousness about and/or disappointment with Trump.

Brown, like Mandel, got into politics early. He served eight years in the Ohio House, got elected twice as Ohio secretary of state, and served seven terms in the U.S. House before winning election to the Senate in 2006, a Democratic wave year.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose ethics issues and internationalist reputation cost her support among working-class voters, Brown, 64, has always been a populist Democrat. Trump over-performed in many working-class areas because of his populist rhetoric and “fair trade” message, but Brown has been a favorite of blue-collar voters for decades.

Although Mandel, who turns 40 later this month, has had electoral success, there are still lingering doubts about his appeal.

First, he won two statewide elections in very good Republican years, 2010 and 2014, when his party label helped catapult him to victory. But Mandel ran behind the rest of the statewide GOP ticket in 2014. He was reelected by a 13-point margin, but the state auditor was reelected by 19 points, the secretary of state by 25 points, the attorney general by 23 points and the governor by 31 points.

Second, while many Republicans elected statewide in Ohio have shown a moderate side — including Sen. Rob Portman, Gov. John Kasich, former senator George Voinovich and former senator (and now attorney general) Mike DeWine — Mandel has embraced the conservative agenda.

A look at Mandel’s twitter feed gives you a steady diet of his views, especially his efforts to end sanctuary cities, a favorite Trump agenda item. He also spends time echoing his support for Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord, demonizing liberals and the media, and warning about the threat to Judeo-Christian values.

“While liberals hyperventilate & still don’t understand why Ohioans support @realDonaldTrump, families here appreciate him doing right by us,” Mandel tweeted on June 2nd, after Trump’s Paris accord decision.

On July 10, Mandel tweeted “Yes. This.” as he linked to a Brietbart piece entitled “Virgil — The Emerging Trump Doctrine: The Defense of the West and Judeo-Christian Civilization.”

A couple of months earlier, on May 2nd, he tweeted “We are living in a clash of civilizations. We must do everything we can to protect our Judeo-Christian way of life.”

Mandel’s initial tweet about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, posted August 12th at 9:30 pm, was surprisingly general.  “So sad what happened in VA today. No place for hate and violence in America.” Four days later, at 10:23 pm on Wednesday, August 16th, he put out a more specific tweet condemning “violence, bigotry and Naziism.”

While Mandel echoes Trump’s rhetoric (and recently had former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in for a fundraiser), he lacks other elements of Trump’s appeal. Trump ran as a successful businessman and political outsider who would disrupt the status-quo. He stressed his unique abilities.  

Mandel has been running for office since before his bar mitzvah (only a slight exaggeration), has little or no career outside of politics and, as a long-time elected official, can’t run effectively as an agent of change. But while there are question marks about Mandel, Democrats certainly can’t take this race for granted.

The biggest unknown is whether Ohio has moved from swing state to reliably Republican. Trump’s margin in the state was stunning, considering recent Buckeye State presidential outcomes.

Before 2016, the last time a presidential nominee carried the state by about eight points was in 1988, when George H.W. Bush carried Ohio by 7.8 points. Both conservative rural voters in Appalachia and working-class whites rallied behind Trump. Appalachia’s Monroe County, for example, gave Obama 44.8% of the vote in 2012, but Hillary Clinton won only 24.5%. Mahoning County (Youngstown) gave 63.5% of its vote to Obama but Clinton received only 49.9%.

The question for 2018 is whether Ohio has moved far enough into the Republican column to give Mandel a good chance of upsetting Brown. It’s a year until the post-Labor Day sprint begins, so things certainly can change. But right now, Brown’s proven campaign skills and his populist rhetoric and record, combined with Josh Mandel’s weaknesses and Trump’s falling job approval numbers, make Sherrod Brown the clear favorite in this race.