Only a few months from now, populist Democratic progressives around the country hoping to elect one of their own to the White House will need to choose between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Do they back the angry Democratic socialist, or the feisty, anti-corporate populist who wants to break up the banks and big tech companies? One says he is trying to lead a revolution. The other calls for dramatic change, often dismissing critics in her own party for regurgitating Republican talking points.
Only one of them is now a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. That would be Warren.
Sanders is passionate and intent on becoming the Democratic standard bearer, and he’s running well in key state and national polls. But it’s still very difficult to see the 78-year-old Vermonter becoming the Democratic nominee next year.
Novelty’s worn off
This is Sanders’ second presidential rodeo, but unlike four years ago, he isn’t a quirky novelty this time. He now shares his lane with another top-tier hopeful who echoes his populism. That alternative, Warren, is a woman, is eight years younger than Sanders, and is a strong enough speaker to have moved from near obscurity in the race to the top tier.
And unlike the Vermonter, Warren hasn’t embraced socialism.
But Sanders’ campaign, which has plenty of money, shows no signs of stopping after a relatively brief medical scare. He’s a man on a mission, and people like that don’t quit easily. He took on Hillary Clinton (and the Democratic National Committee), after all, when nobody else was willing to do so. It’s hard to believe he could be scared out of the presidential race by Warren.
And that is a problem for the Massachusetts Democrat. For as long as Sanders remains in the contest, Warren will have a hard time consolidating support among the party’s left.
But Warren has another problem, which follows from her party’s desire to beat Trump next year. Many Democrats in the business and financial communities believe her ultimate agenda is not very different from Sanders’ when it comes to raising taxes, sticking it to corporate America, distrusting the free market, adding new entitlements and piling on layers of additional debt to pay for new government programs.
Warren’s continued embrace of “Medicare for All” has become a substantial problem for her. It’s not just the cost of that program. It’s the larger message that the government knows what is good for you better than you do. Many in the party prefer “Medicare for All Who Want It” or Obamacare with a public option, both of which seem more appealing — and manageable — to pragmatic legislators and voters.
Won’t move right
Warren has had plenty of chances to slide to the right slightly, but she never takes them. On health care, all she needed to do to broaden her appeal was to emphasize her willingness to negotiate with others in her party. She could make it clear that while she prefers Medicare for All, she is certainly open to compromise.
But would Warren undermine her own appeal with populist, grassroots progressives, who favor dramatic proposals and not piecemeal changes, by giving herself some wiggle room on health insurance? Possibly. But it might also make her seem more reasonable to those worried about her agenda.
Not satisfied to paint herself into a corner on only one issue, Warren has unveiled a K-12 education plan that goes after charter schools. The Washington Post editorial board immediately challenged her, arguing that “when it comes to education, Ms. Warren has a plan that seems aimed more at winning the support of the powerful teachers unions than in advancing policies that would help improve student learning.”
On one hand, you can say that Warren is simply protecting her left flank, making sure that she doesn’t lose true believers to Sanders. But the problem is her positions are less about campaign strategy and more about her views of government and her views of corporate America and the affluent.
Warren may not call herself a Democratic socialist, but her rhetoric and overall approach to issues like health insurance and education puts her far enough left that she would have a hard time appealing to pragmatists and political independents.
Of course, Warren (or Sanders) would energize the Democratic base and turn out voters who sat on their hands (or voted third party) in 2016, and that could be enough to flip the White House. But Warren and Sanders’ populist progressive positioning would also make it much easier for the GOP to make the 2020 election about them — and socialism — than about Donald Trump. And that may be the only way the president can win a second term.
Democratic candidates often move left in the primary but right if and when they make it to the general election, so it’s possible that Warren is merely following that well-traveled path. Maybe, if she gets her party’s nomination, she will zig and then zag toward the center.
But like Sanders, Warren rarely (really, never) conveys the impression that she is prepared to build coalitions, negotiate with friends and foes alike, and eventually forge compromises to enact legislation. Put another way, both Sanders and Warren are as much prisoners of their ideology as Trump is a prisoner of his narcissism.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on November 11, 2019.
There is no need to speculate about President Donald Trump’s strategy for reelection. He plans to — and needs to — destroy his general election opponent.
That’s the only way an incumbent president with a job approval rating in the low 40s and sitting at 40 percent in hypothetical ballot tests can possibly win.
Trump loves the combat and the name-calling. It wouldn’t matter if the Democrats nominated Mother Teresa (were she still alive). Trump would mock her, give her a demeaning nickname, portray her as selfish and self-centered, and brand her a phony. That’s what Trump does.
But don’t take my word for it. It was his wife, Melania Trump, who told a crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April 2016, “As you may know by now, when you attack him, he will punch back 10 times harder. No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal.”
“Equal,” as in equally nasty.
Politics can be a rough game. I get it. I’ve been covering campaigns for the last 40 years. No, politics ain’t beanbag.
But in the old days, political dirt was shoveled under cover of darkness, circulated by whispering campaigns or anonymous handouts left on car windshields on Sunday mornings.
Trump has taken negativity to a new level.
He delivers the attacks himself, often during rallies or press events. So whether the Democrats nominate Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Steve Bullock, John Delaney or someone else, you can be sure that Trump and his allies will run the same slash-and-burn campaign they did in 2016.
Something on everyone
There are no flawless candidates this year or any year. Democrats shouldn’t be looking for one.
Obviously, some Democrats are carrying more baggage than others.
Sanders’ embrace of socialism, for example, may earn him points for being frank, but it’s a considerable liability in a general election.
Biden’s son Hunter’s membership on the board of a Ukrainian energy company is also a liability for his father, though not one so serious that it would define the former vice president’s candidacy.
We don’t now know what opposition research Trump has on each of the Democratic candidates, but Democrats would be wise to assume he has something on everyone — and if he doesn’t, he’ll just make something up, as he has done in the past.
He is, after all, trying to muddy the waters so that he wins a chunk of voters who don’t like him but dislike his opponent even more.
Remember, Trump won the 2016 election even though he had worse ratings that Hillary Clinton, according to that year’s exit poll.
Forty-three percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Clinton, compared to 55 percent who saw her unfavorably. Trump’s rating was measurably worse at 38 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable.
A solid 55 percent of respondents said Clinton had the right temperament to be president, while only 35 percent said the same of Trump. And while 52 percent of those polled said Clinton was “qualified to serve as president,” only 38 percent said Trump was qualified.
Clinton even bested Trump, albeit very narrowly, when it came to honesty and trustworthiness. Only one in three respondents said Trump was “honest and trustworthy,” while 36 percent said that that description applied to Clinton, who was carrying years of political baggage.
Given all of those numbers, Clinton should have won the election comfortably. But she didn’t, in part because many voters didn’t trust her, eight years of Barack Obama produced an anti-Democratic fatigue, and a slice of voters were so frustrated with unfulfilled promises that they took a flier on an outsider they hoped could change the trajectory of the country in a positive way.
Even if many voters had doubts about Trump — even if it was a gamble to vote for someone unqualified and with the wrong temperament — wasn’t it worth the risk, given the alternative?
Four years later
Trump’s problem is that the rhetorical question he asked of black voters in 2016 — “What do you have to lose?” — now has a different answer for many voters (regardless of race) than it did four years ago.
He will continue to run against the establishment, the Deep State, the national media, Obama, Clinton and his eventual Democratic opponent. But unlike 2016, when voters could vote for Trump in the hope that he would become “more presidential” and would “grow” into the office, those voters now see that the exact opposite has occurred.
And while millions of Americans who still support the president may like his political incorrectness and the chaos he produces on a daily basis, some of those 2016 supporters won’t want to stomach another four years of disarray and insanity. It is simply too fatiguing.
So the president has no option but to drive his opponent’s negatives higher. That means attacks on his or her character, judgment, health, integrity, intellect, family members, friends, business associates and personal behavior.
And yes, Trump will brand him or her a socialist who wants open borders and gun confiscation, and who supports closing all houses of worship, destroying the U.S. military, bankrupting the country and letting rapists and murderers run free.
And he’ll probably do all that before the end of September. Just imagine what the last month before Election Day will be like.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 15, 2019.
If you’re on any Republican list, you’ve undoubtedly received emails from one of the GOP campaign committees or a Capitol Hill communications staffer calling the Democrats “socialists.” To those of us who were around in the 1980s and 1990s, that’s nothing new. We remember the late GOP campaign consultant Arthur Finkelstein’s strategy: Call your opponent a liberal again and again until voters believe it.
Finkelstein’s style was “unmistakable,” wrote Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post in 1996, “an avalanche of attack ads painting Democrats as ‘liberal,’ ‘ultraliberal,’ ‘embarrassingly liberal’ and ‘unbelievably liberal.’”
Each cycle, Finkelstein returned to his name-calling strategy, and each cycle, political reporters and handicappers rolled their eyes and snickered at his ads, which were as shallow and superficial as they were predictable. They were all about labeling and demonizing.
But in Finkelstein’s case, shallow didn’t necessarily mean ineffective. “Liberal” became a pejorative, and Finkelstein took advantage of that.
The consultant, who died in 2017, worked for a long list of high-profile and successful Republicans and conservatives, including Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Connie Mack of Florida, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York. He also worked for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After a while, Finkelstein’s strategy grew stale. Democrats wisely nominated a politically moderate Southerner in 1992 in Bill Clinton, and 12 consecutive years in the White House left the GOP with enough baggage to hand the presidency to the Democrats (albeit with a little help from Ross Perot).
Still, it’s undeniable that the liberal label has been an albatross around the necks of Democratic nominees for decades.
A successful strategy
Now, Republicans have raised the stakes by trying to brand the entire Democratic Party as advocating “socialism.”
Of course, the Democratic Party is a long way from being socialist, but the election of a few high-profile, self-declared Democratic socialists has given Republicans the hook they need to portray the entire party as “socialist.”
Defining Democrats as “liberals,” “progressives” or “socialists” is likely to continue to be a successful strategy for the GOP.
February’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found only 23 percent of respondents identified themselves as “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal,” compared to 38 percent who embraced the “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative” labels.
Of course, those numbers reflect how people see themselves, not where they actually fall on the ideological scale. But since people are more likely to pick a category they like over one with negative connotations, it is surely relevant that a strong plurality chose the conservative label over the liberal one.
As always, there is another side to the coin. The same February NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey asked respondents whether government should do “more things” (usually seen as a more liberal response) or whether it was already doing “too many things,” (the normally more conservative answer).
A surprising 55 percent of respondents said government should do more compared to only 41 percent who said it should do less. In fact, attitudes seem to be changing.
While Gallup recently found Americans age 30 and older continue to have a much more favorable view of capitalism than socialism, those aged 18-29 have a more favorable view of socialism.
The right response
In the near term, Democrats need to figure out how to respond to the GOP’s attempts at branding the party of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Biden.
Do they merely laugh off the “socialism” charge, aggressively dismiss the characterization or look for a way to fight back, possibly by turning the tables on the party of Donald Trump, Steve King, Mike Pence and Sean Hannity?
One possible but very risky approach would be to link Trump and his party to an extreme form of conservative populism: fascism. But few Democratic candidates or officeholders would want to get into a name-calling war with the president, and equating Trump and GOP with fascism would likely be seen as demagoguery.
Fascism is such a loaded word — evoking images of Mussolini and Hitler — that it could generate a backlash, putting the Democrats on the defensive. The obvious answer is to create and repeatedly use a new term, possibly “Trumpism,” that describes the president’s attributes and behavior, from his narcissism and problem telling the truth to his crude language, his appointments of unqualified people and his demeaning of opponents. It would include his gentle treatment of dictators, especially compared with his attitude toward America’s allies, and his efforts to undermine key American institutions when it suits his purposes.
Of course, instead of looking for a new label to define the GOP, Democrats could simply fall back on their traditional attacks – including charging that Republican policies are dividing the country and are hurting children, seniors, women and racial minorities. Depending on where the economy is, those more traditional attacks might well be enough to keep Republicans on the defensive.
Perhaps the best way for Democrats to push back against the socialist label is the simplest — to nominate a pragmatic progressive who, on an issue or two, deviates from liberal orthodoxy and is more concerned with self-discipline, integrity, tolerance, and the ability to unite opponents of Donald Trump than with mere ideological purity.
That would make the GOP’s “socialism” charge both hollow and ineffective.
This column appeared initially in the April 30, 2019 issue of Roll Call.