“Elections have consequences” may be one of the most appropriate and powerful clichés or political maxims in history. The natural follow on to that is you must win before you can do anything. The Trump Presidency overwhelmingly proves these adages as I am not sure we have ever had such fundamental change and consequence from a single election. The Senate went from refusing to confirm hundreds of judges under Obama to rapid fire confirmation without proper vetting under Trump, resulting courts packed with extremist judges. Our role in the world and even the future of the NATO alliance is under serious jeopardy as we deal with an inexplicable affection for Putin/Russia and brutal dictators while attacking democratic allies and long-time friends. We are thrust into a world of denial with the ignorant climate refusers.
Trump poses an existential threat to the future of this country in multiple ways, all as the result of one election. 43% of GOP voters unconscionably support eliminating the checks and balances of the government, to include rolling back the courts and Congress, so that Trump can act unfettered and with impunity. 44% of Fox News viewers believe the false Russian talking point that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election despite the emphatic report of the entire intelligence and defense communities. Nancy Pelosi and George W. Bush, despite real differences, developed a strong, professional working relationship to get things done for the good of the nation. That is not possible with Trump and the current GOP Congressional leadership where partisan extremism reigns supreme and party comes before country.
The stakes in the 2020 Election could not be higher for the country, certainly for Democratic voters. To effect change of any kind, Democrats realistically must win both the White House and the Senate, lest Mitch McConnell revert to pure obstructionism, refusing to allow ANY bills to come for a vote. President Trump has proven to be an abysmal failure in all regards – behavior, policy, national security, ethics, and utter fiasco of leadership. Democrats should be able to win in a landslide, finally winning back control of the Senate as well. Although many of the contenders for the nomination seem to be leading Trump in the polls, these preliminary numbers do not presage the realities of a campaign. With so much riding on this election and no guarantee of victory, why are Democrats being so reckless in conducting the primary?
The number of candidates is untenable and prevents a realistic, thorough, fair process to all declared candidates. It would be problematic for the DNC to place an arbitrary limit on the number of candidates and deny others the chance to run. Voters are certainly free to support the candidates of their choice. The challenge is how to provide a meaningful opportunity for all candidates to make their case. Campaign stops and advertising, especially on social media, allow candidates to reach voters, but only those paying attention to them. Recent entry Michael Bloomberg is relying almost exclusively on an ad campaign, but his personal fortune gives him that option.
The “debates” have been largely ineffective. Normally anticipated as an excellent venue to hear from the candidates and evaluate their messages, leadership, etc., these debates have not produced. The number of candidates on the stage reduced the events to little more than joint press opportunities. The debate rules and the moderators created a situation in which just a few of the candidates received the majority of the airtime, thus nullifying the opportunity for most of the candidates and limiting the exchange between the group. This furthered the candidacy and exposure of the so-called big three – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, who entered the campaign with by far the best name recognition and political branding. Despite the unfairness to the rest of the field, this also furthered the so-called big three, who in reality should be the weakest candidates, not the front runners.
The DNC correctly determined that having 20 candidates on a stage simultaneously would not work. At first, the field was randomly divided into two separate debate groups. While this was likely the fairest to all candidates, it further prevented realistic and necessary debate between the candidates. For the later debates, the DNC emplaced threshold numbers of individual donors and support in recognized polls, both of which had to be met for a candidate to make the debate stage. These were objectively fair standards designed to achieve the crucial goal of reducing the untenable number of candidates into a more workable number wherein all qualifying candidates legitimately participated in the debates.
Although some candidates struggled with this requirement, the intent was to give all the same ability. Ironically, it was designed in part to prevent an independently wealthy candidate from buying their way in because they still needed the threshold number of individual donors and specific poll numbers. The biggest problem was the situation wherein Marianne Williamson, who has no business whatsoever in this race or on the debate stage, qualifying for the debates while candidates with credible, important messages were left out.
Unfortunately, Tom Steyer, a billionaire with no relevant experience, seems to have been able to buy his way onto the debate stage. We will see whether Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire, who at least has the political and leadership experience from three terms as New York City Mayor, can buy his way to the nomination through a huge ad campaign without participating in the debates. Although either candidate would be a stark improvement over Trump, it is important not to begin any transformation into an oligarchy or plutocracy. We have enough challenges to our democracy due to the unreasonable power and influence of money and the extreme wealth class.
Another criticism of the process, specifically debate qualification, is the dwindling number of diverse candidates. With Senator Harris leaving the race, Senator Corey Booker and former Secretary Julian Castro have expressed concern over the possibility they may not qualify for the next debates due to the thresholds and the debates may not include candidates of color. Andrew Yang, who is Asian, and Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, offer some diversity to the debate stage. Senators Klobuchar and Warren ensure there will be at least two women on stage in the upcoming debates. Diversity is important as officials should reflect the people they serve. However, no matter how important we find diversity, the party cannot force candidates to run and cannot force voters to support candidates simply because they represent diversity. Voters have multiple reasons why they support the candidates of their choice. Leadership, policy considerations, and electability are all paramount considerations. Candidates of all backgrounds must compete for support. The key is ensuring a fair playing field and opportunity.
Senator Kamala Harris is a gifted speaker and strong candidate but was not able to garner enough support. Governor Steve Bullock should have been at the top of the field based on his experience, ability, and electability, etc., yet his campaign never took off. Booker and Castro both add significantly the field and certainly should have been viable candidates. Senator Michael Bennet is an especially strong candidate in many ways, yet his candidacy fell flat. Campaigns ultimately boil down to one winner, but it deserves analysis as to why some campaigns flourished while other floundered. All these candidates are better in many ways than Sanders, Warren, and Biden. So why did the later steal the spotlight? They had brand recognition. Voters recognized their names and their reputations. Party infrastructure lined up behind them based on the brand and likelihood of success, foregoing lesser known names. Any review of the 2020 race should address this aspect and determine what changes are needed to ensure better opportunities for strong candidates to compete.
Some pundits offer that the 2020 race is an intense competition for control of the party between the progressive or radical left of the party against the left of center moderates. Progressives are aggressively pursuing a form of ideological purity claiming to be the “real Democrats” although this year they may genuinely support a moderate nominee if that is the primary result and the only way to beat Trump. There is significant risk that this existential conflict will cause long term problems for the Democratic Party and weaken the party in this and future contests. The critical importance of the 2020 Election may forestall such consequence, but only temporarily until Trump leaves office. Democrats have recently come to understand the essentiality of following a national strategy. Everything the party does must have roots in this strategy to have any chances of winning the Senate and to increase the viability of winning the White House. The further left the party is seen, the harder it will be in many states. Focusing on 10-12 states reliably progressive states will not win the Senate. Do the math.
The 2018 Congressional Election resulted in the Democrats taking control of the House. That was done with the victories of moderate candidates who won swing districts away from Republicans. To keep these seats, and control of the House, those members must avoid the strong gravitational pull of the left wing of the party. A similar effort is essential to have any chance at winning the Senate. As weak as Trump may be in November, and there is plenty of time left, his loss does not automatically increase Democratic chances of winning the Senate. The Democratic candidate may be able to beat Trump, but if the nominee is seen as too far left, they may hinder the Senate candidates in many states where Democrats must take seats from Republicans and then keep them.
With so much at stake, why would the Presidential primary candidates try to race each other to the left wing of the party? They must win the White House and realistically the Senate to have any chance at accomplishing any policy priorities. The more extreme the policy sounds, the more voters become fearful. For example, the idea of an overnight revolution creating Medicare-for-All and terminating private insurance plans greatly diminishes the chance of winning the White House. Calls for abolishing ICE are foolish and naïve. Candidates jumping on this background will deservedly hurt any chance of winning for such political malpractice. We are long overdue, perhaps decades late, with meaningful immigration reform. That is where the chance must occur, and candidates should make this a top priority.
If Trump is so weakened as to still lose to a candidate espousing such extreme plans, it will be a drag on the ticket and limit chances of winning the Senate. There are many Americans for whom private insurance works, including union workers (who Democrats need) who sacrificed a lot over decades to obtain excellent plans. The message should be the ultimate goal of universal coverage for all Americans, and a plan to proceed with all deliberation to move there. Most Americans oppose Trump’s heinous family separation and racist immigration priorities, but would not support abolishing ICE, whose task is to carry out the law given to them. There is no need to scare off voters over examples of such extreme legislation that has little chance of even passing both houses of Congress. Clearly improvements to health care are critical and deserve significant attention and immigration reform must be done immediately after the election.
In almost any other year, a candidate such as Sanders or Warren would have little chance of winning the Presidency. Sanders has described himself as a Socialist, not a Democrat, throughout his professional life. There is a real question as to why someone who has not been in the Democratic Party is running for its nomination. Warren, who ironically was once a Republican, also claims a strong leftist mantle. Their rhetoric is far too left for the mainstream majority of the country if not the Democratic Party. There is a real question as to whether they can beat Trump, but if so, there remains a true concern they will hurt other races. The country would likely hesitate to give these more radical left candidates complete control of government. There are better, stronger candidates with far less risk.
President Trump, despite his horrendous personal behavior and policy failings, nevertheless has a path to victory. If this is the Democrats’ election to lose, it is not unforeseeable that they will lose it. The country mostly focuses on economic news. Although Trump inherited much of the economic success from Obama with little stemming from his own policies, after 4 years he will certainly derive the electoral benefit. The better voters see the country doing, the more tolerant they will be of Trump’s abhorrent conduct. The eventual Democratic nominee, and the national party, must hone a strong message to overcome Trump’s incumbency advantage.
When political parties strain to the extreme, voters become suspicious and susceptible to overtures from other options. Historically, Democrats have done well electorally when Republicans were seen as too far right and less responsible. Democrats have suffered electorally, infamously in 1994 and 2010, when they were seen as too far left and less responsible. For whatever reason, when both parties are seen as moving to their extremes, Republicans traditionally do better than Democrats. Therefore, the historical data strongly suggests that Democrats need to be seen as a center-left party much more than a radical left party. They need to be seen as responsible, “sane,” and sensible. Individual candidates should fit and serve their districts, but nationally the platform and focus must be properly tailored to reality.
Elections have consequences and the majority controls the legislative agenda as well as all appointments. The top priority, if not the only priority, must be to win. All Democrats share the basic values and priorities. The difference between the radical left and the moderates is more of message and deliberate pacing. The divide is exaggerated but becomes a wedge that negatively influences the results of elections, as was the case in 2016. Democrats, and the country, cannot afford to make such a mistake again in 2020.