As the Democratic presidential field approaches a size that could field two football, soccer or baseball teams, four basketball teams, and nearly four hockey teams—there, I’ve exhausted my limited store of sports knowledge!—I have some early observations about what I am looking to hear from candidates, in the form of five questions:
1. WHAT IS THE STORY CANDIDATES ARE TELLING ABOUT THE COUNTRY? WHY ARE WE IN THIS MESS, AND HOW WE WILL GET OUT OF IT?
This is by far the most important thing, and I have listened closely to most of the candidates’ launch event speeches and town hall appearances to hear how they deal with it.
In virtually all presidential elections, whatever else is going on, the candidate with the most compelling narrative has a strong edge. It may be a story about hope, change, and the future (Kennedy, Clinton, Obama), or it may be about change of a different sort—the restoration of past glories, real or imagined (Reagan’s shining city on a hill, Trump’s “make America great again”). In times of social upheaval, it may be a story largely based in fear (Nixon’s law and order campaign, Trump’s “American carnage” and “I alone can fix it.”). But it has to be elemental, easily understood, and speak to core values.
In the current race, some Democratic candidates are being criticized for erring too much on the articulation of values, and others for being too focused on policies. Of course there should be a balance—at some point, candidates must give meaning to lofty principles with key details of how they would approach vital issues like climate change and health care, and even detailed policies have to be knitted together into an overarching story for voters to have a clear sense of what animates the policies, and what the candidate believes.
But if you don’t have a clear and compelling story to tell—about the economy, the planet, our democracy—who will be inspired to vote for you?
2. WHAT IS THEIR THEORY OF THE CASE ABOUT HOW THE ELECTION WILL BE WON?
This may seem like inside baseball, and of less interest to voters than engaged activists, but it’s vitally important.
We have a strong chance to win the 2020 election, but as execrable as Donald Trump is, we could very well lose it, with truly dire consequences for our already fragile democracy. There are a few ways to get to 270 in the electoral college, but one route is to start by winning back the three states that moved from blue to red in 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. (This is not a slight to the half-dozen other purple states that Democrats should strongly contest.)
Thanks to our collective efforts, all three now have Democratic governors. That’s a big help, but what’s the best path to picking up at least the 70,000 votes that were the collective margin of victory for Trump in those three states? Did we lose them because we under performed in key parts of the Democratic base, like African-Americans, who were taken for granted? (I sometimes wonder why some Democrats take it as a given Donald Trump might win re-election by stoking and mobilizing his base but don’t believe we can win by doing the same with ours.) Or did we lose because Trump picked off some Rust Belt, working class white men who might come back into the Democratic column with some effort, or at least enough of them to make a difference?
These are by now perennial debates among progressives. The Democracy Alliance has for some years had a strong “New American Majority” strategy focused mainly on voters of color and young people, and have recently added a focus on women and rural voters. In thinking about candidates, it’s important to understand how they think they’re going to make it to the White House.
3. HOW DO THEY PLAN TO PASS PROGRESSIVE LEGISLATION ONCE IN OFFICE?
By the same token, once she or he gets there, how is our President going to pass bold progressive policies such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, or whatever stripped-down versions of them and other progressive policies they favor?
The realist in me thinks that our best-case scenario come January 2021 is a new President with a comfortable, but not extravagant Electoral College margin, a continuing Democratic majority in the House, and a barely-held Democratic Senate. How does a new President prevail in such a scenario? Barack Obama had 60 votes in the Senate at the start of his presidency, and as landmark an achievement as the Affordable Care Act was, we couldn’t get a public option with that large a Democratic majority, much less Medicare for All.
A potential President owes voters hungry for change and action some thinking about what combination of electoral mandate, outside organizing, and strategic savvy is going to get us there. A good place to start is to hear their take on why President Obama wasn’t able to enact even bolder policies—insufficiency of vision, strategic missteps, demobilization of the base, an implacable opposition? One thing is for certain: the latter factor is not going to change.
4. ARE THEY MAKING THEIR OWN “ELECTABILITY” A KEY PART OF THEIR CASE FOR SUPPORT?
I’ll start with a spoiler alert: if they are, I’m skeptical.
In the last week a few great pieces were published unpacking the electability issue and some of the assumptions behind it, from Julie Kohler, Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Sean McElwee, and Rebecca Solnit, among others. Though there is usually a lot of conventional wisdom put forth about electability (reflecting, as these writers point out, structural biases) it is not a fixed thing.
No one in early 2008 would have viewed Barack Obama as the most “electable” candidate, and virtually up until his 2016 victory, no one thought that about Trump. Indeed, virtually the entire pundit class across the ideological spectrum thought that Trump’s nomination would doom Republicans to a landslide loss. You don’t find electability and anoint the candidate who has it; you create it. No one should choose a 2020 nominee—certainly one they would not otherwise favor—because they see him or her as the most “electable.”
5. WHAT ARE THEY SAYING ABOUT THE CRISIS OF DEMOCRACY, ASSAULTS ON THE RULE OF LAW, AND THE RAMPANT CORRUPTION OF THE CURRENT ADMINISTRATION?
This is a tricky one. Out on the hustings, candidates are mostly talking, as Democrats did in the midterms last year, about the big issues and challenges facing voters—what to do about those left behind in a growing economy, how to provide more affordable health care, how to address the existential crisis of climate change. And they should be; that’s what voters care most about. Even Rep. Jerry Nadler, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and must deal with impeachment, has taken that view.
But at the same time, we are living in a constitutional crisis of immense proportions where it is no understatement to say that our democracy may never be the same if Donald Trump is returned to the White House for another four years. To ignore that—to live in a split-screen world where on the campaign trail we’re talking about issues and in congressional hearing rooms we’re talking about obstruction of justice and the capture of our government by self-dealing grifters and corporate interests—seems perilous to me, and unequal to the moment.
I would like to see more candidates find a way, back to my original question about the “story,” to link these together in a coherent way, because they are linked—an administration that is trying to line its own pockets, and lift all restraints on chronic polluters, shady lenders and others like them, is no friend of struggling families. A President for whom lying is like breathing cannot be believed about trade or jobs any more than about Russia.
To stray beyond my list in closing, I’m also listening to the way candidates—and their advocates—talk about others running. Robust debate about policies and strategies is what we should be having now through next spring. Every one of the score of people running for the Democratic nomination would make a vastly better President than Donald Trump, and number of them would make terrific Presidents.
A few may turn out to have character flaws or histories that make them unsuitable, and the primary process will sort that out. But at this stage no one who wants to beat Trump should be aiming their fire at rival candidates or organizing to stop anyone. Trump will do his best to belittle and de-legitimize his potential opponents. Progressives should not be complicit in that.