What Does “Electability” Mean for Democrats in 2020?

The Michael Cohen testimony this month brought yet another round of commentary and speculation about the fate of the Trump presidency. Calls for impeachment, though, were largely dismissed by Democratic party leaders, who prefer to wait until the details of the Mueller Report are released. While debates over impeachment swirl, the very arguments about impeaching Trump miss a key question – what does a post-Trump Democratic party look like? In the coverage of developments in the 2020 Democratic primaries, it is often assumed that the energy from the base is mostly a result of anti-Trump sentiment and that the primaries are a contest to see which candidate is best positioned to beat Trump. At a recent rally, Elizabeth Warren declared, “Every day there is a racist tweet, a hateful tweet — something really dark and ugly. . . By the time we get to 2020, Donald Trump may not even be president. In fact, he may not even be a free person.” Warren’s quote exemplifies the outrage against Trump that fuels the left today but also alludes to the real possibility that Trump is not the GOP nominee in 2020. Democrats should not focus on “electability” against Trump – rather, the nebulous notion of electability should be defined by a candidate’s ability to present a vision of America that does not rely on a Trump foil. Democrats should be for something, not just against Trump.

Polls show that beating Trump is a main priority amongst likely Democratic voters. An NBC/WSJ poll from February found that 40 percent of voters thought it was more important to select a candidate who was likely to beat Trump as opposed to the other 60 percent, who preferred one who was came closest to their views on specific issues. A similar Monmouth University poll from January found that 56 percent of Democrats preferred a candidate who “you do not agree with on most issues but would be a stronger candidate against Donald Trump.”

While voters and candidates seem to agree that beating Trump is important, there is little agreement on what constitutes “electability.” In the endless relitigation of the 2016 election, it is apparent that one of Hillary Clinton’s main weaknesses was her campaign’s lack of emphasis on a coherent message. Clinton often found herself on the defensive, having to rebut Trump’s rhetoric, while Trump was able to offer concrete policy proposals (however unrealistic or realistic they may have been) to issues that voters cared about, such as the border wall.

Democratic presidential candidates should look to present a coherent message and a tangible vision of a future America. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both have unique economic-focused proposals centering on income inequality and financial regulation. However, the most interesting development in this direction is the fact that most of the major declared Democratic candidates have expressed support for the Green New Deal (GND). The GND, first proposed in Congress by Ed Markey and Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez, is, by most measures, a radical proposal aimed at cutting U.S. emissions to zero in the near future. Key proposals and goals include a federal green jobs guarantee, worker training programs, large investments in clean energy and clean transportation infrastructure, and other measures to mobilize the economy in cutting emissions. However, most importantly, the GND is a prime example of proposals that Democratic candidates, regardless of whether they are “progressive,” “moderate,” or any other political orientation, need in order to build a politically sustainable future for the party. They provide long-term objectives that the party can work towards, along with policy proposals that have the potential to make concrete impacts, rather than vague commitments to ideological values.

Some may argue that radical proposals like the GND are farsighted and enjoy tepid support in Congress because Democrats are not in control of the Senate and, therefore, any legislation related to the GND or other “radical” proposals has no chance of passing, let alone being signed by President Trump. Therefore, Democrats in Congress, and to some extent, Democratic presidential candidates, have nothing to lose by expressing support for these measures. Their main political value is in their ability to excite and energize voters. According to some polls, the Green New Deal, in particular, has significant support among voters. A recent survey commissioned by progressive think tank Data For Progress showed that 84% of Democratic, 33% of Republican, and 55% of Independent voters support a green jobs guarantee. The last time Democrats controlled Congress and the presidency, in 2008-2010, they passed several high-profile pieces of legislation, including Dodd-Frank, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal, and, most notably, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). While the ACA, one of President Obama’s signature achievements, was ambitious and broad-reaching in many ways, it was by no means radical – instead it was defined by political jockeying and compromise that, in the end, rehauled individual insurance markets in the U.S. while having a minimal effect on employer markets, Medicaid, and Medicare. Perhaps, this pattern would repeat itself if Democrats take control of both Congress and the presidency again in 2020. However, radical proposals like the GND are precisely what will make Democratic presidential candidates electable in 2020, which is a benefit if Trump is running and a necessity in a race in which Trump is not the Republican nominee. They envision a future that is more nuanced than just not having Trump as the president.

"Though the anti-Trump sentiment is beneficial for energizing the Democratic base, candidates looking to succeed in the primaries, general election, and beyond need to be unafraid of big, bold ideas."

There is a risk for Democrats that a wide embrace of these proposals would alienate more moderate voters. Commentators also depict the Democratic party as having to choose between courting a progressive base or making appeals to more moderate voters. However, embracing even “radical” proposals on the left ideally makes this a false dichotomy. Because these proposals are so wide-ranging, as specific policies become more fleshed out, more moderate candidates can focus on specific policies with more universal appeal, like jobs guarantees or infrastructure renewal. More importantly, policies like the GND or Medicare for All owe a great deal of their radical reputation to specific politicians they are associated with, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders. These proposals, or specific elements in them, could be more palatable to moderate voters if they are associated with a wider range of candidates.

Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, the last time a new Democratic president was elected, came at a time of economic crisis that affected almost every corner of the country. Assuming the political landscape changes little between now and 2020, the American public will not be facing a crisis of that magnitude. Granted, issues like climate change or the threat of nuclear war are existential but also will not be felt by most Americans in 2020 the same way that the Great Recession was. In 2008, Obama could campaign on messages of hope and change, because of the economic crisis vast swaths of the American population was facing. In 2020, with no comparable pressing issues, similar messages will not be as successful for Democratic candidates. Rather, people will be looking for solutions to important, but less immediate problems – immigration, climate change, healthcare provision, or job automation.

Most of the Trump administration’s policy proposals and actions are either symbolic, such as the border wall (which allegedly began as a device speechwriters put into Trump’s speeches to remind him to talk about immigration), or simple teardowns of Obama-era policies, such as pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, or attempting to repeal the ACA. Much of Trump’s support capitalizes on today’s polarized politics of resentment. Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 basically reflected a “they go low we go high” approach, highlighting her civility and qualifications in contrast to Trump’s aggressive, circus-like campaign style. This did not work, despite the surfacing of scandals on the Trump side, like the Access Hollywood video or his continual offensive rhetoric. Fighting Trump’s rhetoric, or his symbolic policies, is important, but ultimately amounts to trying to win an election on his terms. This is not to say that most Democratic candidates are running exclusively on an anti-Trump message. If they were, there would not be so many candidates running at the moment. However, Democrats should be conscious of not relying too heavily on anti-Trump rhetoric.

It may seem like campaigning on a primarily anti-Trump platform was successful for Democrats in 2018 and will be successful again in 2020 if Trump runs. However, even though Democrats won the House in 2018, their gains were not overwhelming, especially when considering that the GOP went into the election with significantly more open seats to hold onto. Democrats also lost seats in the Senate. As Musa al-Gharbi pointed out in a column in the Washington Post, other presidents have sustained significant losses in midterms only to go on and win reelection, including Obama in 2012, and Reagan, who won with a landslide in 1984.

Though the anti-Trump sentiment is beneficial for energizing the Democratic base, candidates looking to succeed in the primaries, general election, and beyond need to be unafraid of big, bold ideas. Regardless of whether Trump runs in 2020 or not, Democrats need an identity that goes beyond calling out offensive tweets. While current proposals floating around in Congress, such as the Green New Deal, or Medicare for all, may be forward-thinking and even radical, they have the potential to be issues that define “electability,” issues that give voters and candidates something positive to rally behind, and issues that offer a tangible alternative to the path that the U.S. is taking under the current administration.

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