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Tuesday 29 January 2019

Making the Democrats great again  

Will the Democrats swing to the left? Don’t bet on it says Al Hunt

To defeat an elected American President is hard. It’s been accomplished only twice since the second world war, when the challenger was able to present a compelling alternative to the incumbent. In 1980 Ronald Reagan conveyed a strength that voters thought Jimmy Carter lacked. Twelve years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, George HW Bush was distracted by his “new world order” and beaten by Bill Clinton’s relentless focus on domestic issues that mattered more to voters. Does any Democrat gearing up to take on Donald Trump have such a narrative?

The field is large – seven hats in the ring and as many two dozen in the wings. The reason why there are so many is that Democrats looking at Trump’s multiple deficiencies see their own attributes as a corrective. Whether it is integrity, governing experience, a focus on struggling Americans, foreign policy expertise, the ability to attract top talent or to reach across the partisan divide, they can boast of positives that Trump patently lacks – but that’s the easy part. A winning candidate will have to beat Trump on the battlefield of his choosing – the one where he promises to make America great again.

After the initial debates the field will be winnowed down to about a dozen by the autumn, and it will divide into four categories: the establishment, the left, the standard-bearers of diversity and the outsiders. Several realities will kick in:

  • There will be a woman on the ticket; in addition to Warren and Harris, three or four others may run and, with all the new women elected to Congress the Democrats won’t field two old white guys.
  • The size of the field isn’t a bad thing. The two strongest primary fields of recent US history were the 1980 Republicans, from which Reagan emerged, and the 2008 Democrats, which produced Obama.
  • The Democrat swing to the left is exaggerated. In dozens of House Democratic primaries last year, in places as diverse as Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Iowa and Texas, mainstream progressives beat Bernie Sanders-style left-wingers.
  • Electability will be at more of a premium than ideology. Democratic voters are passionate about getting rid of Trump. The respected Iowa poll last month found that probable Democratic caucus-goers care more about finding a candidate with a “strong chance” of beating Trump than one who shares their views.

On the establishment wing, everyone is waiting to see if Joe Biden, the former Vice President, runs. He would start with the advantages of name recognition, a political and fund-raising infrastructure and loads of goodwill despite his age, or maybe because of it. At 76 he would be the oldest candidate to win the Oval Office. Michael Bloomberg, the ex-mayor of New York City, is a year older still, with no need of financial help. He’s worth $46 billion. Sherrod Brown, the senator from Ohio, is a self-styled populist liberal who has been in Congress for more than a quarter century. That makes him an insider by Trump’s standards, but plenty of mainstream Democrats will back him over more radical contenders.

Democratic Senator Kamala Harris

The left wing is where the buzz is in the party, if not the country. Bernie Sanders, 77, has run before and may do so again, but a more serious possibility is Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts. She led the re-regulation of Wall Street after the crash and now styles herself a saviour of the middle class. A dark horse would be the defeated Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, who has millions of grassroots followers, most of whom think he is more liberal than he really is. They may soon learn, however, that even against a weakened Trump a left-winger is probably not electable in America.

Diversity is an end in itself for Democrats, but even if it weren’t senators Kamala Harris and Corey Booker, both African Americans, would be top-tier candidates. The same is true of Julian Castro, a former cabinet secretary and mayor of San Antonio. Their challenge is to avoid the trap of identity politics, however tempting it may be in the primaries; two of the early tests are Nevada with its big Latino population and South Carolina, which has a huge African-American vote. There’s a model for avoiding this – Barack Obama in 2008. Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama understood that Democrats can only win national races with a broad-based coalition.

Julian Castro in New Hampshire

A practical approach to government will be important. A Democratic president would have a chance to build on Obamacare; a government-run single-payer system akin to the NHS is a non-starter. Free college education would be ripped apart by Republicans; free community college for qualified working class kids, as has been introduced in places like Tennessee and Chicago, is realistic.

I would like to be bold and predict a nominee but I think of Carter, Obama and, most dramatically, of Trump. None of them at this stage was given a serious chance of being president. It’s worth noting, though, that the three Democrats who have won in recent times were in their early 50s or younger and Washington outsiders. If someone who fits that profile scores well in Iowa and New Hampshire next winter, that will be the time to place your bets.