A year after Obama, Dems still looking for replacement
More than a year after former President Obama left the White House, the Democratic Party is still trying to fill the void and find a leader who can take on President Trump.
“There’s a definite yearning for ‘Who’s my next great love?’ ” Democratic strategist Patti Solis Doyle said in describing her party. “And the problem is we’re not really loving anyone we see. So we’re looking for someone we’re not expecting.”
When Oprah Winfrey delivered a powerful speech at the Golden Globes last month, she provided a jolt of excitement to a party still reeling from a stunning 2016 election defeat. And some Democrats fell in love with the idea that the television personality could become their next standard bearer.
They gloated about the prospects on cable news. Donors phones began to light up. A draft Oprah 2020 effort was quickly launched.
Winfrey then said that running for president wasn’t something that interested her.
Fast forward to Tuesday, when Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) delivered a State of the Union response for his party. It was enough for some Democrats to long for the days of Camelot.
A #JoeKennedy2020 hashtag quickly emerged on Twitter and a USA Today headline captured the moment: “Rep. Joe Kennedy sounded a LOT like Barack Obama.”
And that was just January, which also saw Kendrick Lamar suggest Jay-Z run for president while accepting a Grammy.
Over the past year, the flavor of the month has swung wildly, from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) early in 2017 with her “Nevertheless, she persisted” moment, and later with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on the heels of the cultural “Me too” movement.
Democrats expect to field a crowded primary in 2020 with as many as 30 potential candidates vying for the nomination. Democratic strategists say the bench includes heavy hitters like former Vice President Joe Biden, 2016 primary runner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in addition to Warren and Gillibrand.
Still, as primary season inches closer, the party’s desire to find anyone who could lead the “resist” movement to the Trump administration and its policies is on full display.
David Wade, a Democratic strategist who served as a longtime senior aide to former Democratic nominee John Kerry, called it “the era of Democratic speed dating.”
“It seems like every week, Democrats are swiping right on political Tinder trying to find the perfect match to send their hearts aflutter,” Wade said.
“But politics is like real life, you can’t force these things, it just has to happen and it usually happens when you least suspect it,” he said.
Solis Doyle said Trump is the main reason Democrats are anxious.
“People are clamoring so early just because Trump is so bad,” she said. “So we keep looking for that person. ‘Who’s gonna be the best to battle Trump? Who’s charismatic enough? Who can go one-on-one with him in a debate?’ ”
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said it’s not uncommon for the party not in office to search for the right party leader — particularly with more than two years until the Iowa caucuses.
“But when there is no clear dominant pack of candidates, or the most prominent candidates all come with baggage, then this kind of show-and-tell becomes more pronounced,” Zelizer said.
Trump has also upended the idea of who can run for president, leaving people wondering whether the next party leader will come not from the Senate or a governor’s mansion but from the entertainment industry or business.
It’s also possible that the Democratic flames for Winfrey or Kennedy, who is relatively unknown, shows some weakness.
Zelizer cautioned that the flirtations are “a sign that not everything is right with Democrats as they get ready for 2018 and 2020.”
“Once dominant candidates are in the mix, these kind of pop-up appearances are interesting, but much less serious,” he said.
Still, the courting of candidates can be a wild ride as recent history has proven, Wade said. “Democrats spent eight years pining for the next Bill Clinton, flirted with really bad boyfriends like John Edwards, and then ended up swooning for Barack Obama, the farthest thing from President Clinton.”
Solis Doyle, who served as campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, suggested that Democrats just can’t wait to get to 2020, something on display during this week’s State of the Union, where Democratic politicians mostly had to sit there and take it as Trump gave his address flanked by the GOP leaders in Congress.
She acknowledged liking the speech Kennedy gave in response to the address. “By contrast, I thought he was great. I thought that giving the response in front of an audience was brilliant.”
Still, Solis Doyle added, “But one Democratic response does not a savior make.”
“We’re shopping. We’re shopping. We’re shopping. But it’s fair to say no one has captured our hearts yet,” she said.