Opinion | Campaign

For 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Valentine's Day is here, and Democrats want to fall in love.  The suitors are lining up for the 2020 nomination, but no clear favorite has emerged. Democrats are eager for a candidate to come along and sweep them off their feet.  That's what Bill Clinton did in 1992 and Barack Obama did in 2008. 

What happens if none of the contenders sends Democrats into a swoon? Then the party will have to settle for someone "suitable" - like Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, loveless marriages that didn't work out. Oh sure, in 2016 some Democrats were excited over the prospect of the first woman president... but not so much over a candidate who was a charter member of the Washington establishment. Elect Clinton, many voters said, and nothing will change. 

What really finished Clinton off in 2016 was the expectations factor. Democrats may not have been in love with Hillary, but they expected her to win. All the polls and all the experts said so. So a lot of Democrats concluded, "She doesn't need my vote." Result: catastrophe. They're not going to make that mistake again.  

The longstanding rule for presidential nominations was, "Democrats fall in love. Republicans fall in line." Every Republican nominee from Richard Nixon to Mitt Romney had run for president at least once before (or was already president, like Gerald Ford in 1976, or the son of a president like George W. Bush in 2000). It was their turn. Democrats didn't care whose turn it was. Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992, and Barack Obama in 2008 were not next in line. They all came out of nowhere and gave Democrats a thrill. 

In 2016, the rule was reversed. Democrats fell in love with Bernie Sanders, but Hillary Clinton was next in line.  So - they decided to play it safe. They went for a good provider. The Republican race was supposed to be a showdown between the establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, and the tea party favorite, Ted Cruz. But then Donald Trump came along, Republicans fell into a swoon, and Trump trounced both Bush and Cruz. 

A lot of people see the 2020 Democratic race as an ideological showdown, centrists versus progressives. But most voters don't think in those terms. Sure, you can argue that a centrist would be easier to elect than a progressive, but Democrats fell for that line in 2016 and look what happened. 

What will the Democrats' message be? The party is now thoroughly committed to diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion are progressive social values that don't have a lot of appeal to white working class voters. Those voters don't count for diversity and are not included in what Republicans deride as "identity politics."

So Democratic candidates are trying to expand their appeal by rallying around populist economic themes - "Medicare for all" and higher taxes for the wealthy.   

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Trump angrily proclaimed, "We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country." Actually, Medicare for all and higher taxes for the rich are not alarming to most voters. They are broadly popular. Just not with some wealthy corporate types, who could end up supporting Howard Schultz if he runs as an independent.

Schultz's message - socially liberal, economically conservative - is the polar opposite of populism. It's an elitist message. It's unlikely there will be many votes for "Davos man." 

Last year, Democratic voters fell in love with Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic candidate who ran against Ted Cruz for Texas senator. O'Rourke is now contemplating running for president. Of course, he would be a much stronger presidential contender if he had actually defeated Cruz. O'Rourke did do strikingly well for a Texas Democrat (48.3 percent) - especially since no Democrat has been elected to a statewide office in Texas since 1994. If O'Rourke were to run and win the Democratic nomination, Trump would never stop calling him, in his impeccable outer borough accent, "the losah."

When an incumbent is unpopular, voters look for something they want that they are not getting from the incumbent. In 1976, after Watergate, we elected a Sunday school teacher: Jimmy Carter was the un-Nixon. In 2008, Obama was the un-Bush. In 2016, Trump was the un-Obama. It is impossible to imagine anyone as different from Barack Obama as Donald Trump.

Last year, O'Rourke raised huge amounts of money from lovestruck Democrats all over the country because he embodied a quality sorely missing in President Trump - civility. 

The mood among Democrats right now is more like rage. The rage Democrats feel towards President Trump is similar to the rage they felt toward President George W. Bush during the Iraq war. Then Barack Obama came along and, well, you know what they say: "Love conquers all."

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of 'Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable' (Simon & Schuster).

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