As anyone within reach of media is aware, California Sen. Kamala Harris has just announced her candidacy to be the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nominee. She has joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, and several other people you (or at least I) have never heard of as announced candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. There are obviously many more prospective presidents intending to enter the race, rumored to include former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke; one will obviously need a huge screen – both wide and high — to watch any early debates among the Democratic hopefuls.
First, an admission (although one of which I’m confident that anyone reading these pages is already aware): it is virtually inconceivable that I won’t vote for whomever the Democrats nominate if President Trump is the Republican nominee. I have heard it reported that Mr. Biden has asserted that the primary consideration for Democrats in choosing a nominee should be who can beat the President; while I wholeheartedly echo Mr. Biden’s sentiments, I would add a second factor, which Mr. Biden has seemingly taken for granted: that the nominee actually be qualified to be president.
As part of a November piece posing that the President might ultimately choose not seek re-election, I noted that despite former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s obvious weaknesses as a candidate, she still won 232 Electoral College votes in 2016; I suggested that “any reasonably acceptable” Democratic nominee running against Mr. Trump in 2020 might understandably anticipate readily carrying the states Ms. Clinton had won, and that to win the presidency, the Democrat might therefore only need to win Pennsylvania (20 Electoral College votes), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10)—three states that no one had expected Mr. Trump to win – or, instead of Wisconsin, Arizona (11) (a state which the 2018 GOP Senatorial candidate narrowly lost after unabashedly embracing Mr. Trump).
This is not a handicapping note; it is clear that at least half of the Democrats who intend to seek the 2020 presidential nomination are yet to declare. However, since I am fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate, given the barrage of presidential campaign ads that await Wisconsinites in the fall of 2020) to live in what may be the ultimate swing state, I have the following early impressions as to some of the factors that might affect the Democratic nominee’s chances to defeat the President, admittedly influenced by my instincts as to what type of candidate can beat Mr. Trump in Wisconsin:
- S/he will have to look strong on the stage against the President. Even aside from the mantle of the presidency, he is a master at diminishing the stature of his opponent (ask Messrs. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, among others). Americans will not hire a weakling.
- S/he will have to have the requisite knowledge and experience. I suspect that a number of marginal Trump voters now appreciate that not everyone can do this job; Democrats should nominate someone who is perceived as not only able to stand up to Mr. Trump, but also to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
- No “identity” candidates. Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s Morning Joe positively gushes when talking about all of the qualified women running for the Democratic nomination. Ms. Brzezinski lives in an elitist bubble. Our people want candidates that are interested in helping them. Any candidate that emphasizes his/her identity differentiator will, in my view, lose to Mr. Trump. Stick to the issues; let identity speak for itself (as then-Candidate Barack Obama did, brilliantly, in 2008).
- No shiny new toys. I understand that Mr. O’Rourke may be preaching “Hope” as did Mr. Obama, but Mr. O’Rourke couldn’t even win his own state’s Senate seat. His national experience is six years as the El Paso representative. (Although I credit Mr. Obama for using his charisma to pull us out of the Great Recession, I would suggest that his four years in the Senate ultimately proved to be insufficient grounding for the presidency.) Millennials may be coming, but older people vote in stronger numbers.
- No overtly progressive candidates. A debate is reportedly raging within the Democratic Party as to whether it should go further left, in the manner of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or more to the center in the manner of … Bill Clinton. If winning the presidency is the Democrats’ goal, this seems to me to be an unproductive debate. The Democrats need the center to win. Independents’ and party moderates’ concerns about Mr. Trump center upon his demeanor, his veracity, his biases, and his disregard for our institutions, and much less on his substantive policies (whether they should be concerned with the latter is a separate issue). Given their abhorrence for Mr. Trump, all liberals will vote for whomever is the Democratic nominee. The conservative media will be very effective at painting any avowedly progressive Democratic candidate in scary tones. Don’t put up a candidate that some of Mr. Trump’s now-uncertain followers may be persuaded to find as alarming as he is.
- No unlikeable candidates (as contrasted with the affirmative need to be “likeable”). Mr. Trump is sufficiently unlikeable to a sufficient number of voters that there is no need for the Democrat to dazzle the voters … but s/he can’t be irritating in his/her own right. This may be a drawback for Ms. Warren, who occasionally seems too much the nagging schoolmarm.
- Have a credible plan to address the needs of a large swath of our economically desperate people. Mr. Trump’s supporters that yearn for a culturally homogeneous America are appropriately unreachable by a Democrat. The Democratic candidate must persuade those Trump supporters whose primary frustration is the lack of economic attention paid to them by both parties over the last 40 years that s/he hears them and has a plan to help them. Since polls show that most Americans now view the 2017 tax cut as primarily benefiting the rich, Mr. Trump may well have squandered his goodwill with this segment of his 2016 supporters.
I would submit that presidential elections are like football and basketball games: victory frequently depends upon matchups. Despite Democrats’ desire to emphasize their diversity, my current inclination is that their best chance to defeat President Trump would be to nominate either Joe Biden or Michael Bloomberg; either has the gravitas to hold the stage against the President, can’t easily be painted as scary, and age won’t be a notable drawback. On the other hand, if the Republicans ultimately nominate a candidate not appreciably tarnished by Mr. Trump — for example, Nikki Haley — the matchup factors influencing victory might drastically change, and perhaps afford a different Democratic nominee greater electoral opportunity. Much more to come.