One of the great benefits an incumbent has when they face re-election is that they get to steer much of the agenda. The are, after all, the President, so the media and voters alike will inevitably focus much of their time on the person currently in office regardless of their feeling towards them. Moreover, as the Democrats clamour to whittle down their very long-list to a hopefully much shorter list, the GOP, with Trump at the helm, are at least speaking with one voice (baring notable dissenters). A single voice combined with the prestige of the office means the Republicans should be owning election 2020 already. They are, of course, not.
Just as Bush was able to fight his reelection broadly on his terms, so too were Clinton and Obama for the Democrats. They did this, at least in part, because they had a vision — again, I stress, whether you agreed with the vision or not, they offered something coherent. To be quite cynical and simplistic, it is essentially a message of:
“The last four years weren’t so bad. I did [x,y,z policy]. I am not the worst guy. Give me another go because the alternative isn’t worth it”
Well, not for the first time, Donald Trump doesn’t want to play by those rules. His election wasn’t conventional, why on earth should his re-election be?
Some Democrats therefore are smelling blood. A totally incoherent President swinging between holidays with Kim Jong Un, massive McDonald's orders, and 200 rounds of golf — with a neat little Special Counsel Investigation thrown in, too, make fertile ground for a serious challenger. How, then, do the Democrats respond to such an opportunity?
Firstly, I make one massive assumption. That is, that all declared candidates actually do want to be President and are running with every intention of occupying the office is they win. That is to say, they are not running as a social commentator nor a community activist. Their policy ideas are set to become reality if they win.
Despite some glaring omissions (i.e. Mayor Pete values > policies), several leading candidates have been announcing major policy initiatives in the first quarter of 2019 and we can expect more in Q2. Leading the policy field is undoubtedly Elizabeth Warren. In a way, I understand her strategy. She can’t make herself any younger and she is not a WOC and as such has limited scope over a large demographics who typically vote Democrat and who might be very conscious that the ‘face’ of the party reflects its ideological position and policy priorities. She is however no doubt ferociously smart with a fine eye for detailed policy. She can become ‘that candidate’ and build a really solid policy offering by the time the rest of the field have decided who’s turn it is to speak.
What about the rest?
The first problem is the sheer numbers. Even as the field is concentrated in peoples’ minds from say, 18, to maybe 10, then maybe down to 5/6 runners, who can honestly, genuinely claim to comprehensively know the difference between Booker’s and Klobuchar’s health care policy? Or Harris’ and Beto’s view on energy? Or what about women’s rights, second Amendment, America’s role in the world, it’s military, climate change etc. etc. etc. It’s going to be a horror show trying to decipher, especially during the debates as they beg for air time.
I’m not just talking here about the lazy assumptions of Democrats = anti-guns / Democrats = pro-choice. I am talking about the detailed nuance that candidates will try and distinguish themselves on. My fear is that as policy proposals become bigger and bigger as they jostle for attention, the differences will become so blurred they will lose all tangible meaning and Democrats will look ridiculous and an opportunity is wasted. As they get blurred, the only way to get heard will be to speak louder, not necessarily clearer and more effectively.
The second problem is Trump himself. He is so incoherent on absolutely everything, the Democrat’s don’t have a sound centre ground barometer to test the nation’s appetite against. Instead, they each have carte blanche to come up with bigger, more ambitious, more headline grabbing policy ideas with only their rival colleagues able to pull them back., which of course they won’t do.
As the party has experienced a left-ward shift in the last two years, this is perhaps no better demonstrated that declared socialist and Independent, Bernie Sanders, leading the way in the polls of those actually running (caveat: Biden’s impending announcement). While other candidates have raced to have their name associated with policies previously exclusively held by the likes of Sanders. Medicare for All, anti-Wall Street, Green New Deal type stuff.
Attempting to draw logical conclusions in politics is likely a fool’s game with outcomes increasingly difficult to accurately predict. However, the reasoned conclusion to this trend is that the policy blank slate will push Democrats to bigger, not necessarily better policy; what was once extreme is now moderate. If you come across the pond for a second, the Conservative Party had a very similar problem in the 2017 General Election. Brexit and the resignation of David Cameron gave the party an opportunity to reinvent many of its policy initiatives. An attractive offer not least for Theresa May who famously hated George Osborne (the former Chancellor and the Prime Minister’s de facto number two) and didn’t much get on with Cameron’s thinking either. But every time the party tried, it was outgunned by their Labour Party opposition. Conservatives will raise the minimum wage? Labour will raise it more. Conservatives will freeze university tuition fees? Labour will eliminate them retrospectively. Conservatives might think about stopping austerity? Labour will reverse a decade of socio-economic policy.
Hilary Clinton spoke of it happening to her in 2016, as well. She said that it felt as though Bernie would offer ‘free ponies for everyone’, she would challenge its feasibility and suddenly the world thought Hilary Clinton hated ponies.
The current president wouldn’t know what a policy strategy was if it grabbed him by the p*ssy and I sincerely get how attractive that is for some Democrats who view this as an opportunity to hit reset on the country’s direction to something radical. But if they are seeking electoral success (see my assumption above), then for them, bigger might not mean better.
Three of Trump’s biggest, most formative victories came in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, especially from the non-college educated, white working class voters. They partly voted for Trump in 2016 because they fundamentally felt ignored by the Democrats. As the party saw gains in California, New York, and even Texas (although it is still far from flipping the state), the Republicans claimed important victories elsewhere and won the Electoral College. That has to be what matters. You cannot change lives in opposition.
For the Democrats wishing to hit reset, attempting to outgun each other in the policy arena will not yield success. A balanced approach will win the White House. Be ambitious, but win.