When we left the Democrats in November 2016, they were in terrible shape. Despite winning more votes than the Republicans, they had lost the House, the Senate and, of course, with them, the presidency. Their sole hope was that President Trump would prove intellectually, morally and spiritually unworthy of high office. Fortunately for them, he has stunk out loud.
Following this month’s midterm elections, the halfway point of this presidential term should serve as a rallying point. For the next two years, the Democratic party will be entirely on the attack – in Congress, in the courts, on the campaign trail. Even if Trump is the overwhelming favourite to be the GOP’s nominee (all incumbents are), it’s the Democratic candidate, selected by a majority vote of delegates chosen by a series of state primaries and caucuses held between February and June, who will emerge odds-on to become leader of the free world.
However, as things stand, the Democrats lack a frontrunner. Without one, crowded fields are unpredictable. Candidates flail about and repeat what their pollsters tell them to say until something totally unforeseen happens. In 1980, the thick Republican field clumped together like boys at a high school dance until Ronald Reagan got angry at the moderator of a debate (‘I paid for that microphone!’) and suddenly his image of masculine strength crystallised. In 2016, mainstream Republicans bickered while treating Trump like a sideshow freak.
‘For the Democrats, the only thing that matters now is whether they can win’
Which issues will be decisive this time? Maybe none. Since 2015, the only thing that has really mattered is how people feel about Trump. For the Democrats, the only thing that matters now is whether they can win. The presumptive favourite is Joe Biden. The former Vice President is that rare politician for whom people actually feel affection, perhaps because he so guilelessly displays his feelings. He has spent his adult life in Washington without losing the common touch, has borne personal tragedy bravely, and has been an effective leader. He was much admired for the way he behaved as President Obama’s wingman, but that’s part of his problem: one of his qualifications for that job was being an elder statesman. By the next inauguration day, he will be 78. In a campaign where the candidates are going to be judged on how much fire they can ignite, Biden won’t ever be able to take a nap.
A similar problem affects Senator Bernie Sanders, the runner-up to Hillary Clinton in 2016 – he’s two years older than Biden. Sanders is a true iconoclast; he campaigns to be the Democrats’ standard-bearer but refuses to join the party. Such purity was attractive when he was criticising Clinton’s cosiness to Goldman Sachs, but now there are other, younger, more attractive candidates who are also pure. Now he just looks cantankerous.
A bit younger than Biden and Sanders is 69-year-old Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren is tough, outspoken and mediagenic; she gained name recognition fighting for consumers during the fiscal crisis (check out her relentless, pitiless interrogation of Wells Fargo chairman John Stumpf on YouTube.) Warren was touted as a possible running mate for Clinton, but an all-female ticket in 2016 seemed too bold. Not today. More Democratic women have been nominated for office in 2018 than ever before. Warren is a bit of a lone wolf in the Senate, which suggests that for all her many abilities, she might be like Obama: a little too cerebral to do the dirty, sweaty parts of governing.
Another woman who has been prepping to step into the national spotlight is New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. A garden-variety congresswoman from a rural district until 2008, when she was tapped to succeed Hillary Clinton in the Senate. Since then, Gillibrand has carefully built a progressive record, stepping out most forcefully in support of campaign finance reform and the #MeToo movement, famously calling for Sen. Al Franken’s resignation after he was accused of harassment. Uncompromising stands don’t make her popular with politicians, but they could earn support from reformers searching for a new tiger.
‘The more pertinent question here is whether the damage done to America and the international order can even be undone?’
Money is always crucial in presidential elections. Candidates like Biden and Sanders, who already have a national network of donors, have a leg up. But the power of the greenback also opens the door to well-funded wildcards, like billionaires Michael Bloomberg or Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps no one has greater Trump envy than his fellow New York billionaire Bloomberg, who was as competent as New York mayor as Trump is hapless as president. But even a progressive businessman is an unlikely nominee for the left-leaning Democrats. Winfrey is a beloved figure, but her candidacy would remove from the Democrats a powerful line of attack against Trump: look, we tried an amateur in 2016, and it’s been a disaster.
More importantly, many Democrats are itching to move on. The Democratic wave in 2018 is all about youth and diversity. That could help two likely candidates, Senator Kamala Harris of California and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Personality opposites, these two would make a good pair in a romantic comedy. Harris is Cali cool, assured, and given to withering commentary at hearings. ‘I was raised to be an independent woman, not the victim of anything,’ is an emblematic quote. Booker is an action hero. At various times when he was mayor of Newark, he rescued a woman from a burning building, gave emergency aid to an accident victim in the street, and found a home for a freezing dog. After a Republican senator told Booker that he was breaking senate rules by revealing confidential information, Booker barked back. ‘If [the senator] believes that, then bring the charges,’ said Booker. ‘Bring it! Bring it!’ Who will voters prefer, Senator Ice or Senator Fire?
Indeed, the choice between ice and fire is a fitting description for a lot of the decisions the Democrats will have to face during the campaign – and after. As one veteran campaigner recently noted, the key question may be: ‘How crazy will Trump make us?’ One camp wants to restore the status quo of the Obama years, and return to responsible, progressive governing. The other camp, inhabited by many of the new activists, wants to deliver some payback. That would be emotionally satisfying, sure, but at what point do you become a new Tea Party?
The build-up to 2020 will be well worth watching. And so will the aftermath. Will the next Democratic president try to undo most of Trump’s policies? Probably. But the more pertinent question here is whether the damage done to America and the international order can even be undone. The real business of defining the 21st century is about to get under way, and the decisions of the next president – whoever that may be – are going to reverberate for decades.
Jamie Malanowski is a New York-based author and journalist