The Iowa State Fair is an obligatory stop on the road to the White House, a cultural and culinary festival of heartland sensibilities, varied livestock and all manner of unhealthy food. The stands that populate the fairgrounds offer such treats as deep-fried mac and cheese, deep-fried pickles and ice cream nachos, along with the traditional favorites of pork-on-a-stick and foot-long corn dogs. In the summer of 2015, Donald Trump descended on the fair from his helicopter and was mobbed by press and public. On a recent muggy August morning, the arrival of Steve Bullock is far less dramatic.
Bullock, 52, the second-term governor of Montana, is dressed in blue jeans, a blue button-down shirt and boots. He ambles down the main street of the fairgrounds virtually undetected. Only a few heads turn as he stops to talk with his friend Tom Miller, Iowa’s long-serving attorney general. Bullock’s political calling card these days is that he is a Democrat who won reelection by four points on the day that Trump was winning his state by 20 points. That won’t get you elected president, but it’s enough to start a conversation. Which is why Bullock is here in Des Moines in the summer of 2018: to start a conversation.
Next summer, the Iowa State Fair will be overrun by presidential candidates. This year, the pickings are slimmer — dark horses and lesser-knowns who might or might not eventually compete for the 2020 nomination. Among the Democrats who have decided to skip the fair are the big three: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Among those who have decided to show up are Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who has already visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties; Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and former HUD secretary; Tom Steyer, the billionaire Californian on a mission to force impeachment proceedings against the president; and Michael Avenatti, the combative lawyer for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. As a sign of the times, the swaggering Avenatti, who has never run for office, creates the biggest waves in Iowa with his message that Democrats will need a real fighter — hint! — to topple the president.
Each year, the Des Moines Register sponsors what it calls the Political Soapbox for state and national politicians. The venue consists of a small stage along the fairgrounds’ main drag, a sound system, a few bales of hay and folding chairs for spectators. Politicians take the stage for a few minutes, deliver a speech, answer questions and hope the buzz lasts long enough for them to make their way to see the famous butter cow. It does not always go well: In 2011, Mitt Romney, in a testy exchange with a fairgoer, uttered the famous line that “corporations are people, my friend,” which didn’t do much to create a regular-guy image. In 2015, Trump smartly gave helicopter rides to kids.
As Bullock takes the stage, he finds himself in competition with a children’s Big Wheel race nearby, which is another reason the Soapbox can be a humbling venue. Bullock makes a joke about the tiny three-wheelers screeching along the pavement, offers a few obligatory comments about his connections to Iowa — his mother happens to have been born in the state — and then begins to road-test a message. Trust in government has disappeared, he says. He blames it on lost faith in all institutions and the corrupting influence of money, particularly big money whose origins are hard to trace. He tells the audience, “If we want to address all of the other big issues in our electoral system, in our political system, if we really want to address income inequality, if we want to address health care, if we want to address rights, you’re not going to be able to do it until you’ve also addressed the way that money is corrupting our system.”
He talks about what he’s done in Montana, working with a Republican legislature. “If we can do this in Montana,” he says, “it underscores to me that, look, this isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue; this is an issue about the fundamental trust and faith in our government.” His short speech completed, he takes a few questions. The last person asks whether he plans to run for president. “The question is when will I decide if I’m going to do anything after I serve as governor,” he says playfully. Then more seriously he adds: “Look, I do think that I do have a story of how I’ve been able to bring people together, and I think that’s in part what our country desperately needs. … So right now, what I’m doing is listening, and that’s honestly as far as it goes.” Within 10 days, he will be in New Hampshire.
The fact that Steve Bullock — not exactly a household name — is entertaining a presidential campaign speaks directly to the state of the Democratic Party today. At this point, Democrats are bracing for a wide-open nomination contest. Despite the big names who could dominate the field, no one takes anything or anyone for granted — and certainly not until people know whether Biden will run. Unlike in 2016, when most Democrats stayed out because of Hillary Clinton’s dominant position, there are enough question marks about even the best-known potential candidates to prompt as many as two dozen people to think about running. Trump taught everyone that the unthinkable is no longer the impossible.
But the Bullocks of the party don’t just underscore the sense of opportunity that exists on the Democratic side; they also point to how much remains unresolved as the party looks to find a standard-bearer in 2020. The choices ahead for Democratic voters — and the challenges ahead for those who seek to lead the party — involve difficult issues of ideology, gender, race, geography, generation, temperament and power. No one knows who will win the nomination, but perhaps more important, no one knows what kind of candidate might win the nomination — a truly left progressive or a center-left progressive, an outsider or an insider, a new arrival to politics or a longtime D.C. stalwart.
In some respects, of course, the party is in an enviable position. Enviable because with a Republican in the White House, the midterm elections should produce gains, possibly enough to hand Democrats control of the House (and on an extremely good night the Senate, too). That would give them the power to start investigations, wield subpoenas and otherwise put roadblocks in the path of Trump and the congressional Republicans. Enviable, too, because the Republican Party, despite its hold on power in Washington and the states, is divided and in the grip of a president who shares only some of the party’s traditional views but who nonetheless has come to dominate the rank-and-file.
But in other respects, Democrats’ position is quite unenviable. Democratic elected officials have struggled to find a clear and compelling message that speaks effectively to the whole of the country. General principles and values are one thing; a succinct and up-to-date message is another. The party has moved on from Bill Clinton’s formulations, and Barack Obama’s presidency offers only limited guidance for how the party should present itself in the future. The best that congressional Democrats have recently come up with in terms of messaging was their “A Better Deal” program — a package of old and new ideas that captured the imaginations of few voters. What has come forward as an alternative to traditional Democratic ideas — some version of democratic socialism — is controversial as a national message and by no means the consensus position of the party.
Even if the congressional results in November are good for Democrats, they have a mixed record of predicting the future. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all suffered sizable midterm losses and still went on to win reelection. More than a few Democrats concede that, in a good economy, Trump will be a dangerous and difficult opponent. And even in victory, the 2018 elections cannot answer all the questions about what kind of party Democrats are and want to be. This November, Democrats can be the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Bronx-born Democratic socialist who upset Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in the June primary and instantly became a national star of the left. They can also be the party of Rep. Conor Lamb, the 34-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor who last spring flipped a Republican-held seat in Trump country in southwestern Pennsylvania with a message that tempered progressive policies with moderate positions. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Lamb were near-perfect fits for their districts, but is either the formula for success in a national campaign? No party can be all things to all people. Choices must be made, priorities established, and at times clear lines drawn.
I recently asked Democratic pollster Mark Mellman to evaluate the state of the party. “Internally, I think it’s very healthy,” he said. “We have more people running for office as Democrats than we’ve had in a long time. Tremendous surge in interest. Tremendous surge in participation. … There are just vast numbers of people putting themselves out for the Democratic Party in ways … that they had not done before. That’s a sign, I think, of extraordinary health.”
He continued: “If you look at it from the outside, it’s not so healthy. The Democratic Party is not very popular today with a lot of people, and that is truly a problem. If you look at it in absolute terms and just look at where the Democrats stand today: not very good. You look at where our leadership stands, you look at where our party stands in terms of the public, it’s just not good. There’s no way to call it good. On the other hand, if you look at it in relative terms and say where are we compared to the Republicans? Well, not so bad. They’re there to save us.”
Many Democrats say it’s an overstatement to suggest their party is in the midst of an identity crisis. Yet after a summer of reporting in Washington and elsewhere in the country, after talking with strategists, elected officials at many levels and grass-roots activists, it’s clear to me that for all the anti-Trump energy that exists — energy that will invariably help to bind Democrats in common cause come 2020 — the party’s challenges are serious. Ideological differences are only part of it. This is a party of rising constituencies demanding not just to be heard but to be at the table of decision-makers. It is a party in flux, moving from one era to another, with no obvious leader and an identity yet to be fully shaped.
Democrats haven’t found the formula that both bridges these internal fissures and appeals more broadly to a bigger electorate. But the moment is coming when they will need to begin making significant progress toward this goal. Otherwise, Democrats may be looking at the one thing they most want to avoid: four more years of President Trump.
A Gallup poll released in August found, for the first time, that Democrats have a more favorable view of socialism than of capitalism. In 2010, when Gallup asked the same question (without defining either term), 53 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of both isms. In the latest survey, 57 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of socialism, but just 47 percent had a favorable view of capitalism.
In mid-June, Sanders and other prospective 2020 candidates appeared before a We the People conference hosted by several labor and progressive organizations at a Washington hotel. Sanders used the forum to take a virtual victory lap for having transformed the policy debate. “A few years ago,” he said, “many of the ideas that we talked about were thought to be fringe ideas, radical ideas, extremist ideas. But you know what? Because of your efforts, those ideas are now mainstream American ideas.” He got a roaring response from the audience.
The ideas he took credit for injecting into the mainstream of Democratic politics include his “Medicare-for-all” health-care plan; tuition-free public colleges and universities; a $15-an-hour minimum wage; and an infrastructure plan that would cost $1 trillion. Add to that an idea that has gathered support across the progressive movement — a federal job guarantee program — and the Democratic Party of today bears scant resemblance to Bill Clinton’s New Democrat party, whose agenda included welfare reform, putting more police on the streets, advocacy of free-trade agreements and the famous declaration, “The era of big government is over.”
Yet for all of Sanders’s claims, the party has not settled some of these questions. Many Democrats have declined to embrace the Vermont senator’s concept of Medicare-for-all. Neera Tanden, president of the progressive Center for American Progress, says she believes the true consensus in the party on health care is for universal coverage. How to get to universal coverage remains grounds for debate. “I have no interest in fighting with Bernie Sanders, and I think that the party needs to unite,” she told me one afternoon in her office in downtown Washington. “So if he thinks that ‘everyone is supporting universal coverage’ is a testament to him and not, like, FDR and every Democrat since FDR who supported that idea, then I’m fine with it.”
One reason the party has moved left is that much of the power and energy has shifted from establishment leaders toward the grass roots, whose strength was highlighted by the Sanders campaign. The huge women’s marches beginning the day after Trump’s inauguration, the organized, grass-roots uprising against Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the demonstrations over protecting “dreamers” — all speak to the forces driving the Democrats’ agenda. Party leaders have scrambled to follow along.
In the wake of Trump’s victory, resistance groups have sprung up spontaneously all over the country — groups like Indivisible, Swing Left and Flippable. In some metropolitan areas, there are multiple chapters; they exist as well in small-town and rural areas more clearly defined as Trump country. Many of these groups have only loose allegiance to or respect for Democratic Party structures. But they are demanding a voice. Meanwhile, responding to criticism, the Democratic National Committee recently rewrote its rules for the nominating process to diminish the power of so-called superdelegates (elected officials and party leaders), hoping to salve the wounds left over from the Clinton-Sanders battle but, more important, to avoid a debilitating fight during the 2020 campaign.
“A lot of people are talking about the left-right debate,” says Jon Favreau, former speechwriter for Obama and now part of the podcast “Pod Save America.” “I see it as top-bottom or inside-outside. The energy is outside of Washington, and it’s very much returning to a healthier progressive populism unlike the populism that Trump is promoting. … There is this energy out there and hunger for solutions and ideas. … Democrats have learned that incrementalism and small, bite-sized proposals aren’t going to cut it anymore. Clintonism is gone.”
How serious are the ideological differences? Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles — and author with John Sides and Michael Tesler of a new book about the 2016 campaign called “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America” — explained to me over lunch this summer a key finding from the book. “One thing that people will find the most surprising and that will probably get the most commentary is Democratic primary voters have the same opinions on issues, whether they were supporting Sanders or Clinton,” she said. “People like to say they’re so different. … They’re different on demographics. But in terms of what they want and what their positions are on issues, they’re not different.”
Jake Sullivan, who served as Hillary Clinton’s policy director in the 2016 campaign and before that was a foreign policy adviser in the Obama administration, put it this way: “When you strip away the difference in the way people talk about issues and you actually look at the agenda that moderates versus progressives are putting forward, the gaps are not nearly as big as they may have appeared during the Bernie-Hillary battle. … So it’s hard for me to see what issue is going to be the one, or what set of issues, that will generate meaningful Dem-on-Dem violence heading into 2020. I don’t see it.”
And yet there are deeply held philosophical differences over aspects of economic policy, in particular how aggressively to challenge corporate power, the trade-off between reliance on market forces vs. government intervention, the appropriate level of regulation, and the size and scope of the federal government. There is also a possible debate about trade. Obama and Clinton were both free-trade advocates, but organized labor and many progressives are not. Debates loom as well over foreign policy, over whether Obama’s approach to the world was in some areas too hesitant, particularly the case of Syria and the infamous red line. Beyond that are questions about the appropriate posture for the United States, once the world’s lone superpower, at a time of a rising and undemocratic China and an aggressive, if weakened, Russia.
Nor have Democrats fully resolved the issues around immigration, other than to oppose Trump’s policies. The public agrees with many of the specifics Democrats stand for: no separation of families, no wall on the border, and even a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements. But some fundamental questions about immigration remain unresolved within the party. Says Sullivan: “The biggest shortcoming of the Democrats right now is that, if you ask a Democrat, what is your immigration policy — forget Trump, forget family separation, forget the wall, forget the racism, forget all of it. A person comes from Central America, crosses the border tomorrow and you’re in charge. What do you do about that person?”
Democrats acknowledge that there will be debates on any number of issues ahead of 2020, but they doubt there will be any Sister Souljah moments (when Clinton used a rap singer’s lyrics to draw a distinction with Jesse Jackson in 1992 designed to assuage middle-class white voters). “People are fully united in the real and existential threat of Donald Trump,” says Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. “The notion that people are dying on the sword of single-payer [health care] is just not true.” Matt Bennett, of the centrist group Third Way, adds: “What we’re going to see over the next year and a half is what we hope is a debate that is well short of a war. Republicans found themselves in a war, an internecine war. There’s no reason we should do that. There’s every reason we shouldn’t. But there’s going to be a vigorous debate.”
The incentives in the nominating process will be to play to and respond to the energy in the base and on the left, which is why all of the Democrats who addressed last summer’s We the People conference offered thumping, progressive messages whose substance differed little from that of Bernie Sanders. Republicans see that shift as a potential gift and say Democrats who discount the risks of moving too far left are being foolish. “They’ve got their own Freedom Caucus,” says Karl Rove, who was chief strategist in George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and later White House deputy chief of staff. “It exists largely outside of Congress. The resistance funded by Tom Steyer and the antagonism of ordinary Democrats [toward the president] unhinges them from the kind of appeal they need to attract swing voters.”
By that thinking, uniting and exciting the base cannot be the party’s only imperative. Instead, Democrats should be thinking almost as much about how the broader electorate will react to what its candidates are selling. “I think the progressive activist base is an important voice for our party that needs to be heard and that will help us better represent the country,” says Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.). “But it can’t say that only its voice matters. Progressives can’t say we’re the only ones that can be heard and we’re going to keep everybody else out, unless we want to keep losing, unless we want to not be a force for American politics. I don’t want progressives to be quiet, but I do want them to listen.”
To progressives, that misses a larger point, which is that the views they are espousing, and the people for whom they speak, deserve more than lip service from the party and its leaders. “The progressive base that shares progressive values is tens of millions of people,” says Heather McGhee, distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a progressive organization. “The challenge for Democratic leadership is to make the Democratic Party and Democratic politics a principled home for their advocacy.” Right now, she says, those progressive activists who work on issues like climate change or racial justice or abortion rights “don’t see the party as the home and the channel for their advocacy. In that way, the progressive base is much bigger and broader than the Democratic Party activist base.”
Some traditional Democrats worry that a mediocre performance in the midterm elections will prompt progressives to say the party did not go far enough in embracing the left agenda and that this could produce demands for an even sharper turn. “I think if we don’t win the House and we don’t do well in governors, which I think is unlikely, but if it happens, there will be such a revolt in our party,” says one former elected official. “And my guesstimate is, to play it out, we will nominate an extreme left [candidate] for president.”
Internally, Democrats are united on most cultural and social issues, and, as William Galston of the Brookings Institution notes, the debates of past decades “ended with a clean win for the liberals.” In the long run, Galston told me, that should not be worrisome for the party, given the general trend in public opinion, especially among younger Americans. But he warns that this new consensus “absolutely” is a problem in the short term and medium term for a party that is looking to rebuild its strength in the center of the country. “It’s a problem for Democrats in that cultural sentiments are not evenly spread through the American landscape,” he says, “and so the trends that I’ve just described are much more pervasive in the cities and the suburbs than they are in small towns and rural areas.”
Geography presents a genuine problem for the Democrats. The party has carried the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections but won the presidency in just four of those. True, a shift of 80,000 votes in three states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — in 2016 might have prompted a much different conversation about the state of Democratic and Republican politics today. But geographic issues are real, as evidenced by ground lost in the states during Obama’s presidency. Between 2009 and 2016, the party lost roughly 900 state legislative seats and saw its control of governorships plunge to a low of 15 (now 16 since New Jersey elected a Democratic governor in 2017). Today, Republicans control 31 state legislatures and enjoy full control — legislature and governor’s mansion — in 25 states (to just eight for the Democrats), according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Trump won 30 states in 2016 to Clinton’s 20. Overall, there are more red states than blue states, and those small red states send as many senators to Washington as the more populous blue states.
The GOP’s grip on state legislatures allowed Republicans to draw favorable congressional district lines that have helped them maintain their strength in the House beyond the percentage of votes they’ve received. Unless Democrats regain more power in the states, they will remain at a disadvantage in the redistricting battles that will take place after the 2020 Census. Party officials expect to claw back some of the territory ceded over the past decade this November, starting with gubernatorial races. But they start from a deep hole.
Many Democrats blame Obama for the state and national losses that occurred while he was in office. Though he won a majority of the popular vote twice, something no Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt had done, and inspired countless young people to get involved in politics, he evinced little interest in the party and its structures. Democrats also lament that the 50-state strategy of former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean was abandoned or ignored during Obama’s presidency. The current chair, Tom Perez, has vowed to fight in every state and precinct, but the party infrastructure needs a significant overhaul ahead of 2020.
Galston notes that political parties rarely learn lessons from elections they thought they would lose. It was Michael Dukakis’s loss in 1988, not Walter Mondale’s landslide defeat to Reagan in 1984, that shook up the party and ultimately produced the centrist formulation Clinton took into the 1992 election. “I do think the extraordinary shock in the party as the results rolled in on election night in 2016 were a strong signal that something had gone wrong that was more than tactical, that some rethinking was in order,” Galston says. “I’ve seen more Democratic outreach to the heartlands in the past 20 months than the preceding 20 years. I don’t think that’s an accident.”
The Democrats have many messages for many people. On the website of the Democratic National Committee, under the heading “People,” the party lists 17 constituency groups, many overlapping. Hillary Clinton’s message in 2016 often came across as a lengthy list of programmatic responses to specific problems. What has yet to emerge in the post-Obama era is a language that effectively speaks to the conditions and grievances that Trump tapped into in 2016, something that transcends appeals to the constituencies, something that is both populist and aspirational.
It would be unusual for a party to produce that during midterm elections, when the focus is on individual districts and states. This kind of work must await the nomination process and the ability of a candidate to distill and synthesize competing and sometimes conflicting priorities. But at this point, there’s little evidence that a consensus is emerging — or even that there is widespread work underway. As one Democrat told me, “First, the problem has to be recognized, and people seem very reluctant to recognize it.” Bill Clinton redefined the party to heighten its appeal to middle-class voters. Obama transcended programmatic appeals with “hope and change” at a time when the country was souring on old battles, turning against the Iraq War and hungering for inspiration. What Democrats lack is something that defines them in the American story, that binds the party coalition and expands it. It likely isn’t enough simply to emphasize familiar themes of the economy and wages and health care. Among other challenges, Democrats need a message that allows them to compete in the varying regions of the country. For now, they’ve lost most of the South, presidentially and congressionally, and are challenged in some of the Plains and Rocky Mountain states. The erosion in the Midwest in recent elections represents a flashing yellow light that can’t be ignored.
Jerry Brown, who is completing his second two-term stint as governor of California and who ran for president multiple times, recalls advice he was given long ago, advice that at the time he did not receive graciously. “This person said, ‘Be more generic,’ ” he told me by telephone late in the summer. “When John F. Kennedy said, ‘Get America moving again,’ that was generic. [Reagan’s] ‘Morning in America,’ that was generic. When Trump said, ‘Make America great again,’ that was generic. You do have to appeal to America, to the future, to the soul of the Democratic Party. When you get caught in this maw of identitarian feelings and movements, it becomes very difficult to keep at the more general level that unites people. So there’s a tendency to divide, to slice and dice and divide again. … You need to appeal in large terms.”
Trump found a negative way into the electorate. Democrats recoil at mimicking that approach but recognize the necessity of appealing to economically hard-pressed workers with a message that fits the party’s values and principles. “He had an answer for those people,” the Center for American Progress’s Tanden says of working-class voters. “We like to think it’s bulls—. We as policymakers like to think like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t real, it was all character.’ But he had an answer for people who were struggling, and it was like, ‘I’m going to stop outsourcing, I’m going to be tough on trade and I’m going to stop immigration.’ Whether we like those answers or not, it’s an answer. And the Democratic Party has to have a better answer.” Why hasn’t the party already found that message? “The answer is hard,” she says. “With globalization and trade and technology, it’s not just the Democratic Party that hasn’t come up with a great answer. No country has come up with a great answer on this.”
Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia who is considering a presidential bid, is passionate about the Democrats’ need to focus on the economy above all else. “We should own the issue of economic problems,” he says. “We should own the issue of jobs. All those key core issues, like I argued in Virginia, that’s what people care about. They don’t want to hear me talk about Donald Trump. They don’t! What are you going to do for me? What are your values? I think people want to see someone who’s authentic.”
But it’s not just what Democrats say to people; it’s how they say it. Tone matters. Peter Wehner, who worked in George W. Bush’s White House and who has been consistently critical of Trump, thinks Democrats are vulnerable to criticism that they speak down to many voters. “It’s not that they’re crosswise with the public on some of these cultural and social issues,” he says. “But they seem so aggressive about it. … If their attitude is, ‘We’re not simply going to win in the ballot box, but if you don’t agree with our views we’re going to break you,’ that kind of cultural condescension is what gave rise to Donald Trump.”
Another issue for Democrats is the question of their competence to make government work. “One of Trump’s gifts is that he speaks in vivid kind of language,” says David Axelrod, who was Obama’s chief strategist. “His fundamental message was, ‘Let me handle it. I’ll take care of it. I’ll take care of people who are taking advantage of us.’ Instead of these fumbling, dissembling, self-interested politicians, he was saying, ‘I’m the ramrod who can actually get stuff done.’ I think Democrats have to be aware that there is a great deal of skepticism about our ability to actually deal with any of these problems.”
Julián Castro, now contemplating a 2020 campaign, takes an optimistic view. He believes that, however successful Trump was as a candidate, there will be a desire in the next election for a president with a different style. “Sure, he’s changed the rules of politics a bit, but there’s also a greater appreciation now for competence and knowledge and steady leadership,” Castro says. “I don’t believe in 2020 we’re going to go back to exactly where we were before. I think people are looking for someone who shoots straight for them and is honest and has leadership skills and is inclusive.”
Race and gender are now central to the politics of the day and especially to the Democrats and their future. The party’s most loyal voters are African Americans. Latinos form an essential part of the coalition, but there are questions about whether in the future their allegiance will remain as solid as it has been. Meanwhile, the party has seen the influence of women rising in the coalition, particularly college-educated women, who in the age of Trump are now almost a core constituency. For some years, women have been voting for Democrats in greater numbers. Under Trump, the gender gap is wider than ever. “I think it’s a party in flux rather than a party of internal conflict,” says Anna Greenberg. She sees this moment as “the last gasp of older white men who have control in the party” and calls it “a healthy reinvention.”
Inevitably, this turns the discussion to which voters Democrats should seek to mobilize or persuade. Can the Democrats be the party of a highly diverse coalition with its strength concentrated on the two coasts and still win enough support among white working-class voters in the middle of the country to make them competitive in as many places as possible? There is a growing consensus, say Democratic strategists, that the party’s candidates should focus most on mobilizing those already within the coalition, and by some calculations that would be enough to win the presidency. Clinton’s loss was so narrow that improvements in African American turnout and in margins might have put her in the White House.
As this argument goes, the party can win without doing significantly better among white working-class voters, so why consider appeals that could dilute powerful themes of racial justice, tolerance and inclusion? This question has the potential to be a flash point within the party. “There won’t be huge policy differences among the Democrats in terms of ways to address income inequality,” says McGhee of Demos. “We saw that at the We the People conference, saw it in the Democrats’ Better Deal plan, which is much more progressive than it would have been. The questions will be around how to address racism and sexism and xenophobia, and what is the strategy for building a winning coalition? Who are the Democrats’ target constituencies?”
The issue is especially fraught in the Trump era. Trump injected race and racial issues into the 2016 campaign and has continued to do so as president. It’s not difficult for Democrats to condemn the president over things like the white supremacist, neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville in August 2017. But how directly will Democratic candidates in 2018 speak about race, addressing the concerns and feelings of African Americans and other minorities, at the same time as they try to speak to white working-class voters? Most reject the idea that it’s an either-or choice. “I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish about the challenges,” says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “There are issues around immigration and racial justice that are polarizing and divisive among the two groups. But having said that, I believe that, if Democrats have big, bold and important things to say about people’s economic security and economic opportunities, those ideas can bridge the gap between one part of the electorate and the other.” For now, however, no leader has demonstrated precisely how to do that.
In addition, Democrats suffer from a generational bottleneck at a time when they are increasingly reliant on younger voters. They are led by a collection of officials long ago eligible for Medicare and Social Security. Biden is 75, Sanders is 77 and Warren is 69. Among Democratic congressional leaders, Nancy Pelosi is 78; Steny Hoyer, 79; James Clyburn, 78; Chuck Schumer, 67; Dick Durbin, 73. “I think a lot of Americans look at the Democratic Party right now and say, ‘Okay, senior citizens are very well represented; they get us,’ ” says Rep. Moulton, 39, who has been calling for changes in the party’s congressional leadership to the displeasure of some in the party. “But young people will say, ‘Who’s there for me?’ ”
As the 2020 presidential campaign comes into focus in the coming months, the party begins with Biden, Sanders and Warren atop most polls (meaningless as those polls might be). All three have been using 2018 to prepare for a possible campaign.
Biden is seen by some Democrats as a safe choice: experienced, accredited, someone who can appeal across the party’s diverse coalition and, possibly, speak to working-class whites who are estranged from the party. As some Democrats put it, if the country simply wants a respite from Trump, a period of settling down, why not Biden? But he has not done well in previous presidential campaigns, and there are questions about how disciplined he would be, how fresh he would be, even whether he really has the fire to make the run from start to finish.
Sanders has never stopped campaigning. He remains highly visible, on television and around the country. Nor has he wavered from the message he used in 2016 to challenge Clinton. Consistency is his trump card. But there are big questions about him as well. He has intervened in numerous primary contests this year, with mixed results, raising questions as to whether his Democratic socialist message can reach as broadly as needed in a general election. Also, can he withstand the attacks that will come at him? In 2016, he took almost no incoming fire, not from Clinton, not from the Republicans. Should he run again, he would be challenged far more vigorously.
Warren has a reelection campaign to run and win in Massachusetts this fall, but that presents no real obstacle. She has been energetic in presenting herself as the fighter the party will need and already is in a regular sparring match with the president. She gets under his skin, and that fearlessness appeals to many Democrats. Behind the scenes, she has sought to broaden her network. She has tried to burnish her credentials as the scourge of both corporate power and Washington special interests, offering policy proposals over the summer designed to brand her as an outsider despite her status as a senator. But there are concerns about whether she can unite the country, views aired privately by some strategists and voiced spontaneously by rank-and-file Democrats as well.
Below the big three, the jockeying has begun. So many people are talked about, and are thinking about running, that the Democratic field in 2020 could rival that of the Republicans in 2016. The Washington Post’s Fix team regularly handicaps the 15 top candidates but notes to readers that they should also be watching 11 other Democrats: senators, governors, mayors, former Cabinet officials, business people like Starbucks’s Howard Schultz. Even that long list doesn’t include Michael Avenatti. Nor does it include Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Texan challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. O’Rourke has captured the attention and imaginations of Democrats across the country. He is a distinct underdog in the Senate race, given the political leanings of Texas, but were he to pull off an upset against Cruz, he instantly would be added to the list of prospective candidates.
It’s impossible at this point to highlight all the contenders, but conversations with a number of potential candidates this summer offered a sense of what they are thinking and how they see the state of their party.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, 53, leans forward in her chair in the Hart Senate Office Building. It’s midday and she is explaining how she sees the ebbs and flows of politics and progress. “So I have a theory,” she says. “It’s a crude, rough kind of theory, but I have a theory about what was going on in terms of who we are as a country that led to the outcome [in 2016], that partially led to the outcome, and it is if you think about the last 10 years in our country, we have experienced an incredible amount of change.”
She mentions the Great Recession of 2008, homes lost and job opportunities downsized. She talks about the browning of America and the influx of immigrants, and a woman running for president and a president named Barack Hussein Obama. “There’s so much happening just in these last 10 years,” she says, “and it has rightly left a lot of people feeling quite displaced, wondering are they relevant, are they obsolete, where do they fit in?”
Trump, she continues, understood that those fears were legitimate and real: “He read it accurately and then took it to the lowest common denominator and said, ‘And therefore it’s us versus them,’ instead of what really leadership should be about, which is saying, ‘Hey, I’m with you, we’re all in it together.’ ”
One theme of her speeches is that Democrats must “paint a picture of the future in which everyone can see themselves.” She rejects those who imply that, to win the votes of some of those who decided to gamble on Trump out of their frustrations and perhaps anger, the party must “shift away” from African American or Latino mothers, as she describes one of the most vital parts of the Democratic base. “That’s a huge mistake,” she says. “Don’t make those … ladies suffer from the box we put them in.”
Some Democrats walk gingerly around the issue of race, Obama among them. As the first African American president, he avoided making race a central topic for discussion unless there were moments that demanded it, such as the killings of unarmed African Americans like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Harris believes that, given the campaign of 2016 and the racially based appeals of President Trump, and what he said and didn’t say after Charlottesville, race is now a mandatory part of the political conversation. “I’m not going to contrast myself to an election that happened over 10 years ago,” she says, referring to the way Obama ran in 2008. “But I’ll speak to this moment. Yeah, we have to talk about this. We have to.”
Harris sees the phrase “identity politics” as a pejorative designed to marginalize issues that she believes must be front and center in the conversation about the country. She recalls a discussion with her advisers ahead of a speech she delivered at the Netroots Nation conference in August in New Orleans. “I’m sitting around with my team trying to think about what I’m going to talk about in this thing,” she says, “and I just said, ‘Do you know what? The thing that’s been weighing on me that I want to talk about is this thing about this whole identity politics, because it’s been annoying me and I think we should just talk about it.’ And everyone was like, hmmm. … I do believe we have to speak truth, and that’s one of the truths.”
Harris, who sits on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, points to what the Russians did in 2016 to try to undermine American democracy. The Russians, she says, tested to determine what would produce the most heat, the most discord, almost like scientists in a laboratory. “And guess what the one was? It was about hate. It was about racism. It was about sexism. It was about anti-Semitism. It was about homophobia. That’s what attracted heat. So isn’t that an interesting thing that one of our longest adversaries, the Russian government, figured out America’s Achilles’ heel? One of the biggest ones is race, and they attacked us based on that. And we’re not going to talk about it?”
Toward the end of the conversation, she speaks about her parents and the struggles they experienced during the civil rights conflicts of the 1960s. “People say there’s a pendulum,” she notes. “I don’t think there’s a pendulum. I think that it’s basically an upward spiral. So we reach a high and then it goes low and then we go” — she gestures upward. “The things that are happening now are bad, but there’s cycles. … There are dips, and we’re in a dip. But we are constantly, I think, going in an upward trajectory.”
About 2,500 miles west of the U.S. Capitol, Mayor Eric Garcetti governs the sprawling and diverse city of Los Angeles. He is one of several mayors or ex-mayors — Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, Michael Bloomberg of New York, Castro of San Antonio among them — being discussed as possible candidates in 2020.
Garcetti, 47, is the son of Gil Garcetti, who led the unsuccessful prosecution of O.J. Simpson in the 1990s. He served on the City Council for a dozen years before winning election as mayor in 2013. He has sharp-edged views about what happened to the Democrats in 2016 and some of the things they need to do to avoid another defeat in two years.
When I speak to him in his City Hall office, Garcetti is blunt in his criticism of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “It wasn’t about a deep philosophical ideology,” he says. “It was the legacy of her husband’s [presidency] — ‘Hey, we don’t do big things anymore, we do a lot of incremental things. Ask me any question and I got a good answer to like how we can move it a half an inch, and that will hopefully lead to another half an inch, another half an inch.’ ” Clinton’s policy prescriptions went three levels deep on her website, he says. Trump, meanwhile, “had like three policy things on his entire website and two were the wall. I think that there is a sense of there’s been not much of any coherent philosophy to counter that.”
He initially resists putting himself on an ideological spectrum, saying, “That conversation is increasingly out of touch with things.” People vote presidentially “based on a feeling of ‘How do I feel about you?’ ” He does not believe that Sanders truly moved the Democratic Party to the left. “I think both he and Trump contributed to an overall feeling that the system doesn’t work for Americans,” he says. “So to my earlier point, it’s not where you are on the spectrum left or right anymore. That’s an old conversation.” Then he adds, “I’m definitely progressive.”
Garcetti argues that Trump did two things Democrats should acknowledge. “One, he stole who we are out from underneath us,” he says. “We’re the party of the underdog. … He truly switched it. Now [Democrats are] the party of the elites. … It’s total bulls—, but he convinced everybody. … Second, where I do give him credit and where the Democrats failed …” He interrupts himself to say, “This is really an important point,” and then continues: “Identity matters, and Democrats have run away. If you want to run for president of the United States or if you want to be a national congressional leader for the country, you better define what the nation is.”
He continues: “Who are we? We’re really good at saying who we are as individuals. I’m half-Mexican, half-Jewish, Italian last name, mayor from Los Angeles. But I can tell you what being American means to me, and Trump offered an identity. Now, it happened to exclude a lot of us, but it was a national identity. … We didn’t have one. We’re scared of patriotism. We’re scared of talking about faith in a personal way, and we just have stopped talking about an identity.”
Garcetti acknowledges there are negative effects of nationalistic appeals; he mentions the Balkans as an example. “But,” he says, “I also see, unlike a lot of other Democrats, nationalism is a positive force. It’s what brings people together, it’s what makes you feel part of a larger family, across racial and geographic and age lines and all that, even party lines.”
Toward the end of our interview, he returns to his concern that the Democrats think too much about themselves and not enough about the country. “We stopped speaking the language of regular America,” he says. “I think on the debit sheet, we’re the smarty-pants party with an incremental idea to everything.”
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut has thought a lot about what happened in 2016 and what to do about it. He isn’t shy about suggesting that his party needs to take the right lessons from Trump’s victory. In his Senate office one afternoon, he lays out his analysis.
“Trump understood that you had to be the candidate who most credibly looked and sounded like a process reformer,” he says. “He never talked about it in those terms. … But he looked and sounded like the most obvious candidate to change the way that things were done here, and you could argue that the presidential candidate who looks like the most likely to change the way things are done in Washington has been the one that has won consistently over the years.”
Democrats have become too cautious about pushing big ideas to reform the way Washington works, too “self-satisfied with the idea that we are the party of reform, because of course we are. … I think our party has to get our head wrapped around the fact that, if we don’t put in our party’s vortex reforming the way that this place works, we’re not going to break through unless we find a candidate who just sort of oozes outsider.” Democrats, Murphy adds, have become too paternalistic, too wedded to solutions in Washington and distrustful of ideas that come from the states and cities. “That has made us a party of virtual irrelevance in big swaths of the country,” he says.
Murphy backed Clinton in 2016, but he praises Sanders for what he could teach the Democrats. “I remember that day when he left the caucus meeting on a Tuesday and went outside to do his announcement in the Senate ‘swamp,’ with like no prep, and I was like, ‘This is a presidential campaign? This is going to be a disaster.’ It almost immediately caught fire.” He says Sanders also highlighted the power of big symbols and bold language to make clear whose side he was on. “A lot of the Democratic elites parody Bernie because free college was so unrealistic. Who cares?” Murphy says. “It’s a good idea and it speaks to our values. … We think way too much about what’s possible.”
Trump’s message was effective, he says, because it was focused around the idea of protection: “It was protection from a global economy, protection from dangerous immigrants. It was framed around the idea that we’re going to protect you from all these forces that you fear or don’t understand. That message was reckless and dangerous, [but] people do feel like they’re under assault. … I think we’ve got to offer people our own version of protection from these outside forces.”
Murphy says Democrats must become “economic warriors” in the mold of Sanders. “I don’t know the answers to whether Bernie has won a battle of ideas within the party, and I think that transition might have been happening with or without him,” he says. “But I think he’s shown us what can happen if you spend almost all your time thinking about people’s paychecks and thinking about the distribution of economic power in this country.”
Asked what imprint Obama left on the party, he responds that there are millions of people now active — volunteers, small donors and the like — who were drawn into the party by Obama. Murphy also says Obama, by pushing for the Affordable Care Act when some of his advisers encouraged him to accept less, showed the value of not being wedded to incrementalism.
But he makes another telling observation about the Obama years. “I worry that we were a broken party papered over by an exceptionally talented president,” he says. “We didn’t have to think about the reasons why we couldn’t get a dogcatcher elected in half the states of the country because we had a president who kept on winning and who remained pretty popular up until the end. So I just don’t think we did a lot of work.”
Murphy acknowledges he has not sorted out all the contradictions and challenges that flow from his analysis. He notes with irony that, after praising Sanders for bold ideas, he has not signed on to Sanders’s Medicare-for-all proposal. Murphy has his own bill with Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon that he thinks is “a little more politically realistic.” He would rather see Democrats focus on economic issues than on some cultural wedges — and yet says he cannot step back from the fight over immigration. “I’m not walking the walk,” he says. Nor does he have the answer to how Democrats can speak to the entire country. “When voters see us spending so much time messaging demographic group to demographic group, it translates that we care about individual groups more than the health of the whole,” he says.
His closing thought highlights what may be the party’s core dilemma. “I think it’s a theoretical ambition these days for the party to spend more time on broad-based economic issues,” Murphy says. “I don’t think we’ve figured that out yet.”
Unlike some Democrats who remain coy or truly undecided about their 2020 plans, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper makes no pretense about his interest in seeking the Democratic nomination. He is also cutting against the grain of a national party whose center of gravity is considerably more progressive than a decade ago.
At age 66, Hickenlooper is finishing his second term as governor. Before that he served as mayor of Denver, and before that was the owner of a bar and restaurant. Before all that, he was a geologist who lost his job during the oil bust of the mid-1980s. Today, he is business-friendly and a conciliator rather than a brawler. That background makes him a different kind of Democrat. Assuming he goes ahead with his desire to run for president, he will be taking on the challenge of trying to move the party in a direction that few seem eager to go: He rejects negative ads in his campaigns; he prefers compromise to confrontation; he talks with pride about bringing together environmentalists and the oil and gas industry.
He also sees America from a perspective that some other Democrats do not. “I spent a ton of time in rural Colorado,” he says, “and I’m sure there’s some racists out there, but there are not very many.” He disagrees, he continues, with “this notion that between the coasts there’s this dark malevolence.”
With the right message, he argues, Democrats can successfully reach some of the voters who bolted to Trump. “Trump does anger,” he says. “Democrats maybe need to do better at empathy or humor. There are other ways to engage. There’s nothing more that connects people more successfully than anger. That’s part of why attack ads work so well. … But they’re very harmful. The destruction they do goes way beyond the election.”
Hickenlooper is an unabashed policy wonk. During an hour-long conversation, he goes deep into questions of preparing people for the workplace of tomorrow. He sees that as the biggest economic challenge facing countries around the world, where he says anger and frustration have allowed right-wing populism to gain a foothold. “There’s got to be a dramatic transformation on how we look at what automation and artificial intelligence [are doing to workers] and all the outsourcing that’s already happened,” he says, adding, “The [Democrats’] positive message is, ‘We’re going to fix this.’ ”
Some Democrats on the left have called for abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Abolish ICE or change it?” Hickenlooper asks. “I’ve been saying we should change ICE for 10 years. There’s a better way to do it and achieve all the goals.” He sees limits on immigration. “Some people think we should have open borders. I don’t. … I think you’ve got to secure the border. I think that’s not a liberal or a conservative thing. … You still need to recognize that not everyone can live here.”
Hickenlooper lacks the kind of booming personality that some Democrats believe is needed to take on Trump. He says a friend has told him that, while he won’t have to persuade anyone that he knows policy, he will have to find an effective way to connect with people who have short attention spans and are drawn to celebrity, flamboyance and pugnaciousness. “I don’t think you have to use Twitter the way [Trump] does,” he says. “But whoever is the candidate needs to be able to hold their own in terms of communicating their sensibility in bite-size pieces and somehow connect them to something that engages people.”
I ask him how, if he runs, he plans to pull the party toward him. “I don’t know. I learned in the restaurant business that when someone is really upset, don’t tell them that what they’re upset about is wrong,” Hickenlooper says. “I can’t think of a single time when I’ve told someone, ‘Here are the reasons why I’m right and you’re wrong.’ That’s never worked.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey brings passion to the practice of politics. He sees things in personal terms: politics as a one-on-one enterprise, sometimes in-your-face but also something to be practiced with love. In his office across the street from the Capitol, he cradles a football as he speaks.
“Why is it the tyranny of the ‘or’?” he asks during a discussion of whether Democrats can compete for all constituencies. “It’s either this strategy or that strategy. I’m sorry, when I played Stanford football, we didn’t say we’re just going to work on our offensive game, we’re just going to work on our passing game, we’re just going to work on our running game. When we were playing USC, we brought everything we had.”
Booker, 49, was elected to the Senate in 2013, having earlier served as mayor of Newark. His perspective remains grounded in that city — and the people who were his constituents and neighbors. “I don’t ever want to think in terms of these larger labels,” he says as he names some of his constituents. “I want to always put myself right next to Miss Virginia Jones, right next to Natasha Laurel. Right next to the cop who just texted me about an unsolved murder in our neighborhood.”
He dismisses claims that the Democrats are divided. “I think the media likes to make a lot more out of this than it really is, and maybe some of this is because we’re coming off a presidential campaign when people tried to really paint two dramatic differences of the policies of these two folks [Clinton and Sanders]. One person said debt-free college. One person said free college.”
Still, he sees vulnerabilities that Trump exploited. “Trump was able to make a lot of people believe that he was going to rescue [them], and I think he did it as [a] divisive, carnival-barking [candidate],” he says. “He was able to speak to people’s hurt, people’s pain, and I think my party has got to be able to do that. … Campaigns are as much the heart as they are the head, and I think he really spoke very well to the gut of many Americans who just felt something is terribly wrong.”
Asked to offer a counter to Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again,” he demurs, saying he would leave message-making to those who seek the 2020 nomination. But he says there’s something he always talks about and suggests others can learn from it. “I talk about love and kindness and decency,” he says. “I think what makes America great is our goodness. We are good to each other. We’re kind. Patriotism is love of country, but to love your country, you’ve got to love your fellow countrymen and -women. And so to me, Donald Trump has been preaching an arrogance of meanness for a long time.”
At another point, he returns to the theme of head vs. heart. “That gut part is so important,” he says. “Do you have my back? Will you stand up, take a punch for me if you have to, throw one if you have to? Will you fight for me every single day or are you going to be perverted by interest groups or the money that flows into this town?”
Booker believes he can go anywhere and talk to and perhaps persuade people regardless of party or ideology. “Plop me down anywhere in my state,” he says. “I’m going to be unapologetically who I am. … The messages I’m going to talk about are an economic message, a message of justice, because we have a sinful system — criminal justice, environmental justice. And I’m going to talk about love.”
When Steve Bullock finishes at the Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair, he stays behind to answer questions from a few reporters. He’s asked how Democrats should run against Trump. Should they match his style? He mentions Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who in the 2016 GOP nomination battle took his campaign into the gutter against Trump and paid a hefty price. “You’re firm in calling out the difference,” Bullock says, “but you don’t go to his level. I believe that Americans would want more. You can play damn hard without embarrassing your children.”
That kind of question will be asked over and over in the coming months, of every Democrat who is mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. Bullock’s focus on the corrupting influence of money in politics is an avenue that allows him to wed moderate and progressive rhetoric, while skirting some of the differences within the party. Other candidates will have their own versions, based on biography, ideology, experience and temperament. Perhaps the only thing that’s clear today is that, in the year ahead, Democrats will have more candidates to choose from than at any point in a generation and as many questions to answer as at any time in the recent past.
After his scrum with reporters, Bullock walks off for a tour of some of the fair’s highlights and exhibits. Half an hour later, he joins a long line of people who are waiting for a pork chop at the Iowa Pork Producers stand. At another time, perhaps in just a year, if he becomes a candidate and attracts a following, he will be escorted forward, jumping the line to join the grill masters and to flip a few pork chops for a crush of photographers and television cameras chronicling the road to the White House. In the summer of 2018, however, he is just another citizen, waiting patiently with everyone else.
Dan Balz is chief correspondent at The Washington Post.
The donkey Mad Max was safely photographed at Seein’ Spots Farm in Solvang, Calif., courtesy of the Marchi family.