We still don’t know which Democrats (most of them?) will run for president in 2020. Nevertheless, from the vantage point of an ex-Republican and homeless political wanderer — one who has seen her party taken over by a right-wing populist, lose intellectual respectability and endanger democratic norms — I can say to Democrats that, if you don’t know what is truly important, you’ll wind up with someone you’ll regret nominating.
Before offering some suggestions about the criteria Democrats should apply to their search for a 2020 nominee, I’ll take issue with the conventional wisdom that “all the energy” is on the far left of the Democratic Party. It wasn’t true in the midterms, where moderates did better than far-left candidates and prominent progressives (e.g., Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, Richard Cordray). Sure, there is energy on the left wing of the party, but what one senses above all else is a desperation (which is understandable) to win the White House. Rather than an atmosphere conducive to someone such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who’s taken a nosedive in early polls and has had a rotten preseason, you’re seeing a host of moderates — including Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former vice president Joe Biden, and former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — pop up on the radar screen.
In assessing the candidates, here (in no particular order) are factors Democratic primary voters would be wise to consider:
Find someone who can do the job: If and when President Trump is beaten, he’ll leave a trail of destruction — a more divided country, alienated allies, a hollowed-out civil service, hyperpoliticization (even on the Supreme Court), huge debt, even greater income inequality and emboldened international foes. Now is no time for celebrity dilettantes — and voters intuitively know it.
Think about those 2018 midterm voters who defected from the GOP: In 2018, suburbanites, especially college-educated women, fled the Republican Party en masse. Many had never voted in a midterm election and/or for a Democrat, but they took a leap of faith in the hope that Democrats would check Trump and restore some normalcy to governance. It is these voters Democrats should be very concerned about keeping in the fold. Listen, the base will turn out no matter who takes on Trump, but the voters who gave Democrats a shot in 2018 may revert to Republican form or just stay home if the Democrats don’t put up a credible alternative.
Appeal to voters who actually care about values: Evangelical right-wingers made a Faustian bargain with Trump and, thereby, ceased to be credible watchdogs for the family, public virtue, clean government and humane policy choices. The rest of the electorate, however, registers high levels of concern about corruption, the character of our leaders, the cruelty of their policies (especially child separation), the embrace of thuggish dictators, indifference to the environment (which is often cast in moral terms), as well as the unabashed racism and misogyny that Trump has tried to normalize. Millennial voters, in particular, think of politics as a values-based exercise.
A candidate who aims to make Americans proud of their government and return character as a criteria for the presidency will go far. That doesn’t mean voters are looking for saints, but they are looking for someone who speaks to their better angels — something both Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) and Biden did effectively in 2018.
Look for skills and vision, not white papers: Hillary Clinton had a seven-point plan (with sub-parts) for every policy issue. And she lost. Candidates certainly shouldn’t treat voters like morons or peddle nonsense as Trump did but, more than policy details, what’s critical is to let the voters know who you are and where you want to take the country. If the pitch is “invest in workers,” then the candidate better know how to relate to those who haven’t made the leap to the 21st-century economy, how to demonstrate the brains and grit to problem-solve, and how to give some sense how to achieve the stated goal. Rather than tell voters that solutions are easy and only he/she can fix it, a candidate who explains that things are hard and complicated but that, collectively, we have the ingenuity and resources to overcome challenges will make an attractive alternative to Trump.
Pass the commander in chief test: Granted, just about any American off the street would make for a more impressive candidate for commander in chief than Trump, but Democrats still should be concerned that their nominee be credible on the international stage. (As an aside, they should all be studying up, collecting savvy foreign policy advisers and making some trips abroad.) They cannot, as my colleague Max Boot argued persuasively, sound like Trumps of the left.
Be wary of age: It’s not the most critical factor, but if Democrats run a septuagenarian, they give up a significant advantage in a general election against Trump. The contrast between Trump, a cultural dinosaur and technological ignoramus, and a plugged-in, accessible president who seems to be of this century, not the last, would work to Democrats' advantage.
What isn’t all that important, at least not now? Ideological labels (ask the self-appointed guardians of conservatism how that worked out in 2016); money (it’ll be there eventually); and gender. As to the last item, Democrats probably wouldn’t be wise to run two white men, but it is more important that the team be balanced than it would for the top of the ticket be a woman or non-white. Yes, African American voters are critical in many early primary states, and Hispanic voters must remain engaged, but candidates such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), O’Rourke, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and slew of white Democratic governors in the upper Midwest showed they can turn out nonwhite voters.
Now, it is possible that Republicans will dump Trump and come up with a credible, responsible nominee. Chances are, however, that the country will need the Democrats or an independent movement to supply a candidate to send Trump packing. We pray they choose wisely.