On paper, the field of candidates running for the Democratic nomination is everything the party’s rank and file might hope for. It is big, offering more choices than ever. It is experienced, with candidates from every level of government and beyond. It includes more women and minorities than ever at a time when their voices are redefining the party. It is generationally and geographically diverse.
Yet, to date, there’s been little that has given Democrats the confidence that their nomination process will produce a challenger strong enough, appealing enough and politically skilled enough to withstand what will be a brutal general election against a weakened and vulnerable president. Trump’s campaign is already running a general election loaded with cash and with months of time to try to shape voters’ perceptions of Democrats negatively before their nominee is even selected.
For Democrats, almost everything about the past week should be grounds for optimism about the shape of the political landscape. The litany of things that happened to or were done by the president in just a few days is beyond comprehension, starting with the case that Trump used the powers of his office to try to damage a political opponent that is at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry in the House.
That case against the president appeared to gain strength, with closed-door testimony on Capitol Hill, and it was helped when acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said there was a quid pro quo involving military aid. Mulvaney later retracted the statement, but the damage was done.
That came on the same day that it was announced that Trump had awarded next summer’s Group of Seven meeting to his Doral resort in Florida, boldly using the powers of his office to enhance his own business fortunes. After intense criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats, however, he tweeted Saturday that Trump National Doral Miami would no longer host the summit.
Then there is the mess made by the Trump’s hasty decision to withdraw U.S. forces in northern Syria, which allowed Turkey to begin an assault on Kurdish forces, once U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State.
In one attempt to undo the damage, Trump sent a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatening to inflict harm to Turkey’s economy if Erdogan kept going. The language sounded as if it had been written by a make-believe tough guy rather than the president of the United States.
A fragile cease-fire agreement later brokered with Erdogan by Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought some respite in the fighting but also gave Turkey much of what it was seeking.
“Like two kids in a lot, you have got to let them fight, and then you pull them apart,” Trump said at a Texas rally. Earlier he had dismissed the fighting as of no particular concern to the United States. Syria has “got a lot of sand,” he said. “So there’s a lot of sand they can play with.”
Among those strengthened in the Middle East were the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. A meeting in the White House called with congressional leaders to discuss Syria turned into a showdown between an angry president and a resistant house speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif). He called her a “third-grade politician.” She bristled and wondered why, with Trump and his policies, “all roads lead to Putin.”
By week’s end, Trump’s Syria missteps had been denounced in a critical Washington Post op-ed written by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
So almost everything about the week was grounds for optimism for Democrats — except for one event, which was the fourth Democratic debate, held in Westerville, Ohio. That debate quickly faded from view, swept aside by the tidal forces of a president on the defensive. For some Democrats, the three-hour session simply added to questions about the party’s fitness to win a general election.
Much of this is a result of the continued debate performances by former vice president Joe Biden. He has been effective at times. But the sum of Biden on the stage against his rivals has been underwhelming at best, disappointing to those who see him as the most capable of winning a general election.
His poll numbers are holding up, but he has failed to consolidate the advantages he brought into the race. He has been unable to quiet questions about his readiness as a candidate.
Into this vacuum has stepped Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). That she was the target for much of Tuesday’s debate was all anyone needed to know about how her standing is perceived by her rivals. For others working to win the nomination, she is the person to stop but also someone they see as having vulnerabilities to exploit.
Warren is a skilled and disciplined candidate, which is why she has risen while Biden has been static at best. She knows what she thinks and has a theory of how to get to the White House. Her agenda — which includes big, structural change — the cost and complexity of her proposed policies, and her unwillingness to say how it all adds up give many Democrats pause about her ability to win in November 2020.
There are other choices, obviously. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), unabashed in his democratic socialist agenda, has the support of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), three of the most liberal new members of Congress. Some polls show him beating Trump in key states, though many Democrats are skeptical.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is young and heartland-based, a candidate who speaks eloquently in debates, interviews and in question periods with voters. He enjoys support from those in the party who are white and well-educated, but not yet with other voters that past nominees have needed to win the nomination, particularly African Americans.
Biden, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg are four of the 18 candidates still in the race. Could someone farther down in the pack, someone who isn’t even qualifying for the debates, capture the nomination? It’s not out of the question and surprises are always a part of the pre-Iowa, pre-New Hampshire campaign season. The hope for all those who are being ignored is to build quietly in Iowa and New Hampshire and get hot when the weather is at its coldest.
One small measure of the restlessness among at least some Democrats was a Sept. 28 tweet by Oprah Winfrey, which includes a short video clip of her talking with Bob Iger, chief executive of Walt Disney Co.
“This is the man I wish was running for President of the USA,” she tweeted. In the video, she tells Iger that, if he were running, “I would be canvassing in Iowa right now. I would be going door-to-door … I wish … more than ever, every day, that you had done it.”
Put aside the question of whether Iger could win a Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency, or Winfrey’s skills as a political handicapper. Her enthusiasm for someone not even in the biggest field of candidates ever assembled speaks to the degree to which the declared candidates have yet to capture imaginations, despite high levels of intensity among voters.
Because these kinds of concerns have happened before, and with some regularity, there is no reason to overstate the problem. Once voters check in and contests are held and someone begins to win primaries and caucuses decisively or consistently, perceptions of their strengths will change.
But the campaign to date has produced questions that will demand answers. Can Biden step up and show something more than he has? Can Warren demonstrate that her proposals and campaign machine are enough to overcome reservations about her general election viability? Can a slipping Sanders rebound? Can Buttigieg or someone else who is less liberal than Warren or Sanders displace Biden?
Trump might look like a weakened candidate, but he will be a tenacious campaigner, willing to do anything he can to demonize and defeat his challenger. Democrats have many choices but are anxiously wondering which one of them will get the party to the White House in 2021.