They have been asked before, but as the 116th Congress prepares to take power and as an indeterminate number of people are making decisions about running for president in 2020, these questions are more pertinent than ever: Who will speak for the Democrats and what will he or she have to say?
There is no shortage of voices or of messages in the aftermath of last month’s midterm elections. The challenge for the Democrats will be to produce someone whose voice ultimately rises above the others with a message that unifies a fractious party and, more importantly, offers some hope of the beginning of breaking down divisions in a truly divided country.
The question about the message comes in several parts. One part is the substance, in the bold strokes that many messages have lacked and in the fine details that mark proposals as credible and doable. Many Democrats argue they are not that divided on issues, that their differences are overstated by their Republican opponents and by the news media.
Perhaps that will prove to be the case. Perhaps elected Democrats will find their substantive equilibrium and consensus without rancor. Perhaps they will land on the center-left rather than the far-left, as some establishment Democrats say, though that center-left position will be more liberal by a considerable margin than what it was the last time the Democrats won the White House.
Whether that consensus finds popularity and enthusiasm among progressive grass roots is part of the test that is coming. If the past few years have shown anything, it is that politics is played within party organizations and outside of them. Many grass-roots progressives who are not comfortable exercising their political instincts inside the party will be looking to see where the newly empowered congressional Democrats and presidential hopefuls come down.
Another part, and just as important, is how to deal with President Trump, rhetorically and stylistically, at a time when presidential politics in particular is about personality, celebrity and other intangibles.
Do Democrats want a fighter who will take on the president as directly as he has taken on all of his opponents and critics? Do they want a guerrilla warrior who can get under the president’s skin without engaging in a constant Twitter war with Trump? Or do they want a conciliator who lets Trump be Trump and seeks an aspirational and affirmative message, at the risk of being pummeled by a president who has shown the ability to diminish every rival who has come at him?
In a few months, the Democratic Party’s leading voice will be Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who is on track to return as House speaker, presuming she gets over one last hurdle when the House picks its leaders in January. Assuming she becomes speaker, she will be front and center nationally because the energy in the party will be lodged in the Democratic majority in the House.
Pelosi can be viewed in two ways. She is a party leader whose favorability among the American people is netted negative, as polarizing nationally as she is skilled as an inside player. Second, she is someone who was the target of millions of dollars in negative ads during the midterm election that appeared to have almost no impact on the overall outcome. Republicans sought to defeat Democratic challengers by demonizing Pelosi, and it didn’t work.
Pelosi, however, won’t be the only voice among House Democrats. There will be new committee chairs to be heard from, with big platforms from which to make news and define their party. They can elevate the party, or they can embarrass it.
Beyond those elected Democrats in Congress with seniority and power, the new Class of 2018 is big, diverse, robust and probably a new force. The newly elected Democrats are beginning to decide where to focus their collective energies, but they are determined to make their mark on the House, the party and the country.
Within that class, there are progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who has clear substantive priorities that may not mesh with the leadership. She is skilled in social media and already has shown an ability to draw attention to progressive messages and causes. Ocasio-Cortez’s voice, and that of some of her colleagues, excite and resonate with the progressive activists around the country who are eager to move the party further left and who are hungry to embrace a new generation of Democratic leaders.
Democrats had a big election victory last month, bigger than some people anticipated and bigger than appeared to be the case on election night. They won in no small part because Trump energized so many voters, especially women in suburban districts, who woke up surprised, distraught and depressed after the 2016 election and decided to come off the sidelines and get involved more directly and actively.
They also won, many of them say, because House candidates focused on health care — particularly the issue of preexisting conditions, an issue that left Republican incumbents vulnerable because of their repeated but unsuccessful efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — and on political reform; both issues are high on Democrats’ agenda for the next Congress. But lacking control of the Senate and the Oval Office, Democrats do not have the power to turn those ideas into law.
For a time, the new Democratic-controlled House will define the party. But the legislative branch has rarely been the best platform for producing a clear and consistent message for a party.
Soon the Democratic presidential contenders will begin to step forward, and they will compete with the party’s congressional wing for attention. The field will be large, though in the end perhaps not quite as large as some of the handicapping lists might suggest. Notable last week was the announcement by two Democrats on those lists that they would not be running.
One was Michael Avenatti, the attorney who represents adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and who caught the attention of some grass-roots Democrats when he suggested he might run as the brawler who would go blow for blow with Trump. The other was someone whose style is the antithesis, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, whose approach has been low key and uplifting.
If Democrats want a fighter like Avenatti, there will be others to choose. If they want someone like Patrick, there will be others of that mold. If they want age and experience, they will have it. If they want youth and perhaps inexperience, they will have that, too. If they want someone of color, they will have choices. If they want a woman as their nominee, they will have choices.
So there will be lots of choices, and what will separate the candidates one from another will not only be how much money they have, but also how skillfully they develop a message than can excite their party’s activists and also be credible and attractive for the general election. The question is: What is the message they want for the summer and fall 2020, not what is the message that sounds good in January and February 2019?
What might seem like easy choices will be anything but, as the candidates weigh appeals to specific constituencies — who will have competing priorities — while plotting a path to an electoral college majority, not just a popular vote victory.
Many would like to believe this is relatively straightforward, that they can be all things to all voters, that they can easily bridge the progressive activist base centered on the coasts or in the big cities with other voters in other places. The reality could be far different.