First Things First

by John Lawrence

In my first post-election DOMEocracy blog, I counseled anxious Democrats to “take a deep breath” and not overreact to the results. Nowhere is that advice more appropriate than in pausing before promoting presidential contenders for 2020.

Evidently, the editors at “The Hill” have a different perspective. Nearly a month before Donald Trump has even taken the oath of office, “The Hill” is speculating about his 2020 Democratic opponent, and in doing so, the newspaper has identified exactly why such an exercise is so ill-conceived. What we need is 20-20 vision about Party priorities, not an obsession with a 2020 nominee we cannot possibly predict.

“The Hill” identifies the “top 15 Democratic presidential candidates for 2020,” a list that is not only implausible but unlikely to contain whoever will emerge to lead the ticket. Hopefully, Democrats will waste less time on such far-fetched guessing games and more time fine-tuning the points of attack against Trump’s unsuitable “Team of Tycoons” who are qualified only to undermine the very agencies they have incomprehensibly been selected to manage.

Certainly, four of the prospective candidates can be safely crossed off the list. Michelle Obama has been a groundbreaking First Lady and is a highly effective speaker, but she undoubtedly has 100 higher priorities than plunging into politics. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden deserve tributes to their long careers articulating traditional (and still sound) Democratic themes, but neither septuagenarian is running for national office in 2020. Hillary Clinton may still have a great deal to do, but running for president a third time is certainly not one of them.

Elizabeth Warren has quickly emerged as a forceful and effective Trump critic, and her star is likely to rise as she sharpens her rhetorical knife for the upcoming confirmation hearings. Warren’s well-honed critique of Wall Street and Trump’s plutocratic resumé might well have produced a dramatically different outcome in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where Clinton’s empathy for working class whites proved ineffective. But Warren will be 71 in 2020 and while admirably combative, is not emblematic of the “new generation of leadership” many believe is needed to attract millennials and other young voters.

In the wake of the fragmentation of the Obama coalition in 2016, many question if Democrats can win a national election without a woman or minority on the ticket, a perspective that undoubtedly leads “The Hill” to place Sen. Cory Booker (NJ), Gov. Deval Patrick (MA), and Oprah Winfrey on the list. Winfrey is not running for anything. Patrick has had a reasonably successful two-term tenure as governor, but projects little of the magnetism expected of a presidential contender; also, a Harvard-educated governor of Massachusetts hardly sends a message of non-coastal diversity sought by many alienated Democratic voters. Booker remains largely untested in national politics, and his record as mayor of Newark has been the subject of skepticism. But Booker, who as mayor once ran into a burning building to rescue a constituent, has the panache of a prospective president and a willingness to self-promote that in and of itself suggests he should be watched.

Building a career in the vote-heavy Congress -– historically a weak presidential launching pad — is a current preoccupation of several of the remaining long-shots on “The Hill’s” list of potential candidates. Surely, attention will fall on Tim Kaine (VA) whose performance on this year’s campaign trail seemed underwhelming, marking him as better suited for a vice presidential nomination rather than the top of the ticket. Still, a successful, Spanish-speaking Democratic senator from swing-state Virginia (Kaine or his colleague, Mark Warner, who did not make “The Hill’s” list) cannot be dismissed.

Sen. Chris Murphy (VT) has struggled to find his balance after moving over from the House. His major issue – gun control – seems unlikely to serve as an effective rallying cry for a national campaign; indeed, Hillary Clinton’s emphasis on the issue, however meritorious, likely did little to enhance her appeal to the white working class. Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) have both been mentioned as future candidates, but may find it difficult to generate greater profile or achievement in the minority. Their performance in the confirmation processes may prove critical in generating greater interest from the press or attention from funders.

The inclusion of the widely anticipated, multi-ethnic, Sen.-elect Kamala Harris (CA) on a list at this point seems fanciful (although Barack Obama, it will be remembered, became the nominee after just four years in the Senate). Harris will face the formidable tasks of learning the ropes of the Congress, building national recognition, achieving something of substance in the minority, and fending off those who will be anxious to ensure she does not prematurely eclipse their own aspirations.

The last names on The Hill’s list are soon-to-be-former governors of important states – Andrew Cuomo (NY) and John Hickenlooper (CO). Both have the executive experience valuable to a president, and neither has the long voting record of legislators that often proves perilous to candidates seeking to move to the national stage. But Cuomo is a notoriously difficult personality who seems to generate little affection among those who know him best. Hickenlooper was twice narrowly elected in Colorado although he was previously a popular mayor of Denver, but he has no national profile and like Gillibrand, he may possess serious vulnerability over his support for gun control, an issue that roiled Colorado’s Democrats in 2013.

It may appear that I am simply pouring cold water on the most likely Democratic candidates, but that is not my intention. Rather, I want to make three points:

First, it is premature to think about 2020 candidates. We have no idea of Trump’s greatest vulnerabilities, or if he will even be the Republican candidate. Second, we should not vest overdue significance in identifying the “white knight” to lead Democrats out of the wilderness. The key steps in the months ahead are likely to be taken by a collection of people – in the Senate, the House, the state houses, the incoming DNC chair – and it is foolish to create expectations and launch campaigns when so little is known about what will be required to achieve victory in 2020.

Lastly, Democrats should not be distracted by presidential speculation and ignore the essential 2018 off-year elections that present both opportunity (in governorships) and jeopardy (in the Senate, because of the large number of incumbent seats to defend). As argued in earlier DOMEocracy posts, building the Party’s strength does not begin with picking a presidential candidate, but in building the Party’s foundation, winning back key gubernatorial and legislative seats that will dramatically impact the reapportionment process for the 2020’s, and allow Democrats to demonstrate the workability of progressive policies –- and the skills of potential presidential candidates – in running state governments which will serve as crucial prototypes over the next few years.