I’ve been looking at lists of 2020 prospects for Democratic hopefuls to unseat Donald Trump in 2020 and getting flashbacks to pre-internet antiquity when those same Tussaud Museum pieces wagged animatronically from cathode-ray tube TV sets with a relevance as presumed then as it is now: John Kerry, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Michael Bloomberg, and of course Hillary Clinton.
The Democratic Party these days has a lot in common with Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader: it has a gift for self-destruction, even when handed victory. Clinton, Kerry and Biden all ran for president a combined five times between them, going back to 1988. It was a debacle every time.Thankfully that’s not the complete list. There are almost three dozen names being thrown around, some of them very appealing, with more to come. But we keep hearing a lot about those six. They’d never make it to a nomination, and if they did they’d never win. Meanwhile they’re cluttering up the field, making it more difficult for the next generation of Democrats–the less known, the better–to emerge. With self-centered saboteurs like that I’m not sure Donald Trump has much to worry about.
Their age is telling. Most of them will be closer to 80 than 70 on inauguration day, with an average age of 76. I’m all for people working as long as they like, but this is the presidency, and these candidates’ age reflects a has-been tiredness that makes the Democratic Party look like a collection of clinging holdovers who don’t realize they’ve had their time. The country is still trying to define itself in a new century, the events of 9/11 having hijacked its trajectory for a decade of loss and almost another decade of recovery before the Trump regression. The time that these six did have along the way is not exactly stellar.
The Democratic Party these days has a lot in common with Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader: it has a gift for self-destruction, even when handed victory. Clinton, Kerry and Biden all ran for president a combined five times between them, going back to 1988. It was a debacle every time, mostly because of their own errors. Kerry had no business losing against George W. Bush anymore than Clinton had against Trump, but both managed it brilliantly. Clinton thought it was enough to shine neon on Trump’s luridness, just as Kerry thought it was enough to sanctify his Vietnam War record. The condescension made even lunch pails wince.
There’s also the tendency to turn despair about reactionary immaturity into a marketing pitch. There’s a place for that sort of cultural criticism. It’s what university columns, sit-coms and overheated opinion columns are for. But campaign-trail focus on cultural and pandering issues like guns, religion, abortion and “values,” that all-purpose bait that can mean everything but really means nothing–that focus is a red herring and a trap. Since Pat Buchanan vomited that strategy in 1992 as the perpetual sequel to the race-baiting Southern Strategy, Republicans have loved to ambush Democrats on those counts because it makes them look elitist, like when Clinton calls cultural conservatives “deplorables” or Obama refers to them as clinging to their guns or religion.
Clinton and Obama weren’t wrong. Obama’s fuller statement is even more indisputable now, with a president incarnating the statement with every tweet, than it was when Obama made it in 2008: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” But Obama quickly learned what Clinton didn’t: these statements get us nowhere if they divert from the more relevant issues that do matter even to the clingers and the deplorables: economic security, decent health care, humane immigration.
Of course Democrats talk jobs, the promise of a green economy, the evils of inequality. But after so many decades in power, even liberals like Bernie Sanders sound as if they speak on behalf of the middle or working class rather than as being of it. They’re no longer believable, speaking in white papers and cliches, turning those classes into pliant monolith, sentimentalizing them rather than reflecting their concerns. (The historian Barbara Tuchman described English intellectuals doing the exact same thing with their working class at the turn of the last century, on the way to socialism’s demise there.)
Republican candidates don’t bother with everyday concerns. They skirt the problem by pandering to cultural issues: anyone can wrap himself in the flag, anyone can talk guns god and babies, not mean a word of it but still sound like Winston Churchill talking about defending the beaches of Dover. It’s all generalities and propaganda, not something you can ask the Congressional Budget Office to analyze, and it saves you the trouble of having a governing plan. If it worked for Trump–the country is more adrift than it was under Andrew Johnson–it’s because Democrats didn’t come up with a convincing alternative.
The ancient Democrats still aren’t getting it. The other day Clinton was in Europe sounding like a born-again reactionary about immigrants and refugees. What she told Europeans could have been an endorsement of Trump’s wall: stop taking in migrants. Biden’s popularity is high, but that’s mostly nostalgia for the Obama years. It’s not about Biden himself. Now he’s hesitating about a run the way he did before 2016, playing the coquet the way Mario Cuomo did about running for president in 1988 and 92 or accepting a nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993. (Thankfully, Clinton ended up going with his seventh choice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg).
Early lists of candidates are deceptive. The stronger candidates often emerge unexpectedly, though social media and the 24-hour news cycle have pretty much ended the age of the unexpected. Beyond Democrats’ Methuselahs, we hear names like Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, Texas’s Beto O’Rourke and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Julian Castro and Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe aside, the list is short on leaders who’ve actually run governments and long on the seductions of charisma, that desire for an Obama-like knight to save Democrats–from themselves as much as from Trump. That too is not necessarily encouraging. We can all use a few years of dull, grunt-like leadership to save democracy. Replacing one cult with another won’t do it.
If even these younger, interesting names tell us anything so far it’s that Democrats don’t know what else to do beyond getting rid of Trump. That’s no small thing, but it isn’t enough, and it won’t carry a candidate to victory. It certainly didn’t in 2016. Taking back the House is an indication of broad dissatisfaction with Trump (as opposed to the Trump administration, which does not exist: it’s a court of sycophants), and it was no small achievement considering the gerrymandering and voter suppression Democrats had to overcome.
But 2020 candidates have yet to develop a coherent message that makes Trump irrelevant not because of his failings, which were no secret even in 2016, but because Democrats have something better, urgent and essential to offer. It’s not as if, from health care to inequality to affordable education to climate change to immigration–yes, even immigration, Democrats–we’re lacking in crises begging for solutions. So far, they’ve not making the case.