Progressives, centrists and those inbetween are vying for the top spot in the Democratic Party in 2020.
The presidential election of 2016 was a disastrous moment for the Democratic Party, which is honestly the most objective thing I’ve ever written. It likely felt to older Democrats like the mishaps of George McGovern’s 1972 run at the White House or Al Gore’s near miss in 2000. One of the largest factors contributing to that sense of mayhem was the rift in the party between what came to be known as the Clinton and Sanders wings. But that rift is much bigger than any two individuals, and though it was only one in a thousand reasons that Donald Trump won the presidency, Democrats exited the election cycle with the future of the party in almost total flux. Well, it’s 2019 now, and the time for a choice has come along with (and I know this has been said every four years since 1788) the most important election in any of our lifetimes.
The 2020 Democratic Primary will basically last from now until early summer 2020. That means that over the next year and a few months, the candidates will rehash and redraw the fissures in the party that the 2016 primary brought into the limelight. This might be a long, painful and often arbitrary process, but it is necessary. The Democrats need to know who they are before they enter the 2020 general election, and rehashing 2016 will have to be done for success in 2020 to become a realistic goal.
Let’s do this one last time. For all intents and purposes, the 2016 election featured two Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. As previously mentioned, the two politicians represent two contrasting strands of American liberalism.
Clinton embodies the Party’s pragmatic shift to the middle at the onset of the Reagan Revolution. Often branded a neoliberal, Clinton received criticism from Sanders on her watered down policies that often seemed to merely placate the progressive wing of the party.
Sanders, on the other hand, is the leader of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing despite not being a Democrat. Sanders was and is willing to address structural economic inequality more than any candidate in 2016 or 2020, but his focus on this issue is so single-minded that he often fails to see the ways in which other factors like race play into economics (and all parts of American politics for that matter).
In 2020, every candidate will try to either inherit or co-opt the same ideological strains that Clinton rode to the nomination and Sanders used to gain prominence on a national scale. Due to this scramble, the major candidates in 2020 all roughly fit into three major groups: the centrists who see beating Trump as the paramount goal in 2020, progressives who want to recapture the public popularity of Bernie and those who want to try and walk the line between the two ends of the party.
The major centrists include Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand and Joe Biden (should he decide to run) and all have in their careers and early campaigns laid out a political philosophy smack dab in the middle of American politics. Klobuchar called Medicare for all an idea “that could work in the future” and has touted both her pragmatism and rural electability as reasons that voters should choose her in the primaries. Gillibrand, though running from the centrist label, has held various conservative views in the past, especially on immigration. Biden, though yet to announce that he is running, is Clinton’s ideological successor in that he will attempt to remind Americans just how much they loved the Obama years as his primary strategy for unseating Trump. All of these candidates have major flaws, and though each might win over moderate voters who are unlikely to reelect Trump, they would also fail to energize progressive voters and ultimately lose without even standing for many left-of-center stances.
The progressive candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, though seemingly more genuine than the centrists, will also likely fail in a general election against the colluder-in-chief. For the most part, this group is just Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It should seem counterintuitive that anyone other than Bernie could win over his supporters if he is in the primary, but the idea of alleged unelectability might finally catch up to him, especially if Elizabeth Warren runs an exciting campaign. Warren is the most bone fide progressive candidate in the primary, and her criticism of the Senate filibuster shows an awareness of both liberal policy goals and the means necessary to achieve them. The biggest roadblock for Warren in the general election is both the misogyny of the American electorate as well as the racist attacks leveled at her already by the president.
The final group who will play a major role in the Democratic primary are the candidates who do not fit neatly into either a progressive or central camp. These candidates might be the proof that there is some chance of mending the rift in the party. Candidates like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are the two best examples of this hybrid group. Both have had ties to less than progressive groups in the past or backed policies that failed to address or worsened inequality, but both are far from the centrists in the party. The fact that these two candidates are the Democratic party’s most prominent black politicians matters here as well. Their race and background give them a better perspective to understand many of the inequalities in our country, but any lurch toward the left would result in them being branded as radicals on race even when they aren’t (a lot like Obama). Where the other groups look doomed for failure, Harris or Booker could provide a way for the Democratic party to bridge both the ideological gap internally while still energizing the liberal base in time for the general election.