It should not be difficult for Democrats to defeat President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes. His overall approval rating has never ― not for one day ― eclipsed 50 percent. His main political tactic, scapegoating immigrants, doesn’t work very well. After making the 2018 midterms a referendum on a migrant caravan, Trump ended up ceding 41 House seats to the Democratic Party ― the worst result for Republicans since 1974.
But if anybody can screw this thing up, it’s the leadership of the modern Democratic Party. They did, after all, manage to lose to this guy three years ago.
And one troubling sign is the dangerous new orthodoxy that seems to be hardening in Washington, in which Democrats are forbidden from criticizing other Democrats to avoid empowering Trump ahead of the election. It’s fine to debate policy, this thinking goes, but it’s not OK to criticize governing records, question priorities or impugn motivations. Any hint of intra-party infighting, it’s argued, would only weaken the eventual 2020 nominee.
Jared Bernstein, who served as chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, made the case succinctly in The Washington Post last week: Since Democrats are really all on the same page about everything important, they should stick to arguments over policy solutions. Voters will eventually decide whether they prefer “incrementalism” or “leapfrogging,” but on everything serious ― health care, climate, jobs and taxes ― Bernstein claimed that “you would need a high-powered electron microscope to see the difference among the Democrats.”
Somebody should get Bernstein to an eye doctor. The differences between former Maryland Rep. John Delaney’s agenda and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s platform are stark and obvious. But even if Bernstein were right about Democratic policy uniformity, he has the 2020 dynamic all wrong. The most critical issues facing 2020 voters aren’t really about dialing in the right policy solutions; they’re fundamental questions about power and accountability in American democracy.
Given Trump’s weakness, the only way Democrats are going to lose in 2020 is by failing to nominate a credible change agent. The key word there is “credible,” and the way candidates establish credibility with voters is by developing a governing record. The stuff Democratic candidates have actually done when they’ve had the opportunity to exercise power matters at least as much as what they promise in their white papers. It’s not just fair game to attack their records; it’s an essential part of the vetting process.
But the truth is, even a bad candidate with a lousy record still stands a pretty good chance of beating Trump in 2020. He’s just really, really unpopular. In January, he was underwater with even his core demographic, white working-class voters. His signature policy proposal, a border wall, hasn’t cleared 40 percent approval since January 2017. On the stuff that actually matters for voters who might be on the fence next year ― the opioid epidemic, the collapse of rural communities, the skyrocketing cost of urban living ― Trump has done nothing.
So now is a very good time for the Democratic Party to hash out some of its very real differences ― over reforming democratic accountability in the American political system, eliminating corruption within the Democratic Party’s power structure, and yes, discussing who has the credibility with voters to tackle both. There’s no way to do that without scrutinizing the character and motivations of the party’s 2020 candidates.
Whatever Democrats put in their policy papers should really be considered a secondary problem behind this basic test: Are they actually willing to exercise power? Do they have any record of challenging entrenched power? For plenty of Democrats, some of whom may well have pure hearts and pristine motives, the answer to both questions is no.
Power matters. Whether you want a carbon tax or a Green New Deal, you aren’t going to see your preferred policy enacted if the Supreme Court remains limited to its nine justices. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would rather let the planet burn than willingly cede to Democrats a single legislative victory. So you’ll have to reform the way the Senate works, too. At minimum, that means abolishing the filibuster and letting the people of Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico actually have senators.
The United States is a corrupt oligarchy administered by a decadent aristocracy. The parade of outrages from top Trump administration officials has made this fact impossible for Democrats to ignore. But the trouble did not begin on Jan. 21, 2017. The Democratic Party itself has been much too cozy with corporate power for decades.
In 2008, President-elect Barack Obama tapped a Citigroup executive to pick top Cabinet officials and staffers for his administration, which subsequently refused to prosecute white-collar crime. Citigroup received more federal bailout help than any other faltering megabank. This wasn’t a one-time lapse of judgment. Obama spent election night 2012 huddled with Google billionaire Eric Schmidt, even as the Federal Trade Commission was investigating the search giant for potential antitrust violations. The FTC ultimately let Google off the hook ― a decision that looks increasingly suspect as European regulators continue to hit the company with a cascade of fines.
The word for this style of governance is corruption. It should be intolerable to a party that calls itself Democratic.
The good news is, 2020 Democratic candidates are starting to take steps that acknowledge problems with the party’s historical role in coddling corruption. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have all sworn off corporate PAC money in their 2020 campaigns. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has gone further, vowing not to host any high-end fundraisers whatsoever in the primary.
But Democrats don’t all agree on whether or how to fight corruption in their ranks, and there’s no avoiding questions of integrity when discussing it. Nor should there be. These are politicians we’re talking about ― the idea that Republicans have a monopoly on all the seedy operators is naive. Voters deserve to have that debate.