Democrats’ dilemmas as they look for a candidate to beat Trump
Those who observe US politics cannot help but be left with the impression that this is a country constantly in the process of selecting and electing candidates for an array of official positions. Starting with the president, through to Congress, governors, state legislatures, judges and even school superintendents, all must undergo the grueling process of submitting themselves to their electorate.
It is supposed to be a celebration of democracy, keeping officials accountable and constantly on their toes. Naturally, most attention is given to electing whoever will hold the most powerful position in the country, perhaps even the world — that of president. While for the Republican Party it seems certain, unless circumstances change, that the incumbent Donald Trump will run for a second term, the Democrats have embarked on the long and exhausting process of selecting their nominee to challenge him in 2020. Despite the drawn-out, demanding and increasingly costly journey on the way to nomination, 18 candidates have already set off on it.
Six of these candidates, although already campaigning, have yet to declare officially that they are running, and it is they who appear to be the current front runners. Among them are some familiar faces, such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, while others with a lower public profile include Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg. The list leaves the primaries and caucuses with a choice between the more and the less experienced, the more progressive compared to the centrist, and the fresher face versus the tried and tested politician.
The two-and-a-half years since Trump took office have been, to put it mildly, unusual. The publication of the Mueller Report on irregularities in the 2016 election, including Russian interference in support of the current president, will be very much on the minds of those would-be Democrat nominees. However, nothing would be more harmful to the Democrats’ chances of victory than for them to re-run the previous election. They must learn from the painful, demoralizing and almost inconceivable result of the 2016 process, because to rehash it would be an exercise in futility and self-destruction.
For too long after that election, Democrats clung to the fact that Hillary Clinton won most votes — 3 million more than Trump in fact. But, in an Electoral College system, they should instead concentrate on winning support in those places that are crucial to gaining a majority of delegates. Their problem is not dissimilar to that of other parties that support social democratic ideas (though in US terms this is a somewhat loose use of the term), in that the voters who might benefit most from such an approach in fact support right-wing populism. It is a tragic irony that, in 2016, Clinton was regarded as more of an establishment figure than her billionaire rival Trump.
Democrats must learn from the painful, demoralizing and almost inconceivable result of the 2016 process
In the peculiar US political system, the party that loses the presidential election remains without a clear and official leader until it nominates its candidate to run against the incumbent. For the first two years of the Trump administration, Democrats lived with a strong sense that the presidency had been snatched from their jaws by someone they not only disliked immensely for his policies, but also despised personally. To make things worse, they were also a minority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Regaining the House in last October’s mid-term elections raised morale and made them confident that, with the right candidate, they could also go on to win the presidency. After all, by the time Trump’s present administration comes to an end, the country will be even more divided on crucial issues such as immigration, gun control, climate change, trade wars, Medicare… the list goes on and on.
What Democrats should refrain from is the wholly unsubstantiated belief that the bizarre way the country is being run under Trump will do the job for them. This kind of complacency, mixed with arrogance, played a major part in losing the previous election. As long as the economy is doing well and there are enough voters out there who align themselves with his over-simplistic notion of “America First,” which is both confrontational and isolationist at the same time, Trump, reflecting a disturbing global trend, may well win again.
The Democrat nominee will not be able to rely on the findings of the Mueller Report, or any other legal or moral misdemeanors the president and his circle are shown to be involved in, to hand them an automatic victory. The American voters see Trump’s behavior mainly as disruption rather than corruption, and not as a firing offense. It is for the Democrats to challenge Trump on policy issues alone, and to make it clear to the electorate that there is a way to put America first without unnecessary confrontation with other countries; instead leading the world in confronting issues such as climate change, arms reduction, and advancing the cause of human rights.
It is for the Democratic Party to nominate someone capable of connecting with enough Americans who have been marginalized socially and economically by global and domestic trends and whose values have been scorned and even ridiculed. They will then have to convince these people that there is a way for the US to be at the heart of world affairs and liberal democratic discourse, and to fight with great conviction against nationalism and nativism — not as a charity act for the world, but because this is what puts America first.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelber