Forty-seven percent. That’s the proportion of polled Americans, according to Nate Silver, who do not disapprove of President Donald Trump’s performance. Yes, I just committed a cardinal sin of emphasizing a double negative. But just think about what that first sentence signifies. If after 25 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, you don’t disapprove of it, the high likelihood is that you’d consider supporting him in 2020. President Trump has had one humiliating defeat after another – including most recently a 35 day Government Shutdown with nothing to show for it – yet he’s still at 47% in the “I don’t disapprove” category. And that doesn’t even account for the “guilty secret pleasure” theory that many people may be afraid to admit to pollsters that they like Trump but will nevertheless check his name in the privacy of their own voting booth. If Democrats aren’t scared, they should be.
As was demonstrated in 2016, you don’t have to approve of a candidate in order to vote for them. You can simply disapprove of the opponent more. That is why a Presidential campaign is often a war of attrition, and no institution is better at destroying the good name of its opponents than the Republicans. They couldn’t destroy the candidacies of the Democrats’ two political superstars of the past forty years – Obama and Bill Clinton – but damned if they haven’t succeeded against literally every other Democratic nominee. Just consider the facts.
The GOP turned rock-solid Walter Mondale into a dour “Eat Your Peas’ Democrat,” and he lost every state but his own. Next, they took on the architect of the so-called “Massachusetts Miracle,” Michael Dukakis, and they Willie Hortoned him into oblivion. (I especially appreciate seeing a photo of the man in a tank, which the Republicans quickly used to make Governor Dukakis look like an even more absurd version of the Great Gazoo from the Flintstones.) Then, after Bill Clinton’s two terms, the Democrats served up future Nobel Peace Prize Winner Al Gore. He could have dramatically changed world history by doing battle with climate change. Instead, the Republicans ridiculed him as “AlGore” the fraudulent robot who took credit for other people’s work. When the laughter was over, Gore couldn’t even carry his own state. In 2004, the Dems ran a real war hero, John Kerry, against a chicken hawk who got us into an endless debacle in Iraq based on false intelligence. So what did the GOP do? They “Swift Boated” the war hero, successfully lampooned him as an effete, blue-blooded wind-surfer, and gave their own candidate the popular vote victory he lacked the first time. Finally, after two terms of Obama, we witnessed the circus known as the Presidential Campaign of 2016. That’s when everyone was treated with an endless dose of references to “Crooked Hillary” and chants of “Lock Her Up.” No, President Trump didn’t win the popular vote; he lost it by millions. But damned if he didn’t take the Electoral College by 74 votes. In baseball, the only thing that really matters are runs scored, not base runners; in Presidential Politics, the game is all about Electoral College votes, and Donald Trump won over 300 of them. He is not to be taken lightly as a candidate in 2020.
Democrats, in short, need to ensure that they don’t repeat the big mistake of 2016 and get cocky about their chances. The nominee can hardly expect a walk in the park in the fall of 2020. And we, as voters, must be aware that some nominees lose their electability because they’re viewed either as overly leftist (and hence unable to compete for the “Reagan Democrats” who showed up for Clinton and Obama) or overly centrist or corporatist (and hence, like Hillary, unappealing to those progressives who consider voting for the Green Party or simply sitting out elections).
So what we do? My current thinking is that we aim for the sweet spot. Find a person who will appeal to the progressive wing of the party, which is where the enthusiasm is centered, but won’t easily be dismissed as a socialist. Find a person who is a preacher of profound transformational reforms (not a Senator pothole) but doesn’t come across as a pie-in-the-sky idealist or a pander-to-the-progressives phony. And most importantly, find someone who is charismatic enough that s/he can survive the inevitable attacks when they do come. (Contrast Reagan and Obama, who were made of Teflon when it comes to attacks, to Dukakis and Kerry, who were made of Velcro.)
Truly, it’s impossible for a Democrat to appeal to everyone. It’s also impossible to avoid political gaffes or to have the requisite experience for this job without having taken regrettable positions in the past. So, in talking about the “sweet spot,” let’s not worry about finding perfection, because we won’t even come close to that. Let’s just look at the matter viscerally. Who does your gut tell you would make the most effective leader for our time? Who seems to have the charisma to appeal to a wide audience within the party, and won’t be as much of a laughing stock outside of it? Who is hardest to demonize? Who is easiest to like? Who is most likely to get stuff done – big stuff.
For me, I find myself asking the following: who has the potential to inspire a movement to: (a) elect the kind of Democratic majority Obama had in 2009 (which makes everything else I’m going to talk about more possible), (b) fight climate change in a huge way and not just tinker around with it, (c) bring back the level of economic equity we had before Reagan upset the apple cart, and (d) get some common sense gun laws so that we all can feel like we’re living in a sane country.
When I think about these issues at this point in time, I see Kirsten Gillibrand and Corey Booker and I don’t notice anyone talking about them; it’s as if they’re not even running. I see Amy Klobuchar doing a nice job of being inoffensive to swing voters, but I don’t see her thinking big enough to inspire the base. I look at a pair of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and feel confident that they will take on the above causes in a sweeping away. But when I think about Kamala Harris, I think that not only will she fight hard for those same causes, but she might be more effective in doing so – and she’ll wear far more Teflon in the process. So far, at least, I think her ability to communicate stands alone. She is charismatic and figures to be likeable to pretty much everyone other than the most sexist and racist among us. She comes across on the campaign trail as intense yet joyous. She’s smart and thinks well on her feet. And, if elected, she would be both the first woman and first woman of color ever to win the Presidency. Just from a sheer ethnicity standpoint, she would appeal to African Americans, East Indian Americans and, through her husband, Jewish Americans. Oh sure, there’s plenty of time for her to put her foot in her mouth. In fact, she’s already done that up to a point with her non-nuanced comments on universal health care. Yet you can fix that problem with a bit of coaching. You can’t coach charisma and widespread appeal – or at least not successfully. Harris, from all appearances, is a natural.
During the upcoming months, Donald Trump will surely have his good weeks and his awful weeks. He’ll be counted out many times, just like everyone counted him out in 2016. Some folks simply assume he’ll be impeached and convicted; others figure he won’t bother to run again. Me? I’m assuming he’ll be a willing and “electable” candidate no matter who he faces. But right now, relative to previous election cycles, I’m liking the list of contenders on the Democratic side, and I’m especially liking the rollout of Kamala Harris. So, while I don’t plan on being cocky, I look forward to next fall’s battle royale without any fear. The stable of talented Democrats is large enough and the lessons of 2016 vivid enough that I expect my party to be ready to fight a smart campaign led by an excellent candidate. Maybe in 10 years we’ll be talking about a third political genius that the party has given us in recent decades – and this time, maybe the “genius” won’t simply be great at campaigning or triangulating but will actually implement profound progressive changes in our society and our world. Think big. I am.