More Presidential questions for the Democrats
February 13, 2019 · 9:12 AM EST
In my last column, I raised three questions Democrats need to answer about the kind of nominee they want in 2020. Do they want an insurgent outsider, do they need someone with experience and must they have a woman and/or African-American on the ticket? In this column, I look at three other questions Democrats need to address.
Does likability matter?
One person’s idea of “likable” undoubtedly is very different from another’s, so it’s wise to be cautious when trying to generalize about likability in politics.
I have a problem with people who are arrogant and smug, while I tend to prefer those who are personable, down to earth, funny and even-keeled.
Personally, I’ve found Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to be intense and angry, two traits I don’t associate with likability. (Yes, I know. He’s passionate because he wants to save the country.)
The same goes for Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Both men strike me as gruff, in part because they don’t smile much.
Of course, they may come across much differently when they are with friends and family and not discussing politics.
In my view, Elizabeth Warren comes across like a schoolmarm. Again, not someone I’d want to have a beer with — in spite of her “Hold on a sec, I’m gonna get me a beer” comment.
I haven’t seen that much of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, but he seems more intense, less likable.
On the other hand, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York seem likable to me — easy to talk to, down to earth, personable and relaxed.
I’d put former Vice President Joe Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and California Sen. Kamala Harris into the same category.
But those are just my views.
Each reader will have his or her own opinions. And many Democrats will focus on ideology, not likability.
Many will find candidates they agree with as being likable, and those they don’t agree with as unlikable.
Still, it’s hard to deny that politicians like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan benefited from their personable style and appeal.
Does the Democratic nominee need to out-Trump Trump?
President Donald Trump is going to run a brutal re-election campaign. He’ll attack again and again, belittling and besmirching his opponent.
Not everyone will be able to stand up to Trump’s attacks, or peel off some Trump voters, thereby changing the election’s equation.
If Democrats want someone who can bring back swing voters and white working-class voters, they’ll have options.
Biden certainly has shown strength in the past with blue-collar voters.
Hickenlooper, a businessman-turned-politician, might appeal to some upscale, suburban swing voters.
But if Democrats are looking to someone with a message and style that could give particular trouble to Trump, the obvious answer could be Brown.
The Ohio senator is an aggressive campaigner, to put the kindest spin on his reputation.
His position on trade and his emphasis on economic fairness has made him a favorite of organized labor and working-class voters who distrust corporate America.
His economic populism would undoubtedly appeal to some Trump voters, and he’d certainly have a chance of carrying Ohio in the general election.
Trump won 52.1 percent of the vote in the Buckeye State in 2016, with a victory margin of 8.6 points. Brown received 53.4 percent of the vote last year, winning re-election by 6.8 points.
But Brown has his liabilities, of course. Would women and non-whites get excited about him? And would suburbanites find his populism and style appealing?
Turn to the left or to the center?
For many Democrats and those in the media, the question of electability invariably leads to another: Does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters, moderates and suburbanites, or does the party need to energize core party constituencies, thereby getting enthusiastic support from progressives, blacks, Hispanics and younger voters?
Each time I’ve been asked this question over the years, I’ve given the same answer: “Yes.”
Both parties need party loyalists and swing voters, ideologues and pragmatists.
Even against a polarizing incumbent Republican president with limited appeal, the 2020 Democratic nominee may need to outperform Hillary Clinton among progressives, minority voters and white suburban swing voters to win the White House.
Of course, appealing to very disparate elements of one party isn’t easy to do.
Nominate someone too far to the left in order to energize progressives, and that candidate risks losing those suburban voters who were so important to the party in 2018.
Pick a nominee regarded as measured and moderate, a true pragmatist, and that person could perform well in the suburbs but lose enthusiasm among progressive and younger voters, who are demanding change and a new agenda.
There is a way to bridge this gap, of course.
Bill Clinton already did it.
But it requires a skilled politician who can show empathy, pragmatism, a commitment to progressive principles and an openness to new ideas and solutions, all at the same time.
Can Harris do that? Klobuchar? Biden? Others?
As Democratic activists and voters select their favorites, they will be looking at all these and other questions.
But not all their answers will be of equal value.
Some Democrats may prefer a fresh face but will end up supporting Biden, making their decision on other considerations.
Or, they may prefer a progressive who plays to the base, yet opt to vote for Klobuchar or Harris, again for other reasons.
So the key question is not necessarily who Democratic voters like now, but what characteristics and qualities they will be looking for in February and March of 2020 — and how they prioritize their many preferences.
For some, the most important question may be a very simple one: Who is most likely to defeat Donald Trump?