This is a dark time for thoughtful Democrats. In the wake of Bernie Sanders’ victory in Nevada, he has emerged as the undeniable front-runner for the party’s nomination, and the chaotic Democratic debate in Las Vegas, in which Michael Bloomberg fell flat, only heightened the anxiety that there is no effective challenger to the left wing of the party as represented by Sanders and Warren. Buttigieg, for all his canned eloquence, is too young and too blatantly opportunistic. Klobuchar is too parochial. Biden is too old, too tone-deaf, and too vulnerable to Trump’s Ukrainian calumny. And Bloomberg has shown himself to be, well, Bloomberg; arrogantly under-prepared, as prone to verbal gaffes as Biden, and likely to be dogged by his NDAs and his checkered record as mayor of Eastern Elite Central.
A dark time. For despite the entertainment value of watching Bernie and Elizabeth castigate billionaires and decry the injustices of capitalism, the adult Democrats in the room know how unlikely it is that the aged, largely conservative American swing states are going to be carried by a democratic socialist or his cardigan-for-all-occasions female sidekick. Sanders-Warren! Now there’s a ticket as glaringly foredoomed as any Democratic slate since McGovern-Eagleton.
This is Bernie Sanders’ last ride. There will be no third try in 2024, when, if his luck holds, he will be 82. The important question that no debate moderator has yet asked him is whether he intends to be a one-term president, or if he really believes that it’s wise for an 86-year-old to hold the office.
It’s possible that Sanders and his inner circle actually believe that he can beat Donald Trump, but it’s far more likely that he regards himself as a prophet, a forerunner of a massively leftward repositioning of the Democratic Party that will only come to fruition in some future election cycle, and if victory in 2020 must be sacrificed on the altar of that hope, so be it.
The problem with this is that it leaves Trump in office for another four years, as though more of the same thing couldn’t be all that much worse. But of course it can and will be worse. In those four years, Trump will likely appoint another couple of Supreme Court justices, with consequences to constitutional rights and the balance of power among the branches of government that will be felt for generations. The federal regulatory apparatus will continue to be dismantled, perhaps beyond repair, and the institution of the presidency further warped to suit Trump’s ego. If we thought the end of the impeachment hearings emboldened him, convinced him that he is, in fact, a king by another name, wait till we see what reelection does to him, and to us. And all this assumes there will be no national crisis of the sort that would require a steady hand in the presidency, a willingness to receive advice, or an awareness of history.
So a Democratic victory this November is crucial to all Americans, regardless of party. How do we get there?
Nominate a centrist. And let’s start using the word “centrist,” rather than “moderate,” which sounds hopelessly wishy-washy these days. Democrats need to cast as wide a net as possible. That means appealing to Republican voters in the swing states who are fed up with Trump but need a plausible reason to abandon him. That reason can’t be top-down socialism, which is an epithet to most Midwesterners and all Republicans, but should be a return to normalcy, to governance by consensus and bipartisan legislation, to the dignity the office of the president deserves. Given the choice between revolution and Trump’s tawdry status quo, folks over the age of 45, who represent over 60% of voters in all but three of the 14 traditional swing states, will pick the status quo every time. In order to win, Democrats must refuse to play into Trump’s hands by nominating self-parodying caricatures of leftism like Sanders and Warren, and that means a ticket composed of some combination of Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar.
Stop Running Against the Economy. Telling people they ought to feel more miserable and ashamed than they do is not a persuasive strategy, yet that is the overriding emotional message of the progressive wing of the Democratic contenders, and it threatens to infect the centrists. The weakness of Sanders’ and, to a lesser degree, Warren’s argument for radical restructurings of the economy in the form of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, student debt forgiveness and the rest, is not only that it comes labelled as socialism, but that it strikes the majority of voters as distinctly counter-factual. In those voters’ minds, income inequality is not evil if it means that those with more of it create opportunities for those with less, as the current historically low rate of unemployment suggests is in fact happening. Each new billionaire (or multi-millionaire, which many of those voters have become) may not represent a policy mistake or a vast social injustice if that wealth is the outcome of the uniquely American meritocracy of products, ideas, and hard work. Our health care system is without question a dysfunctional, patchwork mess, but most people’s employer-provided medical insurance is working just fine for them, thank you.
The Democratic candidate should celebrate the current US economy, not decry it. Yes, point out that of course it isn’t Trump’s economy, that its roots were planted long before he took office, and that his trade wars are undermining it. Yes, promise to work with Congress to curb the distortions in the market that overcompensate Big Pharma and undercompensate clean energy. Yes, correct the absurdity of providing tax breaks to the already rich, as Trump’s tax bill did. By all means point out that the national deficit has reached such gargantuan proportions that no one, least of all former Tea Party Republicans, dares talk about it. But stop suggesting that an economy that is in fact working well for most Americans needs to be razed to its foundations and start showing how you would sustain, extend, and improve it.
Call for government support and public-private partnerships to repair large swaths of decrepit American infrastructure, harden the electrical grid against cyber and EMP attack, and prepare major cities for rising sea levels. Promise to direct the Department of Education to develop a national vocational retraining program for employees of withering industries certain to be rendered obsolete in the 21st century. Link these proposals to new programs that would allow recent graduates to work their way out of student loan debt rather than continue to dream that the federal government will absolve them of it. And yes, promise to work to improve and expand the coverage of the Affordable Care Act.
Run for the office, not against Trump. Trump and his strategists would love nothing more than a war of personalities. Deprive him of one. Character assassination is second nature to Trump, mud-slinging and puerile name-calling his first resort. Refuse to stoop to his level. Run for the office, which is to say for the restoration of dignity, order and effectiveness to the office, not against Trump. Talk about the truly decent, altruistic men of both parties who have held the office right into our lifetimes, and let those examples speak for themselves. Point out how important it is that the presidency not be systematically cut off from seasoned advisors and expert administrators, how executive departments need credentialed leaders attuned to the missions of those departments, how much has been accomplished and can be accomplished if career diplomats are allowed to do their jobs. This isn’t a personality contest; it’s a struggle not only to restore the institution of the presidency, but to make our federal government competent again.
In short, the Democratic nominee needs to run a relentlessly positive campaign, rather than one based on class resentment, personal hatred of Trump, and anger at the failures of the past. He or she needs to issue an inclusive call to the better angels of our nature, in Lincoln’s deathless phrase, and demonstrate how, like him and so many others we’ve been so lucky to have as our presidents, a real leader is one who inspires, and uplifts, and unifies.