Updated: Mar 25, 2019
I made a trip to Iowa last week to speak at the Iowa Building Trades Council meeting and see old friends. It’s always fascinating to go out there at this stage of a presidential cycle and see what the political scuttlebutt is, who has already landed with various candidates, and who is making positive impressions with the good people of my old home state.
One thing I was surprised to see was how few people have already signed up with candidates. In two days in Des Moines and Altoona, but seeing people from all over the state because of the Building Trades meeting and some hang time at the State Capitol Building, I talked to only one person who was already signed up with a candidate. Some of you may be thinking “well, it’s very early, what do you expect?” But I can tell you, to have this few politicos committed in March in Iowa is very unusual in terms of past campaigns. When I signed up with Joe Biden in March, 1987 the first time he ran for president, I was late to the party- tons of people were already with candidates. The same was true in every other competitive cycle since I’ve been involved in presidential politics. Not this year: I think that with a big field, and with the unpredictability and volatility of politics right now, people are hanging back and are going to wait a while. More than anything else, they want to make sure their candidate can beat Trump, and they will take their time figuring out who has the best shot at winning.
I am taking my time as well. I had decided on a favorite hoped-for candidate early on - Sherrod Brown. I thought Sherrod had the perfect combination of a strong track record as a strong progressive and an unquestioned ability to appeal to working class swing voters in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and of course his home state of Ohio. To me that is the perfect combination, because I don’t believe the Democrats can win in 2020 without both rallying the progressive troops and winning those swing states and voters. But with Sherrod deciding that he didn’t want to do it, like all of those friends of mine in Iowa, I am searching for the right candidate, and watching closely as the race unfolds. Here are some observations:
1. I am looking for a candidate who understands that uniting and exciting the party is fundamental to winning. 25% of Democrats ended up not voting for Hillary in 2016 - a few of them went for Trump, a few of them voted for Stein as a protest vote, most of them didn’t bother to vote at all. Meanwhile, a lot of the young African-Americans who showed up to vote for Obama did not come out to vote for Hillary. We need both the Bernie voters and African-American voters to turn out and vote Democratic. We will not win without them. Getting these voters to vote and vote Democratic will not happen by lecturing them.
Unfortunately, I think this piece by Stuart Eisenstat is indicative of the thinking of many DC Democrats: if we just get the liberals to back off and shut up, all will be well. But politics, especially in this era, doesn’t work that way. What we need instead is candidates who will listen to progressive activists, understand and welcome their goals and enthusiasm, and embrace the best of their policy ideas. Most progressives are not going to reject everything Democrats have to say if their policies aren’t everything they want them to be, but they need to be respected and given seats at the "grown-ups" table.
2. On the other hand, progressives need to understand they need swing voters. So if Hillary had gotten most of that 25% of the Bernie voters to vote for her, or had gotten African-Americans to turn out at Obama-level numbers, she would have won the electoral college last time. However, we still wouldn’t have won the House that year, and might not have won the Senate. In 2018, much higher levels of turnout did not result in wins in key Senate or Governor's races. With voter suppression, gerrymandering, the built-in bias toward red states in the Senate, and various kinds of Republican and Russian cheating, Democrats will still probably lose in 2020 even with a tidal wave of base voter turnout. We need to win 55% of the vote, not 51%.
So we need to go get those swing voters. And in the focus groups of swing voters I have been seeing and hearing about, there is some major irony: they are mostly supportive of or at least open to progressive policy ideas, but the labels and rhetoric on the progressive side scare them. Most people of color and young people are pretty solidly progressive and Democratic, so swing voters are disproportionately middle-aged or older, and white. Words like socialism scare them; Republican attacks like higher taxes and “give-aways” scare them as well.
There are multiple ways of moving these swing voters, and as I said, they are actually with the progressive side on many issues. But it won’t be easy to get them to vote for Democrats. Labels are not our friend. I don’t think the word "socialist" helps us, nor does attacking candidates who describe themselves as "moderate" (many voters who think of themselves as moderate are very progressive in terms of issues.) We don’t have to back down on issues but we have to use language that those swing voters can relate to more easily.
3. Elizabeth Warren’s issue agenda is kicking ass. I appreciate Bernie being willing to automatically and unabashedly push the most left position on pretty much every issue: I think that kind of boldness and audacity has literally wakened the country and the Democratic Party out of its doldrums and changed American politics for the long term. And I really love Jay Inslee’s plan to run on the climate issue as the issue he builds his entire campaign around: that kind of focus is important and I think will serve him very well in this crowded field: I think he could be the surprise candidate of this race. Other candidates are developing thoughtful agendas as well.
But for my money, so far at least Elizabeth Warren is winning the issues primary. No other candidate by a far stretch, no other Senator or member of Congress, has put out as many thoughtful, well-developed, and potentially powerful issue ideas as Warren has, and I would guess there’s more to come from her. Her agenda is addressing a series of salient issues few others have been talking about, issues that people really care about that could be big winners. Her bill to end the revolving door in terms of lobbying was the most far-reaching I have ever seen; her bill on corporate governance and responsibility was profoundly good and really important; her legislation on housing brilliantly addresses one of the most important and least talked about issues in American politics right now; her wealth tax nailed the most central issue about tax policy, which is that the massive wealth already held by the top .01 percent needs to be directly addressed in the tax debate.
I don’t know whether Warren can win, I am still weighing that subject. But if having the most well thought out issues agenda is the key to victory, right now she would be winning in a landslide. And whoever the Democratic nominee will be, I am convinced they will need to do the same kind of issues homework Warren has done to get voters excited.
What long time Democratic activists like me and those old friends in Iowa are looking for is: a candidate who is a strong progressive who can excite progressive voters, who can at the same time appeal to the swing voters we need in the heartland, and who puts the work in to develop a bold and compelling issue agenda. If we find a candidate like that, we will win a landslide in the 2020 presidential election, reclaim the Senate, and add plenty of seats to our House majority.