The Democrats face a choice between a progressive, liberal candidate for the 2020 presidential election who could inspire the nation with a new vision or a centrist who has a better chance of defeating Donald Trump, writes Henry McLeish.
After the chaos of two years of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party, energised by winning control of the House of Representatives, is witnessing an unprecedented number of candidates either declaring, testing the water or setting up exploratory committees to become the Democratic candidate for the 2020 Presidential election.
The scale of this “I want to be President” movement – there are more than 40 – is staggering and reflects a growing mood of confidence among Democrats who were shocked, angry and disillusioned by Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
The mood of the country is changing. Trump’s approval ratings continue to decline. His loyal base is starting to slowly erode. The Democrats have a convincing lead in national opinion polls. And the increasing reach of the Mueller Inquiry is beginning to weigh heavily on the President. Indictments and criminal charges against senior members of his campaign team are creeping closer to the White House.
Trump’s astonishing recent outburst against his intelligence chiefs – after they shredded his foreign policy at a Congressional hearing – and his sinister, but as yet unexplained, relationship with Vladimir Putin are unsettling the usually loyal Republicans in Congress.
Even getting to the nomination stage of a US presidential race demands superhuman qualities with complex and all-consuming labyrinth of polls, primaries, endorsements, lobbying, media intrusion, rallies and campaign stops.
Campaign fundraising, out of control and corrupting, can’t be overlooked. US democracy is not cheap. The total cost of elections in 2016 was a staggering $6.5 billion, of which the Presidential election accounted for $2.65bn; this amount was larger than the GDP of each of the four poorest countries in Africa, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Central African Republic and Liberia. The cost of the 2017 UK general election, in dollars by way of comparison, was less than $70 million.
Every aspect of Trump’s “Crisis House” is picked over each night on the progressive cable TV networks. There is every sign that Congress and the country are growing weary of Trump’s style and substance, his erratic and dysfunctional behaviour. His performance is increasingly mocked amid signs of delusion – his weird views about immigrant ‘caravans’ have seen him order more troops to the Mexican border than there are in Syria!
But the worry for the Democrats is that he is now a known quantity with the support of a formidable coalition of diverse interests and a base which is down but not yet defeated. He remains a master manipulator of news and his compulsive lying has become a new normal in a country where fake news and outrageous right-wing radio hosts are prolific.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will be faced with a contest for the Republican nomination. If he is, Vice President Mike Pence and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley are attracting the most support. The Democrats need Trump to remain and this is why talk of impeachment is frowned upon by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Adding to the uncertainty is a general political mess. The country is bitterly, hopelessly and dangerously divided. Normal assessments and predictions are difficult to make as the US has no unifying themes. Trump’s signature issues of immigration, tax cuts and Make America Great Again (MAGA) still have resonance. In sharp contrast, the Democrats have no inspiring narrative.
But still the mood music for the Democrats has improved. The frontrunners for the Democratic nomination in early polls include Joe Biden, former US Vice-President, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Kamala Harris. Beto O’Rourke, who narrowly lost the Texas Senate race to Ted Cruz in the mid-terms, is also seen as a rising star within the party and a possible contender. Some pundits are even speculating on Clinton having another run at the presidency.
Harris may be the one to watch. Impressive, smart, clever and with Indian and Jamaican parents, she is the early front runner. A former Attorney General for California, she launched her nomination bid to a crowd of over 20,000 people in her home town of Oakland. Described by some as the “female Obama”, she is already the subject of vicious social media attacks, questioning her American citizenship, similar to the “birther” campaign that Obama endured and which was led by Trump.
Already feathers are being ruffled. The billionaires are unhappy about policy positions being adopted by some of the more progressive candidates. Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York, has argued that Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax proposals would make the US resemble Venezuela. He is taking soundings as to whether he should put his name forward as a Democrat nominee.
Another billionaire, Howard Schultz, a former CEO of Starbucks, is thinking about standing as an ‘Independent Centrist’. He has attacked the “Medicare for all plan” of Senator Harris as “ruinous”.
This kind of intervention is helping to generate a fierce debate within the Democrats about what kind of politician could beat Trump. The ideas of healthcare for all and a wealth tax are the antithesis of what much of conservative America stands for. In “God we Trust”, on every dollar note, the pledge of allegiance, respect for the flag and the embrace of market capitalism are serious issues here.
In the eyes of billionaires, progressive tax and health policies are the unacceptable face of Democratic policy, but for many these are new ideas that have to be discussed if America is ever to tackle inequality and the falling standards of living for millions of Americans.
This spat between the billionaires and the progressives does highlight a serious issue at the heart of the attempt to beat Trump. There are two strategies being pursued by the Democrats which are not necessarily compatible.
First, the struggle for the soul of the party. In recent times, the Democrats have been unclear of their mission and caught between progressive, pragmatic and populist ideas. As a result, the party has failed to promote new ideas and a bigger vision for a country, one that must be better than what is on offer from Trump.
Second, there is the question about what kind of narrative and strategy could defeat Trump. Is a Harris, Warner or Sanders vision too difficult for America – too early and too radical for a highly conservative country – when removing Trump is the priority? Too much ‘vision’ might frighten away the voters and force people to stick with the devil they know.
This is the Democrats’ dilemma. The best candidate for a party seeking a new political identity may not be the most appropriate candidate for the country or to oust Trump.
And whoever stands against him to become the 46th President of the US matter not only to America, but to the rest of an anxious world.