U.S. presidential contests may seem never-ending, but if the debate is about policy - instead of personality - is that such a bad thing?
The 2020 presidential campaign began long before the midterms ended. Reporters have already started covering the gaggle of Democrats (20? 30?) said to be “looking at” a run. Pollsters and pundits are already handicapping the horse race, brandishing polls that mostly register name recognition. The scramble for campaign money and talent is now well under way.
More interesting for voters, the Democratic campaign is starting off with an “ideas primary,” with potential candidates competing on reform proposals and messages, seeking to hone their distinctive appeal.
This cycle’s ideas primary is already fierce. Trump’s calamitous presidency has exacerbated racial and nativist divisions, while utterly failing to deal with the toxic legacy of endless wars, growing inequality, pervasive corruption, and existential threats like climate change. The Bernie Sanders insurgency in 2016 proved that voters are looking for candidates with an authentic commitment to sweeping change. Democratic presidential contenders realize they must now appeal to the party’s aroused, progressive activist base.
Sanders, not surprisingly, has set the pace. His focus on inequality and the decline in conditions for working people is now party gospel. The core of his 2016 agenda—Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public college, a trillion-dollar investment to rebuild America—has increasingly become standard Democratic fare. Other presidential hopefuls—Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand—have signed on as co-sponsors of his Medicare for All bill. Sanders has continued to raise the stakes, moving recently to indict our failed foreign policy, from the endless wars to a global economic order that works for the few and not for the many. Most recently, he’s led the effort to end our complicity in Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen, and he’s backed an ambitious effort called the Progressive International, meant to counter the spread of right-wing authoritarian governments and reform global financial institutions. After suffering some hard knocks in 2016 on the issues of comprehensive immigration and criminal-justice reform, he’s also learned to champion both as central to taking on institutionalized racial injustice.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who essentially launched her campaign on the last day of 2018 by announcing the formation of an exploratory committee, is competing with Sanders with her own populist reform agenda. She has put forth the most aggressive anti-corruption legislation in recent memory, calling for an end to the revolving door between Congress and corporate lobbying firms, restrictions on big money and dark money in campaigns, and much more. In addition to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she helped create, Warren has continued to offer bold ideas on reforming the financial markets. Her call for “accountable capitalism” would make major corporations more responsible to workers and communities and not simply to shareholders. She’d curb CEO pay and require large corporations to put workers on their boards. Beginning with a demand to break up the “too big to fail” banks, Warren advocates for anti-trust enforcement and has become an increasingly forceful opponent of the corporate trade deals that have had such ruinous results for American workers.
Other potential Democratic candidates have joined this progressive ideas primary. California Senator Kamala Harris has introduced the LIFT the Middle Class Act, which would provide up to $6,000 a year to married couples making less than $100,000, with the $200 billion price tag partially paid by repealing the Trump tax cuts. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has joined with California Representative Ro Khanna to call for nearly doubling the earned-income tax credit, with 21 million more Americans eligible, at a cost of about $1.4 trillion over a decade. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has proposed redressing the racial wealth gap with baby bonds, providing every newborn child with a trust account of $1,000, supplemented each year depending on the income level of the parents. The accounts would have about $50,000 when their beneficiaries reach adulthood, for use in buying a house or paying for higher education or advanced training, and would be funded by progressive hikes in the capital-gains and estate taxes. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, along with Harris and Booker, has expressed interest in a federal jobs guarantee, which would provide a decent-paying job for anyone willing and able to work. Booker has also become an increasingly sharp critic of monopoly, after witnessing the crushing effects of Walmart, Amazon, and Big Agriculture on small towns and rural communities.
Not all of the democratic candidates will join this ideas competition. Many are likely to run as restorationists, believing that Trump’s grotesqueries will leave voters longing for a return to “normalcy.” Were he to announce his candidacy, former vice president Joe Biden would clearly be content to run on his résumé, his blarney, and a promised restoration of the pre-Trump status quo. Beto O’Rourke offers a fresher version of Biden: liberal on social issues while aligned with the New Democrats—the Wall Street wing of the party—on economic questions. Business leaders like former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and moderate governors like Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, may well see an advantage in running as a manager who can get things done.
The good news is that the ideas primary offers reformers, activists, and grass-roots groups their best opportunity to have an impact on the political debate. In 2008, health-care organizers enlisted then–North Carolina Senator John Edwards, a leading Democratic primary contender, in the cause of comprehensive health-care reform. Then the Service Employees International Union sponsored a high-visibility forum on health care in the vital early primary state of Nevada. That forced Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to commit themselves to the issue as well. Similarly, in the 2016 election, Black Lives Matter activists brought the demand for criminal-justice reform from the streets into the campaign, directly challenging the candidates to make it a priority.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, climate-change activists will likely play a similar role. The chilling scientific warning that we have little more than a decade to transition our energy systems from fossil fuels has not yet been absorbed into our national politics. Leading Democrats agree that climate change poses an existential threat, but they continue to relegate it to a fourth or fifth talking point on their agenda. Some candidate—Washington Governor Jay Inslee? Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley?—is likely to gain significant attention by taking the threat seriously and championing a Green New Deal, a wartime-scale mobilization to meet the challenge.
Yet many of the party’s traditional operatives are fearful of the ideas competition. They worry that the so-called screamers—the ones who want to “break the chain”—will overwhelm the more measured and mature candidates, those they see as better able to govern effectively. These party insiders believe that Democrats can win over voters in the affluent suburbs by offering a promise of moderation and competence—what might be dubbed the Hillary Clinton strategy redux—in contrast to Trump’s unending circus. Given that Clinton did win the popular vote in 2016, this argument is not without merit. What’s clear, however, is that seeking bipartisan cooperation with the Republican Party of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell is a fool’s errand. And moderation will not deliver the structural reforms needed to make this economy work for working people once more, or meet the critical challenges at home and abroad that can no longer be ignored. A successful president must assemble a coalition for fundamental change, not simply an electoral majority to hold office.
The candidate with the boldest ideas doesn’t necessarily win, as the Sanders insurgency demonstrated in 2016. But one thing is clear: The coming year will feature not only continued opposition to Trump’s clown show, but also a debate about the fundamental reforms needed to transform this country. That presents a real opportunity for progressive groups, activists, and intellectuals. In a field of dozens of candidates looking to distinguish themselves, big ideas—good and bad—will have a chance to gain a public platform. There aren’t many redeeming features to the American institution of the permanent campaign, but this might be one of them.
First published at The Nation