January 21, 2019 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
An Early Look at the Democratic Field
One thing's for sure. Women will power the next Democratic candidate.
Kamala Harris announced today her intention to run for the presidency. That gives us an occasion to take a look at the Democratic field. It’s big, diverse and exciting. It’s hard to say where things are headed. But to the extent that such a wide-open nomination process is a problem, I think we can say it’s a good problem to have.
First, Bernie Sanders. Regular readers know I think the independent senator’s time has come and gone. I disagree with those who say he moved the party to the left, because the party was already moving left by the time he arrived on the national scene. But he did reveal an appetite for leftist policies that was not apparent to many Democratic elites. For that we can thank him, as we can for rivals emulating him.
Sanders chief obstacle is that he’s not a Democrat. He and his supporters undervalue that liability. They overvalue his stated independence. To get around that problem, he’d have to expand the electorate by offering even more policy ideas outside the political mainstream, thus putting pressure on the party from the margins. But with so many Democratic copy-cats, there’s little room left for Bernie Sanders. The Overton Window is now opening. He will likely remain on the outside looking in.
I suspect that Democratic elites still fear Sanders, so they keep bringing up Joe Biden. (Andrew Cuomo did; Dianne Feinstein did.) We’re told the reason Biden’s name keeps coming up is because he’s the only one with white working class roots who can beat Donald Trump in the midwest. But I think it’s about Sanders, not the president.
Biden’s is among the first names to come up when people are asked about future prospects. That’s because he was vice president, and because lots of party elites don’t like Sanders. But even if it were true that Biden could take a share of the white working class votes, that may not matter as much in 2020. Women powered a wave election last year, and women will probably power the next Democratic candidate. Fact is, a clear majority of women really, truly, and intensely dislike Donald Trump.
The broad contours of the Democratic nomination process are yet to be sketched out, obviously, but there’s better than even chance, I think, that the party’s choices will come down to women candidates: Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard. Given that Gabbard is toxic, that leaves three for now.
Of the three senators, Warren has the most visible constituency, as she’s aligned more or less with Bernie Sanders. She’s a reliable thorn in the president’s side. She doesn’t claim to be a democratic socialist, but she is leading her campaign with issues of economic justice. (She’s also firmly planted inside the party.) All this comes naturally, as it does for Biden. Like him, Warren comes from a white working class background. Unlike Biden, she has the academic pedigree giving heft to her populist rhetoric.
I understand that some Democrats won’t support Warren, because she claimed Native American ancestry. But I think this is a misunderstanding. She didn’t claim such heritage. She claimed that her family claimed such heritage, and that that mattered to her. (You could argue fairly that that’s a distinction without a meaningful difference.) In any case, though, I don’t think the issue is potent enough to dampen her appeal. If Warren fails, it won’t be due to a debatable decision to reveal her DNA profile.
Gillibrand is vulnerable to charges of being an opportunist. She was the first, though not the last, to call for Al Franken’s head after the Minnesota senator was accused a half a dozen and more times of sexual harassment and misconduct. Then there’s the fact that she was a pro-gun Democrat from a rural and conservative upstate district before succeeding to Hillary Clinton’s senate seat, and becoming uber-liberal.
This isn’t a groundless complaint but I don’t find it interesting. The reverse, actually. Someone who can shape-shift with relative integrity is someone who can win. Opportunism signals a level of ambition needed to endure the unblinking gaze of the campaign trail. I don’t need to remind you that goes double for ambitious women.
Gillibrand doesn’t have a constituency. That’s her most immediate problem. But given that a majority of American women dislike Donald Trump, given that Gillibrand is foregrounding issues related to gender, and given her talent for talking to rural voters, a constituency may be a matter of time. I’d say she’s the most underrated candidate.
She’s only just announced her bid, but she has a constituency, as one of the main pillars of the Democratic Party is black women. Like Gillibrand, she isn’t as well known as Warren, but I think the more voters see her speak, the more they are going to like. Of the three, Harris is the one who should frighten Trump the most.
Her clearest liability at the moment is her background as a California prosecutor. A mixed record appears to be at odds with her image as a progressive criminal justice reformer. Some leftists are trying to convince party regulars that “Harris is a cop,” as if being a police officer would somehow undermine her appeal among party regulars who’d very much like to see a powerful black woman rise to the top of the party.
While Warren focuses on economic justice and Gillibrand focuses of gender issues, it’s not clear what Harris is going to focus on. I’m not sure she needs to. I suspect that Harris could plot a nominally middle course, much as Obama did, and allow the power of representation to carry much of the load. She’s a Democrat. That might be enough.
Are we ready for a woman president? Get ready to hear that question a lot, as we did during the last election. But unlike 2016, this time is different. This time we have Donald Trump. If we’re ready for a woman president, it’s because women said yes.
MLK Day Special: Get a month off!
Today is the federal holiday commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. The nation honors his memory, spirit and achievements on that day, as we should.
But let’s not forget what King was before he became a national treasure. He was a radical, and his fight for justice, equality and freedom was disliked by most.
Indeed, many saw him as a criminal who deserved his end.
This video, from the NBC News archives, shows King’s vision for a new chapter, after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, in the movement he founded. So many of the themes he touches on, and the questions he answers, are as timely today as they were then.
That’s not a good thing.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.