I can already hear your complaints: It’s too early to talk about the 2020 presidential primaries! But the prospective candidates don’t think so. Joe Biden’s teasing. Senators and governors are road testing. And with the Trump presidency perpetually mired in scandal, no one on the Democratic bench is hesitating.
The simple truth, as depressing as it might sound to the survivors of 2016, is that anyone who wants to be president must make moves now. Beyond building a network of donors and volunteers, over the next 3½ years, those hoping to make it to the White House need to sell themselves to primary voters as leaders. Leaders of principle. Leaders on issues. Leaders in partisan warfare. Leaders in building consensus.
Story Continued Below
How can they do that? Some have likened past primaries to an NCAA basketball tournament bracket, with candidates trying to elbow out competitors with similar bases of support. But with so much unsettled about the Democratic Party’s ideological future, in the wake of 2016’s bitter primary and shocking general election defeat, we can’t yet narrow the camps into four easily definable categories.
Instead of brackets, think of this preliminary phase of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary as a mad scramble to earn “badges” of distinction. With every badge, presidential aspirants win points from primary voters casting about for leaders they trust to both fight for what they believe in, and fight to win.
What badges are potential Democrats trying to earn, and who is best positioned to claim each prize? Here is how the nascent field is shaping up:
THE POPULIST BADGE
After Donald Trump rode into the White House on a populist wave, the prevailing wisdom among Democrats is that this badge is the must-have of 2020. But don’t assume winning here automatically means winning the entire jackpot, for there are several other badges that still matter to primary voters.
In the 2016 Democratic primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders was the undisputed populist champion. But if he runs again, he’ll be scrapping to reclaim the title. Sen. Elizabeth Warren would start 2020 as the best-positioned populist. Unlike her neighbor to the north, she bears no scars from 2016, her supporters can’t be dismissed as “Bros” and she has a (D) after her name. Furthermore, she wields a major populist achievement, having created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from scratch.
But the pride of Scranton, Pennsylvania, former Vice President Joe Biden, won’t be ceding any populist turf without a loquacious fight. While he’d have to answer for any weak spots in the Obama record, he literally—and I mean literally—grew up with the Rust Belt voters that Democrats are desperate to win over. He won’t need a tutorial on how to talk in Trump country.
Sanders would hope to fend off Biden, Warren and other challengers by going further left than they’re willing to go. For example, he could knock Warren’s reluctance to fully embrace single-payer health care, and Biden’s advocacy for the ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Whether that works may depend on the Trump record. If the president pulls out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and grocery bills skyrocket, trade populism may lose its shine. And if Obamacare survives the current Republican assault, there may be little appetite among Democrats to yet again litigate health care.
THE HEARTLANDER BADGE
This prize can be claimed only by those who hail from the “real America.” But mere geography is not enough. Winners must be able to show they possess the secret sauce to turn red states blue. Straining too hard to appeal to conservative voters may disqualify aspirants from earning the POPULIST badge, but pocketing both puts any candidate in the top tier.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock—the Democrats’ only red state governor in his second term—just happened to share his thoughts on “How Democrats Can Win The West” in the New York Times op-ed page last week. Beyond a cloying folksiness (“try casting the fly line a little farther out into the river”), Bullock mapped out a strategy for erasing the classic partisan dividing lines. On health care, he supports Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion but criticizes “often outrageously high premiums and deductibles.” On the environment, he offers protection of public lands from privatization as “an issue on which even some of the most conservative voters here side with Democrats.”
Gravel-toned Ohioan Sen. Sherrod Brown, if he can win reelection next year in a state Trump won by 8 points, will have proven he still has populist punch. Earlier this year, he showed his interest in shaping the Democratic Party platform with a 77-page policy package that would increase the minimum wage, strengthen unions and cut taxes for businesses that create American jobs.
And Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has begun emphasizing her Midwest roots and working-class ties as well as her moderate disposition. This past Sunday, she addressed Iowa’s Polk County Democrats Spring Dinner and declared, “We are the people in the middle of the country. There are many in this room who are in the middle class, middle income, even a few who could be described as middle aged. And yes, from time to time, in the middle politically.”
But hailing from the heartland can also mean being kind to coal, which makes it hard for HEARTLANDERS to win the CLIMATE HAWK badge (see below). All of the above accept climate science, and the two senators voted against a Republican measure to scrap President Barack Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan climate regulations. However, Bullock said he was “extremely disappointed” with how the plan treated Montana, and in 2014 Klobuchar signed a bipartisan letter trying to delay its issuance. All three back investments in “clean coal” technology, which devout environmentalists consider a boondoggle. And Brown fended off his 2012 Republican opponent by portraying himself as a defender of coal against Obama’s regulations.
THE EXPERIENCE BADGE
Those who can’t out-populist the populists will have to work extra hard to collect other badges. And Trump’s constant reminders that he didn’t know how “complicated” the job would be makes the EXPERIENCE badge far more valuable in 2020 than in past primaries. The multiterm governors in the Democratic stable will be eager to tout their long records of tackling tough problems and building consensus.
One of them is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has attracted many home-state progressive critics who call him “Governor 1%” for his aggressive tax-cutting agenda and his fiscal restraint. After a gubernatorial primary scare in 2014, Cuomo tacked left, enacting a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave and a limited free college plan. Cuomo may want to leverage the totality of his heterodox record and tout, like the party’s last nominee, his ability to “get things done.” That probably won’t be enough to convince die-hard progressives, who view his recent moves as calculating and not principled. But the older, pragmatic voters who gave Hillary Clinton the last nod may be more receptive.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (a recent guest on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me”) is also viewed with suspicion by some on the left, as he has promoted TPP and fracking. But the state’s economy has been ranked the best in the nation. And he has navigated his purple state through some tricky cultural issues and lived to win a second term. After the Aurora movie theater mass shooting, Hickenlooper enacted what Governing magazine deemed “some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation” including universal background checks. He also managed to thread the needle on the emotional issue of “fetal homicide.” He resisted attempts from anti-abortion conservatives who viewed such crimes as cause to establish “personhood” for embryos, and instead signed the alternative “Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act,” which explicitly rejects personhood.
Some believe California Gov. Jerry Brown is too old to run for president, as he’d be 82 in 2020 (three years older than Sanders, four years older than Biden). But the man who has already run for president three times may still have the itch. Just six weeks ago, he said “don’t rule it out.” And his résumé is stronger than ever, having resolved years of fiscal mismanagement with politically courageous, voter-approved tax increases while generating strong economic growth. (However, Brown has warned of a budget deficit this year and proposes a clampdown on spending).
THE BRAWLER BADGE
Another way to compensate for ideological impurity is by throwing a lot of punches. Proving you can cut Republicans down to size can go a long way with partisan primary voters.
Presidential hopefuls have been taking to Twitter to show off their ability to skewer. For example, Rep. Seth Moulton, who recently received 2020 buzz from the New York Times, hit a Twitter home run when he mocked Trump’s complaints of a “witch hunt.” His deadpan reply—“As the Representative of Salem, MA, I can confirm that this is false,”—has scored 140,000 retweets and counting.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is the antithesis of Sanders, having once been a hard-charging fundraiser for Bill Clinton’s presidential runs and the Democratic National Committee. (He wrote in his memoir about taking his wife and newborn son to a fundraiser on the way home from the hospital: “I felt bad for Dorothy, but it was a million bucks for the Democratic Party.”) But he would bring to the table an unmatched record of stymying Republicans, breaking the state’s record for vetoes with more than 100, all sustained.
THE MUCKRAKER BADGE
With the Trump presidency generating one scandal after another, Democrats who take the lead in holding the administration accountable will be lavishly awarded.
Sen. Mark Warner had faded from presidential, and vice-presidential, shortlists as his Southern moderate brand of politics—he once scored an “A” rating from the NRA—has fallen out of fashion. But as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Warner is the highest ranking Democrat involved in investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. He has downplayed, but not dismissed, interest in 2020. If his bipartisan investigation finds a smoking gun, watch out.
Sen. Al Franken stepped on the toes of Sanders’ fans when he endorsed Clinton early and heartily. But his progressive stock bounced back with his grilling of Trump cabinet nominees, especially Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Now he’s being credited for indirectly causing the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor. After drawing Attorney General Jeff Sessions into a false statement about contacts with Russia, Franken accused Sessions of perjury. That pressured the attorney general to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, which opened the door to the deputy attorney general naming Robert Mueller as special counsel. Franken’s interrogation skills may prove to be a bigger selling point than his comedy.
THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF BADGE
The lifeblood of the Democratic Party may be economic and social equality, but candidates who don’t have foreign policy chops take a big risk. Sanders’ lack of international depth harmed his ability to overtake Hillary Clinton among older Democratic voters. In contrast, one of Obama’s pivotal moments in the 2008 primary was when he thoughtfully and convincingly defended his support for direct diplomacy with rogue nations during and after a July 2007 debate. Then a month later, he cannily turned hawkish, and stood up to his opponents who flinched at pursuing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan without the nation’s permission.
If Biden is on the debate stage, then everybody else will have to step up their foreign policy game, or face his withering rebuttals. (Remember, in the 2008 primary, Biden single-handedly transformed Rudy Giuliani from hero to joke in seven words: “a noun, and a verb and 9/11.”) Biden chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming Obama’s foreign policy wingman. The Atlantic even declared he has his own “Doctrine.”
But as Obama’s, and therefore Biden’s, foreign policy record is not unblemished, he can expect competition for the badge. Sen. Chris Murphy, from his Foreign Relations Committee perch, has been busy crafting a fresh foreign policy vision for the Democratic Party. He laid out a “Marshall Plan” strategy in a New York Times oped last January, heavy on dollar diplomacy, light on bombs: “The United States never should have taken sides in the Syrian civil war. … The real question is how to stop societies from descending into civil war in the first place.” He told the Atlantic he opposes unconditional aid to Saudi Arabia on the grounds it indirectly supports ISIS and Al Qaeda. And he is taking Trump to task on human rights, condemning the president’s invitation to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as evidence that “We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash.” (He further discussed foreign policy on this week’s The Global POLITICO podcast.)
But Murphy’s views might be too nuanced for some primary voters. Those wanting a more dramatic shift may embrace Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. The Iraq War vet and first Hindu-American elected to Congress has angered many in the Democratic Party for meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad and expressing skepticism he was behind the chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held province of Idlib. Some don’t consider her all that progressive, because she once opposed same-sex marriage and because she joined conservatives in criticizing Obama for not using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” Yet her foreign policy audacity has only elevated her standing among those opposed to any military involvement in Syria, and who chafe at the Democratic Party’s hard turn against Russia. There is already a Run Tulsi Run website, which sells unofficial Gabbard gear for 2020. Gabbard previously endeared herself to Sanders’ supporters when she resigned her DNC vice-chair seat upon endorsing the Vermonter. If she runs, she will force a grand debate over the party’s foreign policy direction.
THE CLIMATE HAWK BADGE
It may be hard to top Sanders when it comes to commitment to the climate. He routinely fingers global warming as “the single greatest threat facing our planet,” and has long backed a carbon tax. But Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee is aiming to do Sanders one better—pass a carbon tax. The man whom the president of the League of Conservation Voters calls “the greenest governor in the country” proposed a carbon tax for the state’s next budget, and it has an outside chance of being enacted in the current legislative session. Even if he falls short, Inslee can already point to his Clean Air Rule, which put a cap on carbon pollution from large industrial sources.
Gov. Brown is no climate slouch either. He has successfully defended California’s carbon cap-and-trade program and is pushing for a long-term extension before the law is scheduled to expire. And he’s fought tooth-and-nail to save the state’s high-speed rail project from its many detractors.
Don’t leave out Gov. Cuomo, who will be looking for ways to neutralize critics on the left. One of his biggest cards to play is his ban on fracking, making New York the first state with natural gas resources to outlaw the controversial method of extracting natural gas.
THE (REPRODUCTIVE) FREEDOM FIGHTER BADGE
The Democratic Party’s primary electorate in 2016 was 58 percent female. Nevertheless, Sanders took a big risk when he went out of his way to label Democratic candidate for Omaha mayor Heath Mello a “progressive,” despite Mello previously sponsoring multiple pieces of state legislation curtailing abortion rights. “I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue,” pleaded Sanders. But many primary voters don’t treat reproductive freedom as just “one issue,” so expect candidates to prove they won’t treat it as one.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has taken a leadership role on women’s rights with her still-unsuccessful attempt to pass legislation that would have military prosecutors, not military commanders, handle sexual assault cases within the armed services. She recently was awarded with a glowing profile in New York magazine highlighting her commitment to gender equality. She would be well-positioned to brushback anyone hinting that abortion rights can be deprioritized.
Sen. Kamala Harris also brings some street cred to the abortion debate. As California attorney general last year, she oversaw a raid on the apartment of anti-abortion activist David Daleiden, who released undercover videos intended to malign Planned Parenthood. The anti-abortion community was livid and demanded she quit the Senate race, but Harris shrugged it off. Now, Harris’ successor has charged Daleiden with 15 felonies.
THE CIVIL RIGHTS BADGE
The Democratic Party electorate is not only heavily female, but also racially diverse. Thirty-five percent of Democratic primary voters were nonwhite, with 25 percent African-American. The path to the Democratic nomination in the past two contests ran through the Southern “Black Belt” states. Any serious nominee will need to exert leadership on civil rights.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is not a favorite of economic populists with long memories, who recall he chided Obama in 2012 for criticizing Mitt Romney’s business record (“I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity”). They also grumble about his long list of Wall Street donors and his past work advocating for school choice with now-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (though he voted against her confirmation).
Booker is trying to shore up his progressive bona fides with an emphasis on social justice issues. He broke Senate precedent by testifying against the attorney general nomination of Senate colleague Jeff Sessions, citing his civil rights record. Booker has also worked with libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul on criminal justice reform.
Meanwhile, Sens. Murphy and Harris have both angled for a leadership role in fighting Trump’s attempts to restrict entry by refugees and other people from several Muslim-majority countries. Harris’ first bill upon arriving in the Senate was a measure that would guarantee a lawyer for refugees detained when entering the United States. Before the second version of the travel ban was blocked in the courts, Murphy introduced legislation that would have negated it.
Outside the Beltway, Gov. McAuliffe can bring something to the table on voting rights that no one else can: the record for restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time. He personally returned more than 150,000 people to the voter rolls, exercising his right to do so on a case-by-case basis.
THE WILSON BADGE
What’s the “Wilson” badge, you ask? It’s in honor of Woodrow Wilson, a man elected president in 1912 despite never having run for office or served in government until three years earlier. He burst onto the political scene in 1910, leaping from president of Princeton University into the New Jersey governor’s mansion. After refusing to take orders from the state’s Democratic machine bosses, Wilson became a national progressive hero, which helped to catapult him into the White House.
In 2020, Democrats may want a nominee with some governing experience to contrast with Trump, but who is also a fresh face that lacks political baggage. Might there be a newly elected governor in 2018 who could copy Wilson’s fast track?
The field of the 2018 gubernatorial candidates is still emerging, so we can’t know who is in contention for the Wilson badge. But California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, now running for a promotion, is a likely prospect. He made national news in 2004, when as San Francisco mayor he instructed the city clerk to issue licenses for same-sex marriages in violation of state law. He’s already attacking Trump in his gubernatorial campaign ads. Virginia’s Tom Perriello is being boosted in his race for governor by former Obama administration aides (he served in Obama’s State Department as an envoy to the Congo) who may be very useful in the presidential campaign. And keep an eye on Georgia state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams; if an African-American woman can win a governor’s race in the Deep South, then Democrats may look to her to turn the Peach State blue in 2020.