In 2015 Donald Trump was the party crasher at the boring pool party who sprang off the high-dive and did a cannonball. The very rude splash in the face he gave conventional Republican establishment politics never did dry, and Trump went on to capture the GOP nomination and then the White House.
The Democratic field for 2020 is now taking shape, hoping to find the right challenger to topple Trump and re-take the presidency. But where is its party crasher, the person to rattle the uniform strident progressive consensus in Dem ranks and nurture a true political phenomenon similar to the Trump Tsunami of 2016? Gazing at the announced candidates, one sees a lot of blue George Patakis, Rick Santorums and Marco Rubios and no dynamic change figure to rally Democrats who are every bit as sick of politics as usual as the Republicans who supported Trump proved to be three years earlier.
Where’s the Heat?
A look at the prominent female candidates announced so far shows no reason to expect a pink superstar to emerge. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has already mired herself in missteps, with her disastrous DNA test on her non-existent Native American heritage being the defining feature of her campaign so far. When that is the only traction your candidacy is getting in the media, things are clearly not going well. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) seems devoid of any real ideas of her own and will lean whichever way the progressive winds blow. That is not the stuff of a breakout star. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) does not have the name recognition to be a major challenger and does not have the charisma to change that. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is being touted as formidable but promoting herself as a tough prosecutor seems an odd way to garner progressive votes. Running as the Democrat Chris Christie in a party that considers the war on crime to be a racist endeavor makes little sense. And her get-tough persona during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings was completely off-putting, especially since she had no distinct statements of value to make as she put on her sour performance.
Beto O’Rourke is officially in but now must face the unfortunate reality that people will get to know him better. O’Rourke plays better in the imagination as a mythical JFK figure on the cover of Vanity Fair than he does when actually trying to articulate political positions. Former vice president Joe Biden will be severely hampered by the generational conflict in the Democrat ranks. Younger voters will be actively hostile to an aging white male establishment Dem. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was immensely helped in 2016 by having Hillary Clinton as a natural foil. He will not have that in Democrat primaries this time around, and has already hinted that he will be pandering more to identity politics than focusing on working class concerns in his 2020 campaign.
And this, of course, is what will hurt the Democrats the most. All these candidates, plus a dozen or so more, will be jockeying to claim the mantle of “true” progressive Democrat. This is exactly the kind of mindless party orthodoxy that allowed Trump to topple a field of “true” conservatives in 2016.
Examine a typical take from 2015 on that GOP field. Tufts University professor Daniel W. Drezner, writing in the Washington Post, was spectacularly wrong in his judgment on Trump’s effect on Republican primary debates. Nothing unique about that as all the mainstream minds whiffed completely on what was really happening that year.
But Drezner made some points that can apply to a Trump-less Dem field in 2020. “A big problem with the GOP race to date has been the homogeneity of the candidates’ views,” he wrote. “Oh, sure, Rand Paul has stood out a little, as has Jeb Bush, but really, debates where there are spasms of agreement are pretty boring.”
Trump excelled by simply not being like the other established politicians sharing the debate stage with him. To a somewhat similar extent, this also benefitted Sanders against pure political animal Hillary, even though Sanders has been active in politics himself for most of his adult life. But how will a Dem 2020 candidate be able to differentiate him or herself from the rest of the field when they will all be saying the same things – bashing Trump and promoting identity politics without fail?
“Indeed, eviscerating Trump on the debate stage could be a way for a [Sen. Ted] Cruz or a Paul or Christie or a [Rick] Perry to stand out. This will be much more interesting than watching everyone argue over who is the true conservative in the race,” Drezner wrote. While he failed to grasp that it would be Trump doing the eviscerating, the comment still has some validity. How is Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) going to elevate himself in the national eye by scoring points on a debate stage against an Elizabeth Warren or a Beto O’Rourke? They are all going to be mostly agreeing with each other anyway lest they dare stray from progressive Dem orthodoxy. The lack of a rabble-rouser like Trump in their ranks will thus serve to prevent any Democrat from distinguishing himself from the other dwarves standing alongside them at the debates.
The way the Dem field stacks up right now is a recipe for little more than a mundane primary season. Without an authentic change agent in their ranks, Americans will watch a crowd of careerist politicians squabbling over things about which they all agree. With voters still thirsting for displacement of the political establishment that still holds sway over this nation, Democrats will struggle mightily to find a candidate who fits that description as their standard bearer for 2020.