Opinion

Democrats at a crossroads: Is go big or go home really the right strategy for 2020?

We are now in the eighth month of this primary campaign and pretty much right back where we started. Former Vice President Joe Biden is the real front-runner now instead of a hypothetical one.
We are now in the eighth month of this primary campaign and pretty much right back where we started. Former Vice President Joe Biden is the real front-runner now instead of a hypothetical one. The New York Times

Democratic candidates for president are having a difficult time these days grabbing public attention to distinguish themselves from each other. With 40 wannabes on the debate stage — or was it only 20? — no one gets much time to do more than utter glib sound bites.

Not counting several months of warmups and rumors, U.S. presidential campaigns now drone on for about 22 months, almost half a presidential term.

That’s great for TV ad revenues in Iowa and New Hampshire. But such prolonged political marathons provide little evidence of a better outcome than those countries that manage national democratic leadership selections in six weeks.

During these smothering August days a full 65 weeks from the election, American minds are consumed more with vacation leftovers and the imminence of a new school year and football seasons. There’s a reason Democrats scheduled no more debates until mid-September, when tightened qualifications may shrink the candidate cast.

We are now in the eighth month of this primary campaign and pretty much right back where we started. Former Vice President Joe Biden is the real front-runner now instead of a hypothetical one. Sen. Bernie Sanders is still shouting in second. The other ultra-progressive, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is nipping at his heels.

Sen. Kamala Harris is plotting yet another campaign relaunch, and the rest of the crowd is still trying to climb over each other to escape the low single digits.

The media and dwindled debate-viewing audiences are focused on who dissed whom and who won the night. Normally, no one watches three consecutive hours of anything on CNN unless their flight was canceled. But anyone who did last week could well have determined the winner of those Democratic debates was President Donald Trump.

He can’t help it. With gratuitous tweets, Trump makes everything about himself, even when his would-be opponents are helpfully fighting each other.

Eventually, Democratic candidates must decide how progressive they can be and still beat Trump in a national election. But for now, they’re proclaiming their progressive bona fides, trying to out-promise each other while corroding Biden’s record. None have broken from the pack, including the plodding front-runner.

But what we are actually witnessing is not the slow-motion horse race the media would have us see.

We are instead witnessing another in a series of cathartic convulsions of an American political party attempting to redefine itself, weed out the losers and find a winner to unify around and compete in next year’s multi-billion-dollar struggle to live in and rule from a white house.

Like most operations in our democracy, it’s a messy business complicated by an unorthodox incumbent. But fascinating to watch.

The Founding Fathers did not like political parties, viewing them as divisive human organisms that would end up taking care of themselves instead of their governing responsibilities. We got two of them anyway.

From time to time, each goes through these painful redefining moments. Republicans had a divisive time in 1964 when moderates and conservatives fought for the party’s soul. Conservatives won. But their candidate, Barry Goldwater, lost — big-time.

He won his home Arizona and five southeastern states. Incumbent Lyndon Johnson made the campaign about Goldwater, not the Vietnam War, and won the other 44 states.

Worse, Johnson’s 486-52 Electoral College landslide also swept many GOP members out of Congress, enabling easy passage of LBJ’s grandiose and expensive Great Society legislation.

We’re now witnessing an epic mirror-image struggle for the ideological heart of the Democratic Party.

Progressives detect an anti-Trump wave and liberal ferment, matching the disruptive heartland uprising that swept the billionaire to his unlikely upset in 2016. They believe there is nothing government can’t do bigger and better.

Now’s not the time for patience. Go big and bold or go home – trillions for student debt forgiveness, free college, government health care for all, the Green New Deal, a massive infrastructure rebuild with, of course, more taxes — but only on the rich, mind you.

Moderate Democrats believe Americans want more businesslike pragmatism, real progress yes, but in reasonable steps and manageable bites. To impatient younger activists, they sound too much like parents.

Biden is trying to bridge both camps, which all party leaders must do to win. But his attempts at deftness, while good-natured, seem dated, instead underlining his age. He’d be 78 upon taking office, older than Ronald Reagan after two terms.

Trump is no youngster, either. He’s 73 now and is playing the same outrageous game that sent Hillary Clinton back to making millions giving speeches. With his strategy, Trump got 46% of the popular vote and 57% of the electoral votes.

The big question for 2020 is not so much will those loud tactics work again. It’s can an incumbent Trump, like Lyndon Johnson in 1964, make next year’s campaign about his opponent, and not himself?

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