Sorting Out the Democrats

Terry H. Schwadron

Feb. 3, 2019

It’s very early in the 2020 presidential stakes, and already the Democrats are making things confusing.

Announcements by Senators Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren each are expected and desired results, but together it already is hard to distinguish one’s positions from the next. Yes, one is more aligned with taxes on the rich, or a particular brand of health-care-for-all, but, generally, they align well — and agreeably.

Throw in Bernie Sanders and the expected arrivals of Senators Amy Klobuchar and Sherrod Brown, former Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Reps. John Delaney of Maryland and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, and now Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and the haze is growing thicker.

There are plenty more waiting in the wings for one of these folks to make enough missteps to fall through the cracks. Plus, there are Michael Bloomberg, who says he is switching parties, but opposes health care for all as too expensive, and Howard Schultz, the Starbucks king who has managed to offend all in just a few days, leaning toward an independent campaign that promises only to split any eventual vote. (No one has asked me, but I don’t see why Shultz can’t argue his case among the score of other Democrats).

The political talk shows claim they are burdened by the never-ending campaign, but their very presence is an acknowledgement that this ever-present horse race is always with us. What is needed is a better sense of exactly those values that should be driving candidacies rather than those “leaders” who step up only because they read and restate poll results.

At least those looking to possibly challenge Trump on the Republican side have a clear target in his demeanor and style, even while desperately trying to retain most of his pretty situational policy decisions. Among the Republican alternatives so far, mostly what you hear is that someone else should oppose the president.

All favor a lot more publicly supported health insurance, more educational and racial opportunity and a more, well, democratic view of wealth than represented by billionaire Donald Trump., though details may differ slightly. All oppose lots of the Trump program on climate, environment, tax cuts for corporations and a Wall for the border, although sometimes it seems hard to tell since talk TV is filled with references to questions about Gillibrand’s “likeability” and Harris’ pre-marriage love life.

Indeed, over the next year or so, we will collectively spend zillions of dollars just to help these folks. Already, my mailbox fills each day with fund-raising requests, adding to the daily appeals from Nancy Pelosi and friends who want money for more general Democratic efforts. With the highly ethical decisions piling up to skip PAC money or the like, there is more attention than ever on Internet-based populist appeals.

The easy answer to early confusion is simply waiting to see which of the candidates dies for lack of public financial support.

Frankly, I’d like to see the candidates who emerge actually standing for something. That’s what was appealing to so many about Bernie Sanders last time out, that there was some clarity and popular support for the central messages of health for all, anti-billionaire tax policy and support for public college tuition help.

After all, if we’re going to act like a system of Parliamentary cliques who come together at the end to form coalition governments, we might as well know what each really would do differently.

There is a good argument that these good Democrats remain in the Senate, where they can stand up to and try to work with the majority Senate Republicans. Too often, what we are seeing is not a Trump presidency, but one that is enabled and encouraged by Republican senators.

As for the swarm of candidates forming now, as one pundit noted, each seems to be apologizing for something said in the past in a direct appeal to newly woke Democratic voters. For Gillibrand, it is her one-time support for guns and the Blue Dog agenda, for Harris, her reliance on her tough prosecutorial experience in a Black Lives Matter era, Gabbard for having ragged on LBGTQ for some time earlier in her life, or Sanders, his non-responsiveness to reports of harassment within his last campaign by women volunteers by male counterparts.

The positive messages each sound great — Gillibrand’s call for more societal cohesiveness and compassion (though we are short on how this would happen in a political world so torn), Warren’s call for economic justice, Harris’ appeal as a fighter for fundamental American values (as opposed to the fundamental American values that Trump claims), and Brown’s urging of more workers’ rights. Exactly why those calls will work is less than perfect.

Of course, everyone could be “running” for vice president.

That there already are three or four women among the top tier of candidates is a good unto itself. That there is some ethnic diversity even better. My question is this: If it is difficult to distinguish one candidate from one another now, what is going to happen when we have two dozen?

The fear is that none of these candidates will actually emerge as a clear front-runner, and that the vote will be frittered among many. The fear is that a mushed-together program of anti-Trump proposals will not stand by themselves as a positive, populist approach. The fear is that collectively, we will raise tens of millions of dollars or more that will be simply lost to television advertising that fails to distinguish one from the next.

The lessons learned from a horrible national shutdown — in effect, a lockout of 800,000 federal workers — is not addressed at all in personality-based politics. The lessons learned from a huge national rift over immigration policy is that insistence on pre-manufactured answers like a Wall solve nothing, and hardly offer explanation for how we approach wide and complicated problem-solving. The lessons learned from growing reports of water shortages in spots around the world is that we hardly solve a global climate crisis by America First manufacturing promotion and tariffs policies.

I know we want to love our candidates as well as respect them. But for openers, we need to be able to distinguish one from the next.