The 2020 US presidential election is about a year and a half away, and the Democratic primary season is about to unfold. While it is hard to make a prediction at this stage, what is certain is that the Democrats are supremely energised. Their intense energy level was on full display in the 2018 mid-term polls. The high turnout of Democratic voters helped them take back the Congress in a spectacular fashion, making inroads into areas Trump had dominated in 2016.
Mr Trump himself is the driver of this energy. A large number of Americans loathe his divisive politics, his disdain for and trampling of American values, his fanning of fear to mobilise his base by manufacturing a false narrative on a number of issues. Immigration, global warming, and relations with traditional allies are some examples. Indeed, many analysts think that the rise of hate crimes, not only in America but also beyond, can be traced to his inflammatory rhetoric. His words give legitimacy to the rising culture of violence.
One trend among the Democrats at this early stage of the primary season is to identify themselves as liberals. A Chicago University poll, General Survey GSS, put 54 percent of Democrats in the category of liberals. In 1972, the same poll put the number of liberals at 32 percent. Another poll, Cooperative Congressional Election Study, run by a group of Harvard researchers, found that even those calling themselves conservatives among the Democrats have a left orientation. They support Medicare for all by 90 percent, a minimum wage of USD 12 by 80 percent in place of the existing USD 7, and unrestricted access to abortion for women—all pet liberal issues.
Obviously, this leftward tilt is a reaction to the Trump culture. The point to note, however, is that in a typically capitalist society like America, a leftist-oriented campaign is not the right method to win elections.
We may take a quick look at some of the Democratic aspirants who have declared their candidacy. The most prominent name to have entered the crowded field of Democratic candidates competing to take on Donald Trump in the 2020 election is the former US vice-president Joe Biden, who announced his bid to win Democratic nomination late last week. He may emerge as a formidable figure in the race.
Another person who also hogged the limelight is Bernie Sanders, a Senator from Vermont. He was involved in a tight contest with Hillary Clinton in 2016 before losing the nomination fight. The general view was that his left-leaning ideas, portraying him as a kind of a socialist, had caused his defeat. He is in his mid-seventies, but his energy and rhetorical power are enviable.
We will examine him more closely but at this point let us just briefly mention some other figures who are also taking a shot at the presidency.
Beto O’Rourke, ex Representative from Texas: O’Rourke captured public attention through a sparkling campaign for the Senate in 2018 mid-term against Republican stalwart Ted Cruz. He lost by a narrow margin but his potential was left in no doubt.
Kamala Harris (Senator, California): The daughter of an Indian immigrant mother and a Jamaican immigrant father, who describes herself as a black. She served as Attorney General of California, is sharp and articulate with a balanced mind. She has shown an ability to connect with the voters.
Amy Klobuchar (Senator, Minnesota): Some analysts believe she can win back some of the Obama supporters who went to Trump in 2016.
Cory Booker (Senator, New Jersey): An African-America politician with a unifying power. His ties with the Wall Street may be a weakness.
Kirsten Gillibrand (Senator, New York): She has a liberal mind-set, supports funding for public school, and wants to fight special interests and lobbyists in Washington.
Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders’ strategy to reach out to Trump supporters has attracted media focus. He demonstrated his courage of convictions and enjoyed media attention by a somewhat surprising but stirring appearance in a conservative Fox Channel-sponsored town hall meeting attended by a diverse group of audience. It was his third appearance in Trump-leaning forums. Usually, the Democratic candidates have concentrated on mobilising Trump opponents. His critics say that this is a risky move because it may scare off the Democratic centre and nullify the gains made by centrist Democratic lawmakers in suburban areas in 2018 mid-term.
In 2018, it was mostly the traditional Democrats who did well. For instance, in Wisconsin and Michigan, traditional candidates wrested both Governors’ seats from the Republicans.
Sanders has prompted a debate about whether the Democrats should nominate a Democratic version of Trump like him, whose combativeness closely matches Trump’s, or a consensus-builder who can rise above partisan anger and bring people together.
As Sanders tries to get his campaign to acquire a tempo, he has already made it clear that he will try to sway voters, especially those who have shut their eyes and ears to the vacuous, insubstantial stuff that Trump keeps vocalising. A few things that Sanders has said should be of interest to the readers of this piece.
In the Fox Channel town-hall meeting, lambasting Trump’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen which caused a devastating humanitarian crisis, Sanders observed: “Saudi Arabia should not be determining the foreign policy of this country.” He also criticised the president’s habit of saying things unconnected with the reality: “Trump cannot even tell the truth as to where his father was born… I don’t think that the American people are proud that we have a president who is a pathological liar.” It is worth noting that even the conservative Fox moderators did not contest Sanders’ characterisation of Trump as a liar. Earlier in a Union Hall meeting in Michigan, he said: “The biggest lie was that he [Trump] was going to stand up for working families and take on the establishment.” Clearly, his objective was to open the eyes of Trump base to the unreliability of their president.
That Sanders has a good hand on the voters’ pulse was also demonstrated when the audience in Fox was asked to indicate their reaction to the Medicare for all, and every one raised their hands.
A new twist has been added to what is already a complex scene by the Muller report on possible obstruction of justice by Trump on the question of Russian collusion in his 2016 campaign. The Democrats-controlled Congress has quite a job in its hand as it takes up the report and tries to build a compelling case that there was an obstruction of justice by the president. If they succeed, they will make the voters see that Trump is acting purely out of an ego-centric motive instead of any institutional concern.
Ziaus Shams Chowdhury is a former ambassador.