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'Should the Democrats return to their roots or follow moneyed interests?'

Even if Hillary Clinton had won in November, the Democratic Party would still be in trouble, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

“SHRUNK. DEMOCRATS ARE in their worst shape since 1929. Can anything save them?” So reads the new cover of Time magazine which includes a feature piece on the difficulties now facing the party.

In addition to having lost the presidency and being in the minority in both houses of Congress, they hold a mere 15 of 50 governorships and control only 12 of 50 state legislatures.

A considerable amount has been written and said about the ongoing internal struggle for the party’s “heart and soul”. There are some Democrats who believe the answer is to move further to the left and capitalise on the enthusiasm generated by Bernie Sanders’ insurgent bid last year. Others believe that the party must chart a more moderate course, lest it alienate the educated young professionals and wealthy donors on the coasts who have collectively become a crucial component of their base.

The wrong questions and wrong answers 

Actually, they are posing the wrong questions and offering the wrong answers. The political solution, albeit unpalatable to both camps, is rather straightforward. If the party simultaneously embraced the economic populism in the ascendancy in the United States and downplayed the cultural leftist agenda that so many in “Middle America” are allergic to, it would surely recapture elective offices at federal, state and local levels.

While this debate continues, speculation as to who might be the party’s standard bearer in the 2020 presidential election has already commenced in earnest. A brief, necessarily incomplete and very early examination of the chances of some putative Democratic nominees follows.

At this incipient stage, so many names have been thrown into the mix that a comprehensive assessment of what seems destined to be a huge field of runners would be a book-length undertaking.

Three internationally known figures remain the ones that casual observers of American politics moot first: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And indeed, the buzz around all three won’t die down. Sanders ran a campaign in 2016 that became a movement and hasn’t slowed down; Biden is extremely popular with Democrats of every stripe and even with Americans who voted for President Trump, and Warren has considerable intellectual firepower and has been a relentless advocate for millions of men and women who’ve been left behind.

Yesterday’s men? 

Yet there is an undeniable sense that the first two are yesterday’s men. Sanders will be 79 in January 2021 and Biden will be 78. Moreover, there is a serious question as to whether self-professed socialist Sanders could win a general election and it is likely that Biden missed his best chance at the White House last year.

The “age issue” would not affect Warren to the same extent, but even though she has championed their cause before and during her political career, it is uncertain whether unemployed steelworkers in Monessen, Pennsylvania could identify with a Harvard Law School professor residing in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And if she were the nominee, President Trump would not hesitate to remind blue collar, white men that she referenced her quite distant Native American background strategically in her ultimately successful applications for Ivy League academic posts.

Several US Senators have been mentioned prominently, including Cory Booker from New Jersey, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York and Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota. Each is a relatively young, proven vote getter with manifest ability.

The possible candidates 

Klobuchar is popular with liberals and her midwestern background may prove an asset. Gillibrand, once an avowed “Blue Dog” (ie moderate) Democrat who opposed gun control, and Booker, an African American who was backed by 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp in his first run for mayor of Newark, are perhaps harder to classify ideologically, despite their having moved leftward subsequently.

Each, however, currently lacks national name recognition. 46% of voters have never heard of Booker and larger majorities don’t know Gillibrand or Klobuchar. And if Democrats factor geography into their selection process, none is from a potentially advantageous state.

Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, Terry McAuliffe of Virginia and John Hickenlooper of Colorado have also been pointed to. The first two have big reputations that would cut both ways. Cuomo is associated with his late father, former New York mayor Mario Cuomo, and McAuliffe is a close friend of the Clintons. Hickenlooper is a low octane, “non-politician politician” who ticks a lot of boxes in the present climate, yet is an unknown quantity with no profile.

Two sitting US congressmen are longer shots. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts requires no introduction. He is a thoughtful, articulate and capable young man. He is a teetotaller with no propensity for the behaviour that derailed the ambitions of some of his relations. Whether Kennedy’s optimism could strike a chord with struggling Americans is another matter, particularly if voters have had enough of political dynasties.

Tim Ryan of Ohio has been described as “a down-to-earth populist Democrat who won 68% of the vote in a Rust Belt Trump stronghold” district. He has obvious electoral strengths and is at one with the zeitgeist in 2017 America. It is a huge leap to go from garnering a mandate in Youngstown and Akron to winning his party’s nomination for president, especially in light of his track record on abortion – he was strongly pro-life until 2015 – and his recent attempt to dislodge the still very popular Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader in the House of Representative.

Others may launch credible campaigns 

There are numerous others who may launch credible campaigns. They, and those named above, will have to confront the query on the cover of Time magazine. Anyone who truly tackles it will encounter an impasse. Should the party return to its roots or follow the lead of moneyed interests that have arguably led it astray – to the right economically and ever leftward socially?

Much is ado about President Trump. Indeed, he is a bad president. But he is just a symptom. And attacking his policies or railing on about a “Russian connection” won’t alter this truth: even if Hillary Clinton had won in November, the Democratic Party would still be in trouble.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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