Primary Strategy: Two Views

“Who should the Democrats nominate?”

Wherever I go, that’s the question on everyone’s mind. Whether I’m having dinner with friends or out for coffee, whether I’m with one person or with a group, everyone wants to talk about it. Even at work, where politics is taboo, the subject comes up: Bernie or Biden? What about Warren? Some candidates, like Mayor Pete and Kamala Harris were the hot topic for a while, but their stars have begun to wane, as has Corey Booker’s, and Beto O’Rourke’s and many of the rest. No one seems to be particularly excited about any of the possibilities, but everyone is anxious about the outcome.

The overriding consideration in every conversation, of course, is beating Trump. But there’s a whole lot of angst and disagreement about the best way to do that.

There are basically two opposing approaches to taking back the White House in 2020, and each has its strength and weaknesses. Each makes certain assumptions about why people vote, and what they want, what might make them stay home on election day, or what might make them vote for Trump again. Let’s call the first of the two approaches Back-to-Business, and the second Radical Change.

In the view of Back-to-Business advocates, the real problem in this country is Donald Trump, and once we send Trump packing, America will be able to get back on track. This approach looks around and says that our economy is strong, our institutions are healthy and our pre-Trump policies were sound. Donald Trump is the source of all of our problems: he lies constantly, he incites racism, he’s corrupt, he cavorts with Russia and North Korea. From immigration to foreign policy to climate change and everything else, he’s the problem and if we just get rid of him and replace him with a competent president who obeys the rule of law and respects the Constitution, all will be well.

Proponents of the Back-to-Business strategy argue that a moderate candidate will attract a coalition of voters from all over the political spectrum large enough to oust Trump: of course, the vast majority of Democrats and left-leaning voters will support whoever the Democrats nominate (they certainly aren’t going to vote for Trump!). And advocates of this approach believe that plenty of Republicans looking for an alternative to Trump would be willing to support a Democrat with strong pro-business, anti-regulation positions, who will make only moderate changes in our existing health care structure and who will not push extreme social issues. Independents will also support a middle-of-the-road Democrat who is willing to compromise and not push our policies too far left. This approach promises to give a home to all voters fed up with Trump’s conduct in office.

Radical Change, the second approach, has a different theory of the case. Advocates of Radical Change don’t see Trump as the problem per se, but rather as a symptom of the larger problems facing America. Their opponent on election day won’t be Donald Trump as much as it will be the status quo. It says that the reason that so many Americans voted for Trump in the first place was that the system wasn’t working for them. They’ve felt economic pain for a while now and view our political system as corrupt and unresponsive to voters, and that’s why so many of them were willing to “blow it all up” by electing Trump. In order to win over these voters, Democrats need to put forth a bold plan which promises to make real changes to our system.

This scenario does not to try to build a coalition because Radical Change proponents believe that the key to victory is bringing out left-leaning voters in large enough numbers to win. They want to nominate a candidate with far-reaching ideas for solving our problems. This candidate would be able to engage and excite dissatisfied Democrats, progressives, young voters and many people who normally don’t vote, as well as the swing voters who swung to Trump. There are enough of these voters to win a majority, so Radical Change doesn’t even attempt to target traditional Republican voters.

Proponents of Radical Change say that the Back-to-Business approach doesn’t do anything to address the real economic hardship that Americans have been suffering for a generation. Our economy is fine for those who have been able to navigate the changes that technology, free trade, and other factors have made in the labor market — those who are currently doing well — but does nothing for those who have been left behind. Back-to-Business ignores the plight of the coal workers and the factory workers who have lost their livelihoods and the minimum wage earners whose checks haven’t kept pace with the cost of living. Those are the very voters who felt such distress that they were willing to buy into Trump’s baseless promises to bring back coal jobs and restore American factories, and those voters will find nothing for them in a Back-to-Business candidate, so they will have no incentive to show up at the polls on election day, or worse, they will vote for another Hail Mary Trump term.

Radical change proponents also think that a Back-to-Business approach will leave Progressive voters cold: those people worried about climate change, corruption, health care, gender equality and other important issues will be unhappy with a Back-to-Business approach because they will see a moderate candidate as unwilling to fight for meaningful structural changes in our society and so will simply perpetuate the increasing income inequality, health care problems, climate crisis and other issues facing us. These folks will either stay home at election time, or will vote for a third party candidate and end up splitting the Democratic vote, and thereby propel Trump to a second term.

On the other hand, the Business-as-Usual supporters argue that most voters in the US identify as moderate, and fear that a Radical Change approach will scare away moderate voters, whether Democrat, Republican or independent. These voters are easily convinced that any far-left candidate will fundamentally change the nature of our society. An example, they say, is the health care debate: most Americans are perfectly happy with their health care and don’t want any change that may require them to give up their private insurance or their doctor. Moderate voters fear candidates who identify with the label “Socialist” because they equate it with Communism. These voters are swayed by right wing fear-mongering tactics which claim that Democrats hate America, want open borders, and want to turn America socialist and so forth.

Corporate leaders, business advocates, and other fiscal conservatives claim that a far-left candidate will create an unfriendly business climate which will lead to decreases in profits, increases in corporate taxes, stock market declines, and job loss.

There are valid points as well as risky assumptions in both approaches. All anyone can do is look to the past for clues, but the past doesn’t predict the future, and there’s no way to know with any certainty what actually motivated people to vote (or not vote) in the last election. (Racism and nationalism also played a part in voter behavior, but no one really knows for certain how much.)

And of course, we can’t discount the significant challenge of finding a candidate who can deliver the message without being derailed by their own baggage. Of the twenty candidates still standing, only two or three have any real chance of becoming the nominee, and each of them has flaws. There is no perfect candidate.

But there’s a lot at stake, and I, for one, will be paying close attention to all of it. As you listen to candidates and follow coverage over the coming weeks and months, listen for these underlying themes. Which approach do you think is the correct one? Which theory do you think has the best chance of beating Trump?

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