The Democrats are already on the defensive in the 2020 presidential election—even though they don’t have a candidate yet.
In his State of the Union speech, President Trump pressed an attack we’re likely to hear a lot more of as the 2020 race intensifies. “We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump said. “We renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Trump didn’t accuse Democrats of socialist sympathies by name, but that’s clearly what he had in mind. And his attacks are likely to become more barbed when not bound by the niceties required of a prime-time address to Congress.
The tactic might work. There’s a lot of energy in the Democratic party, which regained control of the House of Representative in last year’s midterm elections. But there’s also a lot of drift—much of it to the left. With President Obama out of office and Hillary Clinton presumably vanquished, the party has no standard-bearer, other than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who’s 78 and not running for president.
At the same time, the party’s reaction to Trump’s tax-slashing, deregulatory agenda is to lurch in the other direction. So we have Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, clearly a rising star, calling for tax rates as high as 70% on top earners, a sharp hike from the current top rate of 37%. Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants a new wealth tax on multimillionaires, and other reforms to capitalism meant to transfer wealth from shareholders to workers. Senators Bernie Sanders and Charles Schumer just called for new legislation to limit corporate share buybacks, which is probably impracticable.
When Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016, his “Medicare for all” idea was a fringe proposal backed by few Democrats. But it’s now going mainstream, with Sen. Kamala Harris, another presidential contender, supporting a full government-run health care plan—at enormous public expense—and other candidates backing different versions of expanded Medicare. Free college for qualified students (paid for by Uncle Sam) is another Sanders idea catching on.
Not exactly socialism
None of these things is really socialism, which economists define as state control of production. But in politics, labels often matter more than facts, and Trump is an expert at branding. That includes negative branding of opponents and ideas he wants voters to reject: Little Marco, Low-Energy Jeb, Pocahontas, etc.
The power vacuum in the Democratic party is another factor pushing the party to the left, making it vulnerable to Trump’s socialist branding. Democrats in 2020 will face the same identity crisis the Republican party faced in 2012 and 2016: With no obvious frontrunner, a battalion of candidates will compete by catering to the extreme wing of the party and perhaps producing a flawed general-election candidate. Primary voters in both parties are more intensely partisan than voters in the general election, since moderate Independents can vote in general elections, but not in primaries in most states. The primary process rewards partisan candidates while sometimes forcing moderates away from the middle.
In 2012, Mitt Romney famously declared himself “severely conservative” during the primary elections, even though his policies were generally moderate. From that point on, Romney struggled to define himself, leaving the impression he was pretending to be somebody he wasn’t. He got walloped in the November general election. In 2016, Trump benefited from the extremist pull of primaries, with his nativist immigration views helping him capture the nomination. Yet Trump won just 46% of the popular vote in the general election, and is still struggling with a border-wall policy a majority of Americans oppose.
Democrats haven’t had to deal with this problem up till now, because they’ve had establishment traditionalists as front-runners. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama might have been left-of-center in various ways, but they didn’t pander to the far left the way Trump and Romney pandered to the far right. But the Democratic candidates of 2020 may not be able to resist the pull. It’s also true that the boundaries of left, right and center are constantly in flux, with policies that may have seemed extreme a few years ago seeming more mainstream now.
There are still moderates in the Democratic party, such as the New Democrat Coalition, which describes itself as pro-business and fiscally conservative. If Joe Biden decides to run for president, he could be a relatively centrist face of the party. Beto O’Rourke, if he runs, might be more moderate than candidates who favor vast new federal programs.
But left-leaning progressives are dominating the conversation right now, which is apparently one reason former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz—a lifelong Democrat—says he’s considering running for president as an Independent. Democrats have castigated Schultz, saying he’d steal Democratic votes and throw the election to Trump if he ran as an Independent. What they might be doing instead is persuading Schultz to run as one of their own. If they’re afraid of having a socially liberal successful businessman in their party, then maybe Democrats have, in fact, gone too far to the left.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman