The 2020 Democratic presidential primary has already begun, whether you like it or not. In fact, we are are already midway through the two-year “invisible primary,” in which prospective candidates first jockey for stature, and then move toward nailing down top donors, staff and volunteers. So, who’s winning?
Because of its invisible nature, accurately assessing how the first year went is tricky business. Who knew that Barack Obama’s time spent in 2005 writing “The Audacity of Hope” would lead to a best-selling phenomenon that catapulted his candidacy? Who recognized that Donald Trump was seizing the Republican pole position in 2013 by suing Bill Maher over an orangutan sex joke, publicly questioning the merits of allowing women to serve with men in the military, complaining that Jon Stewart was calling him F**kface Von Clownstick, blaming “blacks and Hispanics” for “overwhelming amount of violent crime” and teasing a run in Iowa?
But not every nomination is won by an unanticipated celebrity juggernaut. Ask Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kerry, George W. Bush, Bob Dole or Bill Clinton. Sometimes it’s the old-fashioned networking in early primary states and record of political accomplishment that gives a candidate an early lead that persists through the inevitable ups and downs.
So, did any Democrat have an exceptional 2017 to help put them in command once the invisible primary ends and the visible primary begins on Wednesday, November 7, 2018?
Not exactly. But some candidates clearly have done more than others. Here’s a look back at how some of the more active presidential wannabes spent their year.
The Not-Democrat Democrat
The candidate who best fortified his position as the public face of the Democratic Party is unquestionably Sen. Bernie Sanders. How much more airtime does he get than everyone else in pack? Consider this stat: Bernie was a guest on the Sunday morning talk shows for a whopping 21 out of 52 weeks this year. No other potential candidate appeared more than four times.
Sanders also was the star of four prime-time CNN town halls, three since September.
But Bernie was not just showboating for the cameras in 2017. He leveraged his out-sized media platform and fervent grass-roots base to exert influence over the party. He single-handedly got nearly the entire prospective presidential field to embrace single-payer health insurance. He prompted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to propose an anti-monopoly economic reform package. And he is on track to make the Democratic National Committee reduce the number of superdelegates for the 2020 convention.
And he did all that while still refusing to become a Democrat.
By retaining his independent status, he remains removed from the accursed Democratic establishment. While it makes partisans howl, the “I” next to his name burnishes Sanders’ status as an insurgent reformer, not a creature of the party.
Still, by no means has Bernie locked down the nomination, or even consolidated the left. His attempts to prioritize economic populism have caused friction with activists concerned about racial equality and reproductive freedom. Back in April, NARAL Pro-Choice America publicly criticized him when he endorsed a candidate for Omaha mayor who, as a Nebraska state legislator, supported measures restricting abortion. Bernie was unapologetic in response, making an uncharacteristic case for ideological flexibility to NPR, “You just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.”
Also, his 2017 campaign trail track record was mixed. Sanders had no involvement in the two biggest Democratic wins of the year: Alabama Senate and Virginia governor (Sanders huffily sat out the Virginia general election after his choice in the primary came up short). And he struck out in the two House elections in which he did stump for the Democrat—Montana’s at-large and Kansas’ 4th District contests, undercutting the argument that Bernie is America’s “most popular politician” and possesses superior turnout powers.
Bernie begins 2018 in the pole position; what little polling we’ve seen has him in the lead. But by no means has he been able to clear the field in 2017.
The only prospective candidate who aggressively elevated her position in the invisible primary was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, thanks to her seizing of the sexual misconduct issue.
She had long toiled on the subject of military sexual assault from her perch on the Senate Armed Services Committee. But when she said it would have been “appropriate” for Bill Clinton to resign the presidency over his workplace affair with Monica Lewinsky, she won plaudits from many feminists for taking a principled stand. Then, when she led the charge that forced the resignation of Sen. Al Franken, she showed her ability to harness and wield political power to advance the cause.
These moves have helped her distinguish herself from a very crowded, nascent field. Though they also came with downsides. Coupled with her growing reputation as a crusader against sexual misconduct is a growing reputation for being an opportunist.
“What they did to Al [Franken] was atrocious,” groused Sen. Joe Manchin, channeling the consternation of Franken loyalists who thought he deserved an investigation. (Manchin did not single out Gillibrand but was unmistakably looking in her direction.) A few days before the Franken purge, in response to Gillibrand’s endorsement of a primary challenge against a right-leaning House Democrat, House “Blue Dog” member Kurt Schrader lashed out: “It’s bullshit. She used to be a Blue Dog, and then miraculously turns around? C’mon, man.”
That crack ended up in an Republican National Committee opposition research dump titled “The Gillibrand Grift,” chronicling her shift from a relatively conservative upstate New York House member to her current progressivism. The same day that document was released, Trump, looking to sow Democratic division, crassly tweeted she was: “Someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked [Hillary.]”
Calling a politician an opportunist is redundant, and Gillibrand may be suffering from a gendered double standard that penalizes women for things for which men get rewarded. What’s most important is that Gillibrand has made herself influential enough to warrant getting attacked. Even if she loses some Democratic support as a result, that may be a necessary price to pay for breaking out of the pack early.
No one has spent more time in 2017 laying out a comprehensive, alternative vision to Trumpism than Joe Biden. He founded two institutes, one for domestic policy, the other for foreign policy. He’s delivered major policy speeches critiquing Trump’s nationalism at home and abroad. He has penned a steady flow of op-eds in major publications, on subjects from health care to Russia, from race to America’s role in the world.
He even managed to write a book about the son he lost to cancer and the presidential campaign that wasn’t meant to be, but still could be. (The New York Times book review noted he found “multiple excuses to invoke his middle-class bona fides.”)
However, his “American Promise” book tour got stomped on by one Anita Hill.
On Nov. 13, the day his book tour began, at Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year Summit, an audience member and the moderator asked Biden about his treatment of Hill during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Biden’s apology, not the book, was the headline of the day.
The somewhat qualified apology proved insufficient, allowing the friction with Hill hover over the tour. On Nov. 22, the Washington Post published her nonplussed response: “I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened.” Earlier this month, in an interview with Teen Vogue, Biden tried to be more definitive: “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology.”
The book tour was becoming an apology tour. But then came Meghan McCain.
When she teared up on “The View” talking about how her father Sen. John McCain has the same aggressive form of cancer that Biden’s son Beau had, Biden masterfully consoled her, infused her with hope, gave an impromptu lecture on advance in cancer treatment and made her laugh with a story about how her dad once growled at Biden to “get the hell off the ticket.”
But in that moment with Meghan McCain, Biden showed what he does that few in politics can: comfort and connect so effortlessly that you don’t even realize or care that he’s still talking politics. He will not be put out to pasture so easily.
The Not-Socialist Populist
Sen. Elizabeth Warren began the year with a letter-perfect campaign slogan handed to her by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “Nevertheless, She Persisted.” In the spring she published a populist treatise, “This Fight Is Our Fight.” It sold modestly but further sharpened her economic vision. As encapsulated in Paul Krugman’s book review, Warren’s central goal is give “intervention in markets equal billing with taxes and social spending as a way to combat inequality.” For example, she writes that she would reinstate a version of the FDR-era rules that separated “plain-vanilla banking like checking accounts” from “crazy risk-taking on Wall Street.”
Warren sought to minimize daylight between her and Sanders, with whom she may be competing for populist votes. She signed on to his single-payer legislation and echoed the belief of many Berniecrats that the 2016 primary process was “rigged” (though she later hedged, saying the “overall … process was fair” despite “some bias” at the Democratic National Committee).
But she also found the opportunity to make some subtle distinctions from her independent New England neighbor. During a speech at the progressive Netroots Nation conference primarily excoriating the “bland, business-as-usual establishment,” Warren slipped in the line, “We’re not going back to the days of being lukewarm on choice.” The comment appears to set up a challenge to Sanders’ argument that Democrats should endorse anti-abortion candidates in conservative areas if they embrace economic populism. And in an interview with the Atlantic, she uttered three words Bernie would probably never say: “I love markets.” Her regulatory proposals are designed to save markets from themselves, whereas Sanders gets more animated when discussing socialistic proposals like free college and health care.
Like Gillibrand, Warren has found herself the subject of Trump’s mockery, as he continues to slur her with the moniker “Pocahontas.” Trump’s billionaire ally Robert Mercer has also established a Massachusetts First PAC dedicated to pillorying Warren during her 2018 reelection campaign as a “hypocrite” on the grounds she is wealthy yet holds populist views.
Have the attacks hurt? A recent Massachusetts poll shows Warren handily beating her potential 2018 opponents for her Senate seat, though she carries a slightly higher-than-you-might-expect disapproval rating at home of 38 percent, worse than the state’s Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, and higher than the 32 percent of the state that voted for Trump in 2016.
In September, liberal commentator Rebecca Traister expressed her fear that “Elizabeth Warren Is Getting Hillary-ed,” in part because these conservative attacks are creating “a construction that suggests that her self-presentation is inauthentic, as Clinton’s was often presumed to be. “ Then again, Hillary did win the primary.
Of all the Democrats elected to new posts in 2016, Sen. Kamala Harris came to Washington with the most presidential buzz. She offers the possibility of the first woman of color president. She made the Democrats giddy when she got under Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ skin during Senate testimony, and they rallied to her side when a Trump acolyte characterized Harris’ questioning as “hysterical.” If she won the most primary delegates from her home state of California along with the heavily African-American states of the South, she’d be tough to beat.
But while she has a long background in criminal justice—she wrote the 2009 book “Smart on Crime” and served as California attorney general—she did not find an issue in 2017 to truly call her own, the way the other top-tier contenders have.
She also has attracted the most enemies from inside the Democratic Party tent, with some Berniecrats targeting her as the candidate of big donors and questioning her progressive bona fides (the early rifling through her record suggests the populist left is more worried about Harris’ ability to win than Biden’s).
Harris tried to nip that “donor class” narrative in the bud by co-sponsoring Sanders’ single-payer bill. But if she wants to fully satisfy the left, she will likely have to do more to crystalize a governing vision of her own in the coming months.
The ebullient Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey built a 3.6 million strong Twitter following (third biggest in the Senate behind Sanders’ 7 million and Warren’s 3.9 million) by letting it showcase his personality. Like other senators, he dutifully promotes his appearances and legislation—bills with an eye toward Democratic constituencies like the Access to Birth Control Act and the Marijuana Justice Act.
Unlike other senators, he mixes it up with the masses, engaging constituents, bucking up the disillusioned and offering warmth to critics. He drops in the occasional goofy poem (Sen. Ben Cardin tweeted out video of Booker reading him a poem as a Christmas gift). All of his effervescence stems from his oft-repeated touchstone that “we are all here today as a physical manifestation of a larger conspiracy of love.”
Connecticut’s Sen. Chris Murphy is far less of a character than Booker, and his Twitter following has yet to crack 1 million. But he arguably makes more political waves with his social media roundhouses.
Murphy, who represents the bereaved citizens of Newtown, has become the nation’s conscience on gun control via his outraged tweets after mass shootings. Most provocatively, after the Las Vegas massacre, he sought to shame his Republican colleagues by tweeting: “To my colleagues: your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers.” By diving into such a charged debate, Murphy is hoping to nurture a loyal niche of gun control voters.
Booker tweets on policy, too. But the 2017 tweet of his that made the most waves was when he appeared to ask Mindy Kaling out on a date.
Social media skill has not been enough for either presidential aspirant to be elevated into the top-tier of candidates. For example, Murphy invested the time and effort to produce a 65-page vision of a progressive foreign policy, but he hasn’t yet been able to popularize it and position himself as more than a single-issue candidate. And Booker has to yet to show he can use his large following to wield real political power.
Still, there are plenty of other wannabe candidates who haven’t figured out how to build a social media following at all. At least if and when Booker and Murphy announce their candidacies, someone online will be cheering them on.
The Slow and Steady
Several long-shot prospects made initial below-the-radar moves in 2017 that may not have made them instant household names, but may aid them down the road.
Sen. Jeff Merkley is a populist in good standing with left, as the only senator who sided with Sanders over Hillary Clinton last year. He would have a hard time climbing over either Sanders or Warren, or both, to claim the populist mantle in 2020. However, he has become the key liaison between Senate progressives and Beltway activists, hosting biweekly strategy sessions in his office. That may give him the inside track for talented and well-connected staff, which will come in handy if the New England superstars stumble or stand aside.
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state is poised to raise his national profile, having assumed the chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association, which will take him across the country to help Democratic candidates win the 36 gubernatorial elections on tap for 2018. Past service as DGA chair is no guarantee for winning the presidential nomination—it didn’t do Bill Richardson much good in 2008, nor Martin O’Malley in 2016. But Inslee’s getting in at the ground floor. Democrats held 15 governorships in 2017, the lowest number in the history of 50-state America. (That number will be 16 once Phil Murphy assumes office in New Jersey next year.) With all signs pointing to blue wave in the midterms, Inslee will likely get some credit for expanding the Democrats’ gubernatorial ranks, whether he deserves it or not.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe got a boost in November when Virginia voters elected his lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, to be his successor by a comfortable margin, effectively ratifying his stewardship. McAuliffe has a lot to overcome to get the nomination: He’s a defiant free-trader and big-dollar fundraiser at a time when many primary voters want the opposite on both fronts, and he’s closely associated with the Clintons. But he leaves a state with strong job growth and low unemployment. And he would stand alone in the field when it comes to delivering on voting rights, having personally restored them to 168,000 ex-felons.
Gov. Steve Bullock didn’t get much opportunity to grace the national stage because he was busy putting out fires, literally. He called the summer of 2017 was “one of the worst fire seasons” in Montana history. It put a strain on the state budget, and he was forced to make concessions to the Republican Legislature in order to avert a deficit—not the kind of big win one can tout on the primary campaign trail. Still, he started a political action committee that many see as a precursor to a presidential run. In May, he laid out his views on “How Democrats Can Win in the West” for the New York Times, suggesting ways to transcend partisanship on health care and the environment. He strongly believes protection of public lands is a bipartisan political winner, and this month he dinged Trump’s decision to shrink the size of two Utah national monuments in a Washington Post op-ed. But he will likely have to go beyond such regional subjects to qualify for the top tier.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar has resembled “The Sidler” from Seinfeld, stealthily entering the room without anyone realizing it. Who came in second this year to Bernie Sanders in appearances on the Sunday talk shows? Why, it’s Klobuchar, popping up four times. She even shared the stage with Bernie on one of CNN’s prime-time town halls on health care, where you probably did not notice she did not embrace Sanders’ single-payer bill. Last year, she quietly led the Senate in legislative output, sponsoring the greatest number of bills that became law, all of which you probably cannot name. Still, she can’t sidle forever. At some point, if she means business, she’ll have to make a bolder breakout move. With her fellow Minnesotan Al Franken out of the presidential picture, she’ll have an easier time doing so.
The Slow Off the Mark
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has the flashiest name in the Democrats’ bench of governors. But he has had prickly relations with progressives that could dog him in a presidential primary. To mitigate that problem, he tacked leftward this year, signing into law a plan to offer free college to low- and middle-income full-time students who enroll in public universities. The plan won Sanders’ endorsement, but others on the left faulted its limited reach.
Then Cuomo ended the year on a discordant note, hectoring a female reporter who pressed him on sexual misconduct policy after an aide of his was charged with harassment, and awkwardly trying to shift blame to legislators for the struggling New York City subway system. He’ll need a few more legislative wins, and a new zero-tolerance sexual misconduct policy, next year if he wants some momentum going into campaign announcement season.
Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio ended the year openly teasing a dark horse run, suggesting he’ll try to be the second sitting House member to win the presidency, after James Garfield in 1880. If that jump wasn’t hard enough, he appears to be positioning himself against the grain of a Democratic primary electorate that’s heavily female and nonwhite.
At a September appearance in Iowa, Ryan chastised Democrats for targeted appeals at different constituencies: “Republicans have been trying to divide us. And we as Democrats came along and affirmed their divisions. We said, ‘If you’re African-American, I’m going to talk to you about voting rights. If you’re a Latino, I’m going to talk to you about immigration. If you’re a woman, I talk to you about choice. If you’re gay, I talk to you about LGBT rights.’” If Ryan wants to rally Democrats around a unifying message that transcends demographics, he’d be better off coming up with one in 2018 instead of sounding dismissive of issues that matter to many primary voters.
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