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Pitfalls the Democrats Should Avoid for 2020

Don’t focus on who can win; focus on who can lose.
February 25, 2019
Pitfalls the Democrats Should Avoid for 2020
Buttons of possible 2020 presidential contenders. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

With President Trump’s 42 percent approval rating perhaps as much of a ceiling as a floor, with the Mueller investigation grinding to a close, and with the possibility of a softening economy in 2020, the presidential prospects for Democrats are alluring. But let’s not underestimate the Democrats ability to hurt themselves. The 55 percent of Americans who hold a negative opinion of Trump represent a broader range of opinions than the 42 percent who support him, and it will harder for the Democratic nominee to consolidate that support, especially in the wake of a potentially bruising primary. Can the Democrats remain true to their principles while keeping one eye on the general election?

There are three types of candidates who the Democrats would do well to avoid if they want to reach that 55 percent of Americans who might constitute an anti-Trump coalition:

  1. The Trump-esque. Trump has a strong personality and a gift of communication. He is superb at disruption and dominating the moment, even if that disruption can involve insults and questionable statements. Still, we can see the tactical appeal. If Trump can rant and denigrate effectively, why don’t we find a candidate who rants and denigrates? This tactic suffers from a moral vacuity and also violates a key rule of politics: Play to your strengths, not your opponent’s. Do not nominate the angriest person you can find. Trump will, well, trump you. He feeds off negative energy and an angry candidate risks generating only anger.
  2. The Jeremy Corbyn. The British Labour Party wanted to see if it could go hard-left, and hard-left it went, with calls for income redistribution, criticism of NATO, and a focus on grievance politics. There is a significant hard-left faction in the Democratic party as well, fixated with class warfare and identity politics. But there is not a lot of evidence that the swing voter is enamored with class warfare. What its advocates view as a concern over inequality might also be viewed as a desire to punish the wealthy. A presidential candidate can win the nomination from the left, but a nominee must be able to reach swing voters.
  3. The William Henry Harrison. Yes, I am referring to the 1840 Whig pesident who died 30 days after inauguration. My point is that the Democratic nominee, while avoiding outlandish policies, must stand for something: historical party values such as sympathy for those left behind. William Henry Harrison managed to stand for… nothing. This was by design as we learn from his campaign manager Nicholas Biddle. Arthur Schlesinger quotes Biddle’s instructions on Harrison in The Age of JacksonLet him say not one single word about his principles, or his creed – let him say nothing – promise nothing. Let no committee, no convention, no town meeting ever extract from him a single word about what he thinks now, or what he will do hereafter. Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden as if he were a mad poet in Bedlam.

The Democratic nominee needs a set of principles that can also serve as a framework for governing.

In this early phase of the race, it might be a challenge to hone in on the ideal candidate. It will be easier to decide who to leave behind. We don’t always know what we want, but we usually know what we don’t want.

I invite Democrats to prove me wrong if they disagree and nominate the angriest lefty they can find, or embrace Biddle and find a candidate who stands for nothing. They should be warned, though, that doing so might well end with the re-election of an angry man who stands for everything they find distasteful.

Frank Lavin

Frank Lavin has spent much of his professional life dealing with China issues, from serving as under secretary for international trade at the U.S. Commerce Department, to banking positions in Hong Kong and Singapore, to his current work helping U.S. brands in China e-commerce. He served as political director in the Reagan White House and has worked in a number of Republican presidential campaigns.