With the passing of summer into autumn, Americans traditionally begin to take any upcoming presidential campaign seriously. While there is still a lot we do not know about the twists and turns ahead in the 2020 contest, already there is a surprising amount that is clearly in focus.
The very crowded Democratic field has already been decisively winnowed. Despite several baseball team’s worth of aspirants for the nomination (more than 20 serious candidates initially announced their candidacies), according to the September 4 Real Clear Politics average of polls, only three candidates are presently in double digits in the Democratic race.
That poll of polls found that Vice President Joe Biden was at 30 percent, Senator Elizabeth Warren next at 17 percent, and Senator Bernie Sanders closely trailing her at 16 percent. In terms of Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two Democratic contests, the results were closer, with Biden leading Warren in Iowa by eight points, and a nose ahead of Sanders in New Hampshire by two points.
It is worth taking a minute to assess the strengths and weaknesses of all three, as one of them is almost surely the person who will take on Donald Trump in 2020.
Barack Obama’s former Vice President still rues the day he decided not to get into the 2016 presidential race, ultimately surprisingly won by Donald Trump. Given his homespun, everyman persona, it is commonly thought (and I agree) that in 2016 Biden was the one major Democratic player who could have blunted Trump’s emerging populist appeal, quite likely winning either Pennsylvania (where his family come from), Michigan, or Wisconsin, and thus the presidency.
But while presently consistently ahead in almost all the major Democratic polls, Biden increasingly seems like a figure from another era. It is an open question as to whether an increasingly leftist party wants the last moderate standing as its standard bearer in the fight against Trump.
The former Vice President, currently 76, now seems a step slower on the campaign trail. After two distinctly mediocre debate performances and endless verbal gaffes, the Biden campaign team’s seeming strategy of shielding him from intense media scrutiny cannot possibly continue as the presidential campaign heats up.
Biden is actively liked by most of the party, has immense fund-raising potential, and is (as is indicated in almost every poll) considered the most likely Democrat to beat Trump head-to-head. But in a sense, head-to-head is precisely the problem. A Democratic fear is that Trump, a fearsome if unorthodox debater, will make mincemeat of Biden in the general election run-up — that the old war horse’s best years are behind him.
No one has had a better political year so far than Elizabeth Warren. Widely counted out following the ‘Pocahontas affair,’ whereby Warren claimed Native American ancestry that DNA testing did not validate, she became that worst of things, the butt of one of Trump’s savage Twitter jokes.
While presently consistently ahead in almost all the major Democratic polls, Biden increasingly seems like a figure from another era.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
But then a strange thing happened as Warren rose from the political dead, doing her homework both in assembling the commonly acknowledged best early campaign team, as well as in setting out detailed policy plans for just about anything. Her unofficial slogan, ‘I have a plan for that,’ has become the rallying cry for those in the party who want to go beyond merely beating Donald Trump.
The problem — in terms of the general election — is that these answers are all from the left in what remains a solidly center-right country. Warren is for impeaching Trump, for Health Care for all (whatever the cost), straightforwardly for higher taxes, for almost-limitless abortion rights, and for few immigration limits. All these stances place her at odds with independent voters, the ones who tend to determine American presidential elections.
Warren is also easy to caricature, being a college professor from very liberal Harvard, in very liberal Massachusetts, which since the glory days of JFK has a dismal record (Edward Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry) in putting forward Democratic nominees who are out of tune with the rest of the country.
Vying with Warren for the progressive vote, Senator Bernie Sanders is the ruffled, authentic voice of American socialism. Supported by a strong cadre of adherents who fell in love with him during his inspired, if failed, race against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Sanders rivals Trump in having a base that seems to be with him through thick and thin.
But 2020 is not 2016. Then Sanders stood alone against the more moderate Clinton, uniting progressives. This time Sanders is slightly fading in favor of Warren, who seems better prepared, more professional, and more ‘serious’ than Sanders’ ramshackle campaign.
Also, as with Warren, Sanders is left of anyone who has ever seriously run for president in the modern era. It is hard to see Sanders winning a general election in a country where calling someone a socialist is still considered derogatory.
So, as was true of Dorothy’s companions in “The Wizard of Oz,” each of the Democratic front-runners are missing something important that could get in the way of victory over Trump. Given this ‘Wizard of Oz’ problem, the smart money must still be on the president.