The 2020 election is a very long way off. Much has to develop, particularly the candidates and their message. They will grow along with their crowds, refining their message and presence into a clear vision of how the nation reboots itself and renews for a new generation.
What’s remarkable at this stage is not just that the three leading candidates are women, but that as a unit they represent the spectrum of Democratic identity and policy. They’re likely to be the top contenders through the process as a result. They also have remarkably similar resumes and similar things to prove. In politics and personality, however, they create their own archetypes.
Is this going to be a choice between senators Harris, Klobuchar, and Warren? At this stage, they are at the very least the ones to watch. That is, by itself, an impressive and fascinating story. In my own opinion, and this is all just my opinion, it’s going to be a good one.
Before we get into the first act of this long drama, it’s important to set the stage. The chaos and corruption of the Trump administration is unsustainable in many ways, particularly voter fatigue. It’s not clear yet whether all of this will turn people off or radicalize them.
Everyone has a daily life which they need to simply keep on keepin’ on, and following the daily tweetstorm or taking a deep dive into the details of the Mueller report only makes this more difficult There is simply too much news, and many will continue to turn it off and do their best to take care of business. But if it’s impossible to ignore and the noise is simply too distracting or repugnant, there will be a major rising to make it stop.
There is little doubt that what defines politics today is a generational turnover. This is something which is necessarily slow, and includes a temporary backlash before the old guard, literally older, is tossed out. We see this playing out in a recently conducted poll of Millenials by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The poll found an unsurprising distrust of Baby Boomer politicians and a general belief that environmental issues, particularly climate change, top their concerns. They fear that we are ruiing the planet, a position which at its root is (small “c”) conservative.
More surprisingly, 66% are concerned about the “moral direction of the nation.” This is not something that young people, particularly a generation which is overwhelmingly progressive, typically worries about. Casting the degradation of our public life and planetary heritage in moral terms has all of the makings for a serious rebellion. While it’s never good to rely on young people to show up and vote, this time may very well be different. This might be more like the late 1960s in many ways, but with a much different sense of urgency.
Into this deep desire for a preservation of all that is decent coupled with a progressive sense of both politics and technological change we have three candidates atop the crowded field of Democrats. To call these candidates “unconventional” would be sexist, because the only thing truly unusual about them is that they are all women.
The first is Sen Kamala Harris of California. She is an old fashioned labor Democrat in many ways. Well versed in the Nancy Pelosi school of taking a strong stand and using power effectively, there is little doubt that her campaign will focus on decisive leadership. In policy terms, she is not particularly progressive in the newest sense of the word. Her most significant policy statement to date is a proposed major pay hike for teachers everywhere, paid by the federal government. This is classic labor politics and it will get her attention from a key Democratic constituency.
In her case, however, the deep sense of “I feel your pain” empathy and connection to voters has to come out. Desperate times do call for strong leadership, but Sen Harris will need to connect to voters on a personal level through the campaign in order to take off.
The second is Sen Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. A progressive firebrand of the Henry Wallace school, she has an instant following – at least to the extent that Sanders doesn’t keep it close to his chest. Warren has rolled out many policy proposals with great detail. She has plans for universal health care, universal college, and universal pre-K – all paid for with a new tax on the wealthy. She is positioning herself as the choice for immediate and direct progressive action to change the direction of the nation.
Sen Warren is getting more polished all the time, honing her message by repeating it. But as a personally conservative person who arrived at this kind of politics through a long journey, she often stumbles a bit off the stump when trying to connect. I like her, I really do, and understand how difficult it is to reduce all of this to soundbites. But she has to inspire confidence and not get lost in the detail, a classic problem for people as smart as she is.
The last is Sen Amy Kobuchar of Minnesota. She is staking out a no-nonsense middle ground that is more practical and cautious. It’s focused less on today’s highly polarized concept of Democrats and more appealing to the “independents” who used to belong to the party. It’s a Midwestern message that has often been lost in the coastal party dynamics, but must seem more important given the electoral math that propelled Trump to victory with Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin among others. Her most important policy statement so far has been to remind everyone that there’s a lot of hard work ahead if we’re going to make this happen.
Her mission will be the hardest, especially given how history shows this message is ignored. She will need to find a positive statement that resonates. In many ways, her low-key personality is more suited for a technocracy, based on competence and honesty. Sen Klobuchar will need to inspire to get to the next level and really attract attention. It’s never been an easy message, but the success of Jimmy Carter post Watergate shows that history is not entirely against her.
The three front runners, together, have some remarkable similarities. All are senators without significant executive experience, although they have all have some. Sens Harris and Klobuchar ran large district attorney’s offices, and Sen Warren oversaw the TARP program and created the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. None of them are true “outsiders,” which should reasonably be a problem in an election defined by a desire for change.
Of course, there is much more to the field than these three. Mayor Buttigieg has been catching on by talking a lot about moral issues, which given the setting will continue to resonate. Joe Biden will have an instant following among the old guard. Sen Cory Booker is an extremely articulate candidate with a strong sense of personal power who may yet stand apart and join the frontrunners, complicating everything.
But as it stands now there are three candidates who perfectly represent the dominant strains of the Democratic Party. None have an immediately obvious appeal to an electorate which is poised for generational rebellion and renewal, however. There is a lot more to watch as this plays out over the next year or more, without a doubt. But this is a remarkable start.