The good news is that at least six progressives are likely to run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. That’s also the bad news. If things break wrong, they could cancel each other out, opening the door to yet another centrist corporate Democratic nominee.
The failure of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to stand four-square with working Americans allowed Donald Trump to pose as a fake populist. There were a lot of things to like about Obama, but he made the catastrophic misjudgment of appointing an economic team composed mainly of protégés of Robert Rubin, secretary of treasury under Clinton and the prime architect of the deregulation that caused the 2008 financial collapse. The close connection between Democrats and Wall Street, reinforced by Hillary Clinton, made billionaire developer Trump seem the outsider.
The Democratic victories in the midterms prefigure a clean break with the corporate Democratic Party. But if the progressive field is split too many ways, a Wall Street Democrat might still snag the 2020 nomination.
Based on their campaign activity and the broad hints they’ve been dropping, the pocketbook progressives likely to get into the race include Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), plus Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas); among-lesser known progressives are Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
In addition, there are not-quite progressives such as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who, as California’s attorney general, took a dive on the deal that allowed the big banks to define the terms of mortgage relief for sub-prime victims, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a good liberal who is now unfortunately working for the private equity firm Bain Capital.
And then we have faux-progressive Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). They have been trying to live down their origins as Wall Street Democrats by embracing left economic ideas such as a tax on Wall Street financial transactions and public banking, two Gillibrand favorites. There are also center-lefties such as Joe Biden.
Suppose the top tier of progressives ― Warren, Sanders and Brown ― all get into the race, as does the newest heartthrob, O’Rourke. Volunteer energy and grassroots funding will all be split.
Sanders will be 79 on Election Day 2020, but some supporters will stick with him out of loyalty if he gets in. Warren, the star of Netroots Nation, will have her army of volunteers. And Brown will have the pragmatists (“He’s not as charismatic but we need a white guy from the Midwest”), as well as a lot of labor support.
In the meantime, the more centrist candidates will be arguing that only they can build bridges to the sort of defecting Republican moderates who helped Democrats flip so many suburban seats. Retiring governors John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a Democrat, and Republican John Kasich of Ohio even hinted that they might run as a ticket.
If you look at the past several decades of Democratic nominating contests, even large fields tend to winnow down quickly, as lagging candidates suddenly find themselves short of money and volunteers. A bandwagon psychology tends to take hold early in the primary season.
In 2008, after Sen. John Edwards self-immolated, the field quickly boiled down to Clinton versus Obama. In 2004, the nine initial candidates were quickly whittled down to four; by the Super Tuesday primaries in March 2004, it was clear that John Kerry would be nominee and others dropped out.
In 1992, there were six serious candidates. By Super Tuesday, the field was down to Bill Clinton and California Gov. Jerry Brown, and Clinton was the clear front-runner. Similar patterns have prevailed in other nomination contests. Despite the unusually large field this time, there is no reason to think that 2020 will be notably different.
A further complication is the role of race and the timing of the primaries. There will likely be several candidates of color, potentially including Booker, Harris and Patrick. The southern primaries, in which the Democratic electorate is overwhelmingly black, are relatively early in the season. Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina all have their primaries in March.
Black candidates will likely invest heavily in winning southern primaries in the hope of becoming one of the finalists. The black candidates to date have studiously avoided playing the race card, taking a leaf from Obama’s playbook and knowing that they will need to reach far beyond a minority base to conceivably win the nomination and the election. But the southern primaries run the risk of a kind of reverse dog-whistle, in which black candidates play to their natural voting base, and race comes to the fore at the expense of broader party unity.
For the party’s progressive base, the hope is that the weaker progressive candidates will drop out in favor of the strongest after a few primaries. But there is more to politics than ideology. There is opportunism. You could also imagine a center-left unity ticket or a ticket based on racial and gender identities.
There are no more smoke-filled rooms, and no obvious process for the party’s progressive base to unite behind a single candidate. Even though the progressive wing of the party has the energy and the enthusiasm of the party base, the contest for the nomination is wide open.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Follow him on Twitter at @rkuttnerwrites.