Three Reasons the Democrats Have a Leadership Problem

Cheriss May/Sipa via AP Images

The podium with the U.S. Presidential Seal 

Political parties that ought to be a strong position don’t always come up with leaders who can seize opportunities to win. Look at Britain’s Labour Party today. The ruling Conservatives have plunged the country into a crisis with Brexit and lost public confidence, but according to public opinion surveys, the voters think even less of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn than of Theresa May and still give Conservatives an edge.

Labour’s failure to produce a credible alternative should remind Democrats that their presidential nominee in 2020 could very well end up losing despite Donald Trump’s unpopularity. Although a strong candidate may emerge, the Democrats do not yet have anyone who looks well positioned to beat Trump—a problem that I think stems not so much from the individuals who are running as from the obstacles that historical change has thrown up in the party’s path back to the White House. 

1) New norms and generational change. Norms and beliefs about race, gender, and related issues have shifted dramatically among Democrats in recent decades, even the last few years. Indeed, that shift now defines the major cultural cleavages between Democrats and Republicans. It also divides Democratic voters and politicians by generation. Al Franken, who might have been a presidential candidate now, was an early example of a Democrat brought down by changing norms (and a rush to judgment). Joe Biden’s problems with what used to be seen as his warm, affectionate style—now described as “inappropriate touching” and “handsiness”—is the current exemplar.

The shift in norms and beliefs reflects the changing base of the Democratic Party, which consists of substantially more women and people of color and fewer white working-class men than it did in the 1990s or early 2000s. With the demographic and generational shifts have come other changes such as positions on criminal justice. During the decades when violent crime rates were high, Democrats sought to prove they could be tough on crime. Now their record opens them to attack—not just Biden (for his role in the 1994 crime legislation), but also Kamala Harris (for her role as a prosecutor) and even Bernie Sanders (who voted for the 1994 legislation). 

The general point is this: The very means by which Democrats won elections in the past are now seen as disqualifying by many in the party, though not necessarily by the public at large. New norms create new vulnerabilities. 

2) The Democrats’ weak benchParties out of office at the national level have often chosen a presidential candidate who was the governor of a major state and compiled a record of achievement. One result of Republican domination of state governments during the past decade is that Democrats have few potential candidates who fit that profile, and the only ones who do (Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo) aren’t in the running for 2020. The three governors who are or may be in the race (John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jay Inslee of Washington, and Steve Bullock of Montana) don’t have much national visibility.

Of course, the Democrats don’t have a shortage of candidates; they just have a shortage of formidable candidates. When the press gets excited about the 37-year-old mayor of a city the size of South Bend, Indiana, you know that the field is missing a top tier of candidates with the kind of executive experience that voters have historically regarded as preparation for the presidency.

3) The Democrats’ split identity as a movement and a coalition party. Here we come to the crux of the Democrats’ difficulties. 

To bring about transformative change, presidents need to harness the power of social movements; they need to turn their parties into movement parties. With the growth of the “resistance” under Trump, the Democrats now have some of that character, but Democratic leaders also need to hold together a socioeconomically and racially diverse coalition. As the 2018 election showed, the party has moved in two directions at once, toward the left and the center. More progressive candidates won in heavily Democratic, urban areas, while center-left candidates flipped suburban districts that had often long been in Republican hands. The progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes have gotten the media attention, but Democrats would not have a majority in the House without the new suburban representatives who have mainly joined the center-left New Democratic Coalition rather than the Progressive Caucus.

For the Democrats to win the presidency in 2020, they need a candidate who can inspire the energies of the movement and maintain support from across their coalition. As I wrote recently, they need to formulate a bold program that meets the historic challenge of our time, while respecting the constraints imposed by their coalition’s breadth. They could do that, I argued, with a program centered around a Green New Deal and family security. But that Green New Deal cannot be a Christmas tree hung with every progressive ornament, and their program cannot demand substantial tax increases (of the kind that Medicare for All would require) from the suburban moderates who have only recently started voting Democratic. 

Whether Democrats can find that kind of sweet spot in a presidential candidate and platform is an open question. In principle, a leader could emerge from either side of the party: a movement leader who attended to the demands of the coalition, or a coalition leader who seized the banner of the movement. 

At the moment, neither of the two candidates who lead the early polls seem likely to put the two sides of the party together. Sanders is a movement candidate who has always spurned the Democratic Party through his years in Vermont. He would be the Democrats’ Jeremy Corbyn, likely to lose the general election for all the reasons that Eric Alterman has laid out in The Nation. Biden’s liabilities are equally apparent. Unless he can transform himself, he seems ill-suited to mobilize the energies of the resistance movement, for all the reasons that Rebecca Traister has laid out at The Cut.

There’s still plenty of time for Democrats to solve their leadership problem and pick a candidate who will enable them to win in 2020. But, just for the record, as of now I’m baffled who that is.  

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