Democrats and the tough road to the White House

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It is not going to be easy for the Democratic Party to take the White House in November 2020, not because of an invincible incumbent in President Donald Trump, but because the party is still in the search for a viable messenger and a powerful message.

What started off with some 24 candidates in the fray for the nomination, has dropped down to about 18 at the beginning of November, but is back to 20 again with former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick, a former Governor of Massachussetts, suddenly throwing their hats in the ring. And Bloomberg’s entry came as a jolt, as, only at the beginning of the year he had made it clear that he was not interested in seeking the nomination. What worries the so-called frontrunners is not the political philosophy of Bloomberg, but that he is a wealthy fat cat with a fortune estimated at around US$50 billion, and someone who can easily outspend all of the competition put together!

The first litmus test for the candidates will come on February 4 and 11, 2020 with the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary which will be followed by the caucus and primary in Nevada and South Carolina by the end of that month; and then comes Super Tuesday of March 3 when delegates from as many as 14 states, including Texas and California who moved up their dates, will be chosen.

By the first week of March, a large chunk of the delegates for the Democratic Convention in July at Wisconsin would have been chosen; and political wisdom will make the point that barring four or five candidates, all others will fold their campaigns. If this does not happen and the fierce attacks and bloodletting continue, Democrats might just as well throw in the towel for November 2020.

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It is not as if the Democratic Party is without frontrunners at this point of time, but the fact remains that nearly everyone of them, including former Vice-President Joseph Biden is struggling, both nationally and at polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden is in the company of Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Amy Klochubar and Cory Booker. If Biden could be seen as a household name given his familiarity and well known policy positions in his long tenure in the Senate and as Vice-President under President Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are perceived as left-of-center politicians who wish to build a new and compassionate America by taxing the wealthy and the superrich.

And then there is the young and affable mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who is rising in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the 37-year-old is seen as disadvantaged being openly gay and married to his “husband”, something that will not sit well with conservative Democrats and the African-American community, not to speak of all those right wingers during the November showdown. And by all accounts, Senator Kamala Harris who started off well is struggling.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with CEO of Bloomberg Michael Bloomberg (L) at Global Business Forum in New York, Sept. 25, 2019. PTI Photo

Clearly if there is one person who has rattled all the Democratic candidates, it is Bloomberg. He shocked his colleagues by spending US$30 million for the week of November 25 to December 3 on television advertisements just by showing that he is in the race; it is said that 16 per cent of his TV budget is on national advertising when all of the others have pegged just 3 per cent or less. He is passing up Iowa and New Hampshire and by extension, Nevada and South Carolina by focusing only on the March 3 Super Tuesday, having spent more than US$13 million here, or more than the combined total of all others.

He is said to be lavishing funds in critical swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida and is said to have earmarked some US$100 million on digital ads just to attack President Trump. There is a feeling that Bloomberg may be willing to spend even up to US$1 billion of his personal money for his campaign to the White House. The money spending spree has alarmed people like Senators Sanders and Warren who see in all this the role of big money in Presidential politics.

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The problem with Bloomberg is one of an identity crisis — he was a Democrat who switched to the Grand Old Party, then became an Independent and only now to say that he is back again as a Democrat. The rank and file of Democrats are really unsure as to where he is coming from; and there is extreme discomfort from African-Americans who were outraged by his stop-and-frisk authorisation to the police when he was mayor of New York. And women’s groups are not exactly cheered by his candidacy either. Aside from making the comment that the #MeToo movement may have gone too far, he had unabashedly claimed in a 1997 autobiography that he had kept a “girlfriend in every city” during his stint at Wall Street in the 1960s and 1970s. “I like theater, dining and chasing women… I am single, straight billionaire in Manhattan. What do you think? It’s a wet dream,” he is said to have told a reporter.

Bloomberg’s entry into the Democratic race for the White House is the only thing that is currently worrisome. If the tycoon makes it on Super Tuesday and comes away with a rich crop of delegates, it remains to be seen if Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg have the wherewithal to stop him. Either it would have to be a concerted effort to stop the momentum or simply resign to the fact that it is better to have a billionaire take on another billionaire and in a New York versus New York duel.

Trump impeachment hindrance

But there is the larger troublesome aspect for the Democrats — the ongoing impeachment process of President Trump. If Trump and his Republicans really want to bog down the process in the Senate until February or even March and force Biden and other Senators in Washington DC instead of the campaign trail, that will only assist people like Bloomberg and to certain extent Buttigieg.

In the frenzied environment of impeachment on Capitol Hill, the Democrats have not only failed to nail down a Messenger but also importantly the Message. What is it that the Democrats have to offer on alternatives to another four years of Trump on domestic and foreign policies? Where is the “beef” on such issues as healthcare, child healthcare, student loans, immigration, forcible deportation, climate change, Syria, Iran and the nuclear dilemma, dealing with China on trade and tariffs, Japan, North Korea and the biting sanctions, relations with Europe, just to mention a few.

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Some of these issues have come up in the few Democratic debates but all of them have been subdued by headlines on Ukraine, high crime, bribery, obstruction of justice, corrupt media, and fake news and so on. Even now, it is not too late for the Democratic Party machinery to wake up and see the reality. That would take some bold decisions on the part of the frontrunners, if only they realised the blunders of the 2016 — arrogance and over-confidence.

(The writer is a former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations.)

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