Why you should care
Because these issues, and candidates, could define the 2020 election.
Catch an all-star lineup of politicos — including Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Karl Rove, Tom Steyer and Mark Sanford — at OZY Fest 2018, this summer’s hottest party, in New York City’s Central Park on July 21–22. Details and ticket information can be found here.
More than two years before the 2020 presidential election, Democratic presidential hopefuls are already jostling for position on the left on issues from immigration to health care, even as strategists worry about losing Middle America in the most wide-open nomination battle in generations.
The hopefuls range from the obvious to the obscure, although almost none of them have officially announced their bids yet. Runner-up to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders is on a second date with Black voters who rejected him two years ago, to mixed success after awkwardly calling former President Barack Obama a “charismatic individual” at a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration in Mississippi. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, long a liberal hero for her crusades against Wall Street, is tussling regularly with President Donald Trump. California Sen. Kamala Harris has solidified her status as a front-runner through a series of star-making turns while grilling Republicans from her perch on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Meanwhile “Uncle” Joe Biden, former vice president, has adopted party elder status while campaigning with blue-collar Democrats like Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, as Sen. Cory Booker from New Jersey appears on wonky economic panels and taps into Obama’s “One America” rhetoric by calling for an end to “bullshit partisanship.”
There is room in the party for a Kirsten Gillibrand, for a Kamala Harris, for some progressive yet Midwestern governors, like [John] Hickenlooper.
Mike Hernández, Democratic strategist
There are other dark horses. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand will appear at Central Park’s OZY Fest under the same billing as Clinton, her longtime mentor whose mantle she will likely try to assume — though Gillibrand’s recent #MeToo–inspired declaration that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency for his affair with an intern has caused friction with the Clintons. Others kicking the proverbial tires include Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, touring two days through Iowa while emphasizing his heartland roots, or environmentalist and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, who dropped $90 million on Democrats in the 2016 election cycle and may decide that money is better spent on himself. Don’t count out Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, an early Sanders backer who went viral when he was barred from entering a Texas immigration facility, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who just signed an executive order banning state resources from being used for Trumpian family separation policy.
“There is room in the party for a Kirsten Gillibrand, for a Kamala Harris, for some progressive yet Midwestern governors, like Hickenlooper,” says Mike Hernández, a Democratic strategist for Mercury Public Affairs.
If you want to further read the tea leaves of whom the Democratic presidential nominee will be, look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. No, she isn’t a candidate. But it’s telling that Gillibrand became the first senator to endorse abolishing ICE — the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — just days after Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on that stance during her stunning upset of House Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in New York last month. Her other platforms, from Medicare for All to an assault weapons ban, are no longer fringe positions in the Democratic Party: To earn the excitement of the base, they appear to be the price for getting in.
The economy remains top priority for most voters, polls say. But other issues are calcifying from would-be challengers, namely immigration, health care and trade. The “Abolish ICE” mantra is the Democrats’ answer to “Build the Wall” — near impossible to implement policywise, but a catchy distillation of progressive values. Sanders’ lasting legacy for the party may just be its widespread adoption of Medicare for All. And as the Midwest becomes increasingly recalcitrant toward the Democratic Party, liberals may stem the bleeding by hitting Trump on trade — an area where even fellow Republicans sense weakness. On Thursday, Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich traveled to Washington to criticize the president for tariffs that “sent shock waves” through the world and threatened, not helped, national security. “The fraying of relationships has consequences,” said Kasich, who has toyed with his own 2020 challenge to Trump.
Whether those are winning positions is debatable. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have signaled they will bring a Democrat-led bill to abolish ICE to a vote, which could force liberals to be on the record supporting a position that only a quarter of Americans agreed with in a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll. “Do you really want to say we don’t want dangerous people swept up by an agency?” asks Karl Rove, the former senior adviser to George W. Bush under whom ICE was created, noting that nearly three-quarters of people picked up by the agency in 2017 had a prior criminal record. Obama couldn’t get single-payer health care through, even with a Democrat-controlled Congress. It’s “a disservice to the electorate” and “a losing policy,” says Hernández, adding that voters would blanch at full single-payer even if they might consider a public option: “It’s not feasible. You are not going to abolish private health plans.”
Then again, such prognosticating on key issues could prove idle chatter. Leading up to the 2016 presidential election, few expected immigration to be a central concern — the previous November, the forecasting site FiveThirtyEight didn’t even list immigration in its analysis of eight “big issues.” Neither did pundits grasp how the Supreme Court would play for voters, even if most acknowledge now that Trump releasing a list of his potential picks was pivotal in keeping conservatives in the fold.
Surprising issues and candidates could also take center stage in 2020. Whatever candidate runs has to be “progressive on the environment,” argues Hernández. Steyer built up his name recognition after launching a nationwide tour rallying support to impeach Trump. If the former hedge fund manager and green-issue bankroller should run, his primary candidacy would be built on the idea that voters are finally willing to prioritize environmentalism at the ballot. Rove sees a serious challenger in Mitch Landrieu, the recently retired New Orleans mayor whose speech on removing Confederate statues made him a voice on civil rights: “He has demonstrated an ability to govern, he has a reasonable temperament and he doesn’t seem to me to be drawn into running hard to left,” Rove says.
”It’s very possible our nominee is someone who we haven’t heard of yet,” adds Blue Apron and Aspiration investor Joe Sanberg, a progressive activist who in the coming months will be visiting Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Arkansas with his anti-poverty PAC, Working Hero. The nominee will have to contend with an economy where many Americans work multiple jobs and still can’t pay their bills, Sanberg says, while providing an economic vision for small businesses and workers. “The opposite of Trump isn’t incrementalism,” he says. “It’s speaking to the most virtuous angels of our humanity and inspiring us to believe in something bigger than what currently exists.”