Are the Democrats’ Hopes for 2020 Already Doomed?

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It is happening again. The Democrats are employing the same empty strategy that lost them the last election. (Photo Credit: Andrew Gombert/EPA)

Before I begin, let me acknowledge that, on some level, I already hate myself for writing a piece about the Democratic Party’s prospects for reclaiming the presidency in 2020 when there are other critical elections happening prior to then, namely 2018 mid-terms, which, at this rate, party leadership should be concerned about in merely holding onto what they have let alone regaining seats previously lost. Still, when you have someone as unpopular as Donald Trump in the White House, with people counting down the days until his first term is over, it is perhaps never too early to be thinking ahead to the next presidential election and how eight years of President Trump might be circumvented.

According to Musa al-Gharbi, Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University, however, Trump’s re-election may be all but a fait accompli. Writing for The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, al-Gharbi cites four key reasons as to why a Trump 2020 victory is not only entirely possible, but likely. Why, pray tell, is—gulp—Trump probable to be a two-term president?

1.  Voters tend to stick with the default option.

The hope here is that, because Donald Trump and his presidency have been anything but normal, convention might be summarily bucked in this regard again, but Musa al-Gharbi cites some pretty compelling evidence as to why the odds are against the orange one receiving the ol’ heave-ho, chief among them this nugget of fact: since 1932, only once has an incumbent party failed to win a second-term—that of Jimmy Carter and the Dems. To put this a different way, it’s apparently pretty hard to get yourself kicked out of the Oval Office.

2. Despite being unpopular overall, Trump is still popular with the people who voted him in.

Or, as al-Gharbi puts it, “popularity is overrated.” Despite not liking Trump and his personality all that much, many Americans are likely satisfied with the job he’s doing,—or even feel he’s exceeding expectations. I imagine some of you are reading this and are thinking, um, are we talking about the same guy here? We are, and much as members of Congress, unpopular in their own right, tend to get re-elected more often than not, Trump supporters, swayed neither by media accounts of the brewing scandal within the Trump administration nor bits of domestic or foreign policy they may find disagreeable, are liable to come out again in 2020 for their anointed candidate. All this makes for shitty news for Democratic hopefuls in 2018 and 2020. Glad I could lift your spirits, eh?

3. The Democrats don’t really seem to have a strong contender in place.

Elizabeth Warren? Cory Booker? Kirsten Gillibrand? Amy Klobuchar? Joe Biden? Michelle Obama? Hell, Hillary Clinton—again? If any of these possible names suggested by their supporters are leaders in the proverbial clubhouse in terms of viability as a challenger to Donald Trump, it’s not especially evident, nor is it clear that any of these individuals would have that strong of a chance to upend Trump if a follow-up election were held today. The Democratic Party, generally speaking, seems to be suffering from quite the crisis of leadership, with its most popular representatives either constitutionally prohibited from running again (Barack Obama) or not even a self-identifying member of the party (Bernie Sanders). Simply put, there is no galvanizing figure among the Democrats, or one that a majority of the party is willing to rally behind.

4. Yeah, about that whole impeachment idea.

If you can’t beat ’em, disqualify ’em? To be clear, for those who are not express devotees of Pres. Trump, it’s kind of difficult to imagine how he hasn’t, in some shape or fashion, disqualified himself. Be this as it may, though, Musa al-Gharbi succinctly states that Trump is unlikely to be impeached until his second term, if at all, if for no other reason than Republicans hold a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate—and this reality isn’t apt to change after 2018 either. Besides, the options after Trump on the line of succession aren’t all that inspiring. Mike Pence? Paul Ryan? You may as well pick your brand of poison to this effect.


So, we have multiple concrete reasons from an expert in matters of human social behavior as to why Donald Trump will probably continue to be our evil overlord in 2020 and beyond. This invites the question at the heart (and title) of this piece: are the Democrats’ hopes for 2020 already doomed? Before conceding as much, let’s first address how much is in the locus of control of Democrats with respect to why Musa al-Gharbi says Trump should win. Certainly, historical trends are beyond anyone’s reach. Unless, of course, you happen to have built a time machine, and even then, meddling in past affairs is not recommended, as numerous works of science fiction will attest to. Opinions of Trump as president would also appear to be largely outside the realm of Democratic influence—though many of the aforementioned key Democratic figures seem content to beat that horse to a bloody pulp by assailing Mr. CEO-President at the drop of a hat. As for impeachment, meanwhile? The Dems simply don’t have the majorities needed to force the issue. After all, if voters who don’t possess donor-placating motivations aren’t moved to forsake Pres. Trump, there’s a snowball’s chance in Hell Republicans in Congress, yanked to and fro by wealthy conservatives and corporate industry leaders like puppets on strings, will act against #45, particularly when, despite all the tumult of this presidency, they, by and large, have been able to further their pro-business, anti-poor-people-and-minorities agenda.

This leaves reason #3—the Democrats’ rudderless approach to winning elections—as the primary area where the party can control its own destiny. While the crisis of leadership that evidently plagues the Dems is a big problem, perhaps an even larger issue is found in the overall message that leadership within the party is trying to convey. Matt Taibbi, who consistently writes excellent articles for Rolling Stone magazine, recently addressed the proverbial brick wall against which Democrats have been banging their heads, electorally speaking. His latest essay comes after a special election to fill the vacated seat in the House of Representatives for the state of Montana’s at-large congressional district after Ryan Zinke was confirmed as Secretary (and Destroyer) of the Interior. You may have heard about this one. Democrats were optimistic about the prospects of cowboy-hat-wearing singer-songwriter and upstart politician Rob Quist garnering a victory in a red state like Montana and sending a message of repudiation to Donald Trump and the GOP regarding their regressive path forward for America. They were especially encouraged about Quist’s chances after Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, you know, assaulted a reporter after being pressed on the subject of health care and was charged with as much.

And yet, Gianforte ultimately prevailed. We should bear in mind that there are some mitigating circumstances in the results of this special election. Indeed, early voting did count for a significant part of the final tallies, though if you’re thinking this is a reason to dismiss early voting wholesale, you’d arguably be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Taibbi highlights other reasons that have already made the rounds during the post-election Democratic Party sobriety hour, including lack of an infrastructure for the party in Montana, being outspent by conservative PACs, and our good friends gerrymandering and right-wing media. Still, Rob Quist’s loss in spite of bad behavior by his Republican counterpart is not the first of its kind in recent memory, one more exhibit in a disturbing series of GOP wins with seemingly little thought given to character next to overarching ideologies. Taibbi details this trend:

There is now a sizable list of election results involving Republican candidates who survived seemingly unsurvivable scandals to win higher office. The lesson in almost all of these instances seems to be that enormous numbers of voters would rather elect an openly corrupt or mentally deranged Republican than vote for a Democrat. But nobody in the Democratic Party seems terribly worried about this.

Gianforte is a loon with a questionable mustache who body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking a question about the Republican health care bill. He’s the villain du jour, but far from the worst exemplar of the genre. New Yorkers might remember a similar congressional race from a few years ago involving a Staten Island nutjob named Michael Grimm. The aptly named Grimm won an election against a heavily funded Democrat despite being under a 20-count federal corruption indictment. Grimm had threatened on camera to throw a TV reporter “off a f**king balcony” and “break [him] in half … like a boy.” He still beat the Democrat by 13 points.

The standard-bearer for unelectable candidates who were elected anyway will likely always be Donald Trump. Trump was caught admitting to sexual assault on tape and openly insulted almost every conceivable demographic, from Mexicans to menstruating women to POWs to the disabled; he even pulled out a half-baked open-mic-night version of a Chinese accent. And still won. Gianforte, Trump and Grimm are not exceptions. They’re the rule in modern America, which in recent years has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to vote for just about anybody not currently under indictment for serial murder, so long as that person is not a Democrat.

The list of winners includes Tennessee congressman Scott Desjarlais, a would-be “family values” advocate. Desjarlais, a self-styled pious abortion opponent, was busted sleeping with his patients and even urging a mistress to get an abortion. He still won his last race in Bible country by 30 points.

One wonders if even the serial murderer bit would be enough to disqualify a Republican these days—especially if he or she went around killing liberals or minorities. Furthermore, while Matt Taibbi acknowledges all of the above justifications were, in part, factors in why Greg Gianforte triumphed and Rob Quist was left to sing a sad country song (aren’t they all sad, come to think of it?), as he argues, this rationalization/moral victory business is also indicative of a self-destructive mentality within the Democratic Party. Taibbi explains further:

A lot of these things are true. America is obviously a deeply racist and paranoid country. Gerrymandering is a serious problem. Unscrupulous, truth-averse right-wing media has indeed spent decades bending the brains of huge pluralities of voters, particularly the elderly. And Republicans have often, but not always, had fundraising advantages in key races. But the explanations themselves speak to a larger problem. The unspoken subtext of a lot of the Democrats’ excuse-making is their growing belief that the situation is hopeless – and not just because of fixable institutional factors like gerrymandering, but because we simply have a bad/irredeemable electorate that can never be reached.

This is why the “basket of deplorables” comment last summer was so devastating. That the line would become a sarcastic rallying cry for Trumpites was inevitable. (Of course it birthed a political merchandising supernova.) To many Democrats, the reaction proved the truth of Clinton’s statement. As in: we’re not going to get the overwhelming majority of these yeehaw-ing “deplorable” votes anyway, so why not call them by their names? But the “deplorables” comment didn’t just further alienate already lost Republican votes. It spoke to an internal sickness within the Democratic Party, which had surrendered to a negativistic vision of a hopelessly divided country.

This sort of us-versus-them rhetoric has long since been established by and understood of the Republican Party. Blame the welfare seekers taking advantage of the system. Blame the erosion of American values. Blame illegal immigration. Blame terrorism. I don’t wish to give Donald Trump too much credit in this regard—in fact, I wish to give him little to none for exploiting these factors—but he did commit to the GOP playbook and ride out the electoral storm unapologetically all the way to the White House. For the Democratic Party, however, a party that touts its inclusiveness, subscribing to the belief that certain segments of the electorate are, at best, not worth the effort, and at worst, irredeemable, seems, if not a betrayal of its core values, then a poor way to distinguish itself from the kind of Republican Party which makes closing America’s open door to refugees of war-torn nations and closing bathroom doors to the transgender community some of its top priorities. As Matt Taibbi offers, “Just because the Republicans win using deeply cynical and divisive strategies doesn’t mean it’s the right or smart thing to do.” In saying as much, he points to how Barack Obama campaigned in red states, even when facing racist rhetoric or when assured of losing in the general election, marking a stark contrast between his approach and that of Hillary Clinton, content to play it safe and keep pandering to the Democratic base.

At the core of the Democrats’ woes, though, and where I feel Taibbi’s analysis hits the nail on its head, is in their strategic and thematic miscues. As the author keenly stresses, a platform based almost exclusively on Trump/Republican negatives is neither a message nor a plan, explaining why the Democrats “have managed the near impossible: losing ground overall during the singular catastrophe of the Trump presidency.” Furthermore, the party appears to lack the commitment to help mobilize people to the polls. Taibbi closes his piece with these thoughts:

The party doesn’t see that the largest group of potential swing voters out there doesn’t need to be talked out of voting Republican. It needs to be talked out of not voting at all. The recent polls bear this out, showing that the people who have been turned off to the Democrats in recent months now say that in a do-over, they would vote for third parties or not at all. People need a reason to be excited by politics, and not just disgusted with the other side. Until the Democrats figure that out, these improbable losses will keep piling up.

This, if you ask me, was one of the most glaring weaknesses of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign: rather than focusing on why we shouldn’t be voting for Donald Trump—and if you didn’t see why by November, you probably never were going to see it, let’s be clear—a more compelling case should have been made for why she (Hillary) merited your vote. That is, if you weren’t sold by the “first woman President” angle, and if you were tired of voting for the so-called lesser of two evils (by now, we all should be), there should have been a different or modified narrative for her sake. The polling Taibbi cites of voters increasingly disenfranchised with the Democrats and yet more willing to choose a third-party candidate or none at all should scare the living daylights out of party leadership, as should the notion that younger and more liberal Dems are openly discussing the formation of a new party such as the People’s Party to more authentically represent the country’s needs. Granted, we might not expect the results of a splintering of the Democratic Party to bear fruit in the short term, if it even gets off the ground and is sustainable, but at what percentage of a “lost” vote will the Democratic brass truly begin to take notice and action? 10%? 15%? Or will they remain aloof and/or continue to deflect from undertaking genuine reform?

Should the Democrats be disheartened at not winning the special election in Montana? Given the state’s political leanings, no, not really. That said, a loss is still a loss, and if Democrats are looking for some sense of momentum heading into 2018 or 2020, they’ve still got a wait on their hands for that potential pivotal moment. Moreover, if they’re waiting on Donald Trump and other loose cannons to self-destruct, they’ve got a yet longer wait. Simply put, playing the game of not—not losing, being not-Trump or not-Republicans—is not working. Even if a sense of false hope is what Trump and Co. are giving their supporters, at least they are giving them something on which they can hang their proverbial hats. “Make America Great Again.” It may not mean much to those of us who condescend against its very logic, but to those who believe in it as a promise, it means a great deal. As for the Democrats, who is their inspirational leader? What is their rallying cry? Though mid-terms and the next presidential election may seem remote to many of us, if the Dems don’t figure out answers to these questions or think about how to better reach out to underserved portions of the electorate, they and members of the Resistance will still have their work cut out for them in three-and-a-half years’ time.

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