Two themes of early Democratic campaign analysis have been the assigning of candidates to either liberal or centrist lanes and the persistent speculation that activists may push the party too far left to win the 2020 election.
Veteran handicapper Charlie Cook last week likened the race to predicting which college basketball teams will reach the Final Four. He assigned one slot to former Vice President Joe Biden; a second to one of two liberal contenders, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; a third to one of the female hopefuls such as California Sen. Kamala Harris; and the fourth to a “wild card,” possibly New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand or Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Others have suggested similar distinctions. But former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy, which combines personal charisma, liberal rhetoric and a moderate voting record, suggests that may be too simplistic and that it may be harder to pigeonhole every one of the growing field of candidates.
For example, while O’Rourke might have the most liberal position on immigration and has hailed the Green New Deal, he would modify the concept of Medicare-for-all by adding the words “who want it.” Others display similar contrasts.
Besides, history suggests the growing self-identification of Democrats as liberal doesn’t necessarily mean ideology will be the decisive factor in choosing the likeliest nominee to defeat President Donald Trump. The Democrats have rarely chosen the most liberal contender, just as the GOP has rarely picked the most conservative one.
Indeed, several recent Democratic nominating contests suggest a more defining aspect has been new vs. old, in terms of ideas, approach and age. Some aspect of that seems inevitable in a contest in which the field spans 40 years, from 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg to 77-year-old Sanders.
From John F. Kennedy in 1960 to Barack Obama in 2008, age has often defined Democratic races, and, in almost every case, youth won. Even the 2016 race, pitting 68-year-old Hillary Clinton against 74-year-old Bernie Sanders, went to the younger, more moderate candidate.
The other exception was 1984, when the younger insurgent challenger, Sen. Gary Hart, bloodied the favored establishment choice, former Vice President Walter Mondale, but proved unprepared politically, organizationally and financially to capitalize on his early success.
The younger, less experienced candidate won almost every other open nominating battle, both ultimate winners like Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Obama, or those who lost, like unsuccessful 1972 nominee George McGovern. The only times the most liberal contender won were McGovern in 1972 and Obama, a historically ground-breaking candidate in 2008.
In each case, the winning candidate was able to demonstrate a breadth of party support that went beyond his initial base. That may be the major challenge for the current Democratic field.
For example, Sanders first needs to retain his strong hold on more liberal Democrats against the challenges of Warren, Harris and Gillibrand. If he does well in the initial 2020 contests, his real challenge may come when the field narrows, and the race hits the more diverse constituencies like Nevada and South Carolina where he had difficulty in 2016. On last weekend’s first visit to South Carolina, news reports indicated his crowd in a substantially African-American area was predominantly white.
Similarly, assuming Biden does in fact run, his first test will be whether he can retain his initial party establishment support in this year’s early jousting, especially televised debates, against younger rivals like Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a moderate poised to enter the race. Ultimately, a major question will be whether Biden can appeal to the party’s growing number of minority and women voters.
Both Sanders and Biden also face challenges from outside their designated lanes. Harris could provide that, and so could O’Rourke, who is 46 and the kind of less dogmatic candidate who can bridge those constituencies. His challenge will be to prove on the stump and in the debates that he has the focus and the specificity on issues to supplement the popular appeal he showed last year in Texas and last week in Iowa.
As such, the former El Paso congressman represents a potential threat to both Sanders and Biden who could upset today’s neat definitions. That happened to the GOP in 2016 when Donald Trump upset the conventional wisdom the race was between conservatives like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the more establishment candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
For those who question O’Rourke’s limited experience, it’s worth noting that Americans in recent years have generally elected the less experienced candidate, though Trump’s presidency raises valid doubts about the wisdom of that. In fact, though nowhere close to Biden’s 44 years in federal office, O’Rourke’s 6 years in the House give him more Washington governmental experience than anyone elected president since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.