Early in the race for the Democrats’ nomination for the presidency, it has been hard to distinguish between the multitudes of candidates. They seem to be racing to the furthest left as politically possible, as marked by the support of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, which was signed onto by Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Where do the Democratic candidates disagree, and can disagreeing help them?
In the Republican primary in 2016, the large number of Republican candidates allowed a variety of different ideas to come forth, and the voters to decide between them. The end result was not the most conservative candidate winning, but instead a populist with no track record on conservative issues like tax breaks and abortion. Trump disagreed with the party outright on free trade and appealed to blue collar voters in rust states that the GOP had long given up on. While it was, at times, more about personality than policy, there were real policy questions discussed that reshaped what has firmly become the party of Trump.
Will we see that from Democrats in 2020?
It’s understandable for candidates to walk on eggshells this early. There’s no purpose in angering any member of your own party before you absolutely have to, and so we won’t see a ton of bickering until the debates (which will start later this year). But candidates do have to distinguish themselves, right?
Not if the polling is any indicator. Tulsi Gabbard is more ideologically unique than anyone else running, being anti-war and also pro-religious liberty, but she’s polling at one percent. Cory Booker boldly defends school choice (and kudos to him for it), but he’s polling at 4.3 percent. So let’s look at who is doing well, and what exactly they’re running on.
Joe Biden is leading polling, getting as many as 45% in one Emerson poll, and averaging 32.8% in the last 4 major polls. Problem is, Biden isn’t even running yet, so he can’t be running on anything. Part of his strength is the Obama connection, for sure, but another part may be “electability.”
Biden is relatively centrist and has great blue collar appeal. That combination is rare among the prominent candidates. He is also more supportive of Wall Street than the socialists, and his long legislative record reveals votes that are now controversial, like the Secure Fence Act of 2006. If Joe Biden can secure the nomination, then that would answer the question I posed at the start of this column very clearly: yes, they can.
However, if the socialists could narrow themselves down to one or two candidates (Harris and Booker, most likely), they could easily defeat Biden. Plus, he still isn’t running yet.
Bernie Sanders is polling second on average, with 12.3% of the vote. Criticisms of Bernie from the party seems to be more focused at his age and ethnicity than his politics, and indeed his 2016 campaign has pushed the party very far left, much faster than anyone expected. But because he agrees so much with Harris, Warren, Booker, and so on, he’s very easily replaceable, and if Democrats decide they want a young black woman instead of an old white man, that option exists. Medicare-for-All, free college, and a $15 (or more) minimum wage are all very popular among the 2020 candidates. Suddenly, Bernie’s niche is very crowded, and he’ll have to bank on support from his loyalists if he stands a chance.
Kamala Harris polls third at 7%, and no one quite embodies this “I agree” mentality better than her. Harris is championing criminal justice reform as a major part of her platform, but as a district attorney, she enforced strict laws on victimless crimes in San Francisco, and as the Attorney General of California, she stayed “tough on crime.” However, her polling numbers show that Democrats are willing to forgive and forget if she jumps on board with their leftist agenda. Harris even co-opted Andrew Yang’s “freedom dividend,” which is a universal basic income. If Harris wins the nomination, then the answer to my title question is a firm no. Harris will endorse any progressive idea that helps her get the nomination, and if Democrats give it to her, they prove they don’t want a leader, they want a sheep.