The battle for 2020 has already begun with several prominent Democrats announcing their bid to defeat President Donald Trump in what could be one of the trickiest presidential elections in American history.
Nine Democrats, including four women, have entered the fray either with a formal announcement or an “exploratory committee” to test viability, funding and, above all, traction among different sets of voters.
Pundits say the Democratic Party may ultimately end up with 20 or more candidates in the primary, besting the 16 Republicans who wanted to be where Trump is today in the 2016 presidential election.
Joe Biden, former vice president, is seriously thinking of running as is Bernie Sanders, the one who many still believe “could” have defeated Trump had the Democratic Party not stacked the game against him in 2016.
The primary battle will be intense—the Democratic Party supporters must judge who can defeat Trump, a man who defied every political prediction, poll and party dogma to win. No one had read the country’s pulse right, most of all the Democratic Party wizards, who were flummoxed when Hillary Clinton didn’t sail to victory.
The biggest question for party faithful, thus, would be to decide on the right candidate, one who can most ably understand the different impulses of different demographics in different parts of the country. The candidate ultimately chosen has to swing left, right, centre, wide, narrow, across age groups and beyond Hollywood and Wall Street—the last two names in some ways drowned Clinton’s “people’s” credentials last time around.
The candidates who have already come out are a diverse group, including a white Hindu American, a mixed-race senator with Indian and Jamaican parents, a Latino, a Taiwanese American and most recently a millennial. They are as far from Trump’s monochromatic support base as can be but it’s early days yet and more candidates are expected to announce their candidacy in the coming months.
Senator Kamala Devi Harris of California, who announced her bid on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, has aroused interest in the Indian American community but so far her political identity has been more African American than Indian American. She was attorney general of California before running for the US Senate in 2016.
Harris, 54, caught national attention last year for her tough questioning of the controversial judge, Brett Kavanaugh, during the Senate confirmation hearing to become a Supreme Court justice. Her no-nonsense prosecutorial style won her admirers on social media, stirring speculation about her future ambition.
Race and gender will both be important in the next election and Harris as a black woman fits the bill but her national reach is still to be proven. Can she win in mostly-white Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to hold primary caucuses?
The results could impact her chances in other primaries even with the African American voters, especially if Senator Cory Booker, another African American hopeful, decides to jump in.
Also making waves is Tulsi Gabbard, a Congresswoman from Hawaii who is best known or notorious—depending on one’s point of view—for meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A practising Hindu of European and Samoan heritage, Gabbard is a war veteran whose anti-war stance will matter to some voters.
But her foreign policy positions have already been picked apart by the left wing of the Democratic Party. She opposes regime change but is hawkish when it comes to the war on terrorism. The left say her anti-war credentials is just a ploy to cloak her nationalist worldview.
Gabbard has baggage that could prove heavy going forward. She not only visited Assad against the wishes of her party and the general political establishment, she has held anti-LGBTQ views in the past for which she has since profusely apologised.
As of now, Gabbard’s India connections run deeper than Harris’ but both will vie for Indian American support. Not only did BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav attend her wedding ceremony in 2015, he brought her a gift from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Gabbard had severely criticised her government’s decision to deny Modi a visa in 2005 because of the Gujarat riots.
Which of the two women would the Indian American community eventually embrace with its dollars is an open question. Right now the community leaders are watching the game, keeping their counsel and waiting for the field to narrow down.
The third prominent woman hopeful is Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a progressive with a solid track record. She was first out of the gates, announcing the launch of her “presidential exploratory committee” on December 31.
Warren has solid policy chops—she helped create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in response to the 2008 financial crisis and has consistently gone after big banks.
The CFPB cracked down on predatory lenders and runaway financial firms during the Obama administration and forced them to return hundreds of millions to consumers. The Trump administration, unsurprisingly, has since gutted the bureau under pressure from the powerful world of finance.
Warren has been vocal on corruption—an issue that is bound to be front and centre given Trump’s financial scandals involving his family. A former Harvard law professor, she is uniquely positioned to take on the President’s many conflicts of interest and ethics problems. She is a sort of anti-Wall Street legend who can stand her ground ably in front of smart-talking lobbyists.
Last year Warren introduced legislation to ban lobbying by former Presidents, members of Congress and cabinet secretaries—a bold attempt to stem corruption and stop the constantly revolving door between public service and private gain.
Yet another woman in the field is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York who announced her bid on the popular “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” Her focus is on health care, education and income inequality. She has moved from being a centrist and supporting the gun lobby to a more liberal position, admitting that she was “wrong” on the gun issue.
While women hopefuls have got more of the attention, several prominent men are also in the fray. Julian Castro, an immigrant with a rags-to-riches story and a three-term mayor of San Antonio, announced his bid early January, saying it was time for a new kind of leadership in the Democratic Party.
But the most interesting candidate might be Biden, who connects with the people and can play it rough like Trump. But he is still officially undecided. Biden has years of experience both as senator and Vice-President—a valuable plus especially against those who have little government experience.
Several polls show Biden as the frontrunner—more than 70 per cent of the Democratic electorate holds a favourable opinion of him while other candidates have little or no national name recognition.
But can he defeat Trump, a fact that party loyalists say is the most important qualification, above diversity and gender? Biden is 76 and would be 78 when he would begin his first term as President in 2021. He would be older than when Trump began in 2017 and four years older than Ronald Reagan.
Besides, he is a white, an establishment politician, which in the eyes of an increasingly diverse band of party supporters could be a disqualification. But some have talked of a Biden-Harris ticket.
As 2019 progresses, the Democratic Party must deal with the ferment within. Young Democrats who helped take the House of Representatives from the Republicans in the mid-term elections want more left-leaning positions on taxes, health care, immigration and education. The older, establishment leaders may not be quite ready but they are shifting more left from their centrist positions.
If 2016 sprung the big surprise, 2020 may throw up an even bigger one.
(The author is a Washington-based columnist. Views are personal)