2020 Foresight

The Democrats Who Could Topple Trump

It’s not too early to think about all this, or for party members to hope that the darkest hour comes right before the dawn.

Bill Clark/Getty

I have some variation or another of the following conversation regularly now with some Democrat or another:

Me: Depressed?

Other Person: Well, yes. But if the Democrats can just swipe that Georgia seat, maybe they can take back the House.

Me: Yes, 24 seats. Not that many, really.

OP: Right. And if they can get back the House, and if RGB can hold on for another three years, different ball game.

Me: Agreed.

There are loads of chats that go something like that happening among Beltway liberals these days, and maybe non-Beltway ones, too. Trump is down. Rage is high. Three and three-quarter years is a long time, but if ever any president of my lifetime had that one-term odor about him after just three months on the job, it’s this guy.

You’ll have noticed, perhaps, what my conversation above assumes—and where it ends. It assumes that a Democrat is elected president in 2020, and it stops shy of actually talking about that. Partly because it’s too early. And partly because the bench isn’t what you’d call imposing. But let’s talk about it. Here’s my list, which is in no particular order except for number one.

1. Sherrod Brown. The Ohio senator has a tough reelection race in 2018, against the same person he beat in 2012, but this time in a nonpresidential year (and after Trump trounced Hillary in the state). If he survives that, it seems to me he jumps to the top of the list.

When electorates grow weary of Candidate A, they sometimes want Candidate B to be that person’s opposite. No one is a more natural opposite to Trump than Brown. Trump’s a fake populist; Brown’s the real thing (without the racial demagoguery, which will admittedly be a minus for some voters). He just has to stand there, in his Ohio-made inexpensive suits, and he’s the guy who shows what a phony Trump is. He can probably carry Ohio and win back enough of the kinds of voters in Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes states that the Democrats need to win.

He has to burnish his foreign-policy credentials, but he did vote as a House member against the Iraq war, which is getting to be a distant memory but will probably still be an important box to check in the primaries. And Brown is fine with both wings of the party, for now, until the day the Chapo boys decide he’s a sellout. But I don’t see that the Democrats have anybody who can better appeal to the voters Obama won and Hillary lost.

2. Elizabeth Warren. I have a lot of respect for Warren. A lot. But Massachusetts liberal…the Democrats have gone down that road twice, and lost both times. And of course she’s a woman to boot. How much of those lost Clinton votes in the Great Lakes (and elsewhere—say, among Latino men) were lost because she was Hillary, and how many were lost simply because she was a woman? We’ll never know. I say this with sadness, but it seems more likely to me that the first woman president of this country will be a conservative Republican who can’t be slimed by the right-wing propaganda mill as soft on terrorists and criminals and border-jumpers.

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Of course times have changed, and maybe Massachusetts liberal doesn’t carry the negative connotations it did in 1988 and 2004. Warren has millions of very devoted followers. But I’m not sure how she translates beyond the liberal base.

3. Bernie Sanders. Of course he wants to run again! No politician alive could have had that bite at the apple and not want another one. But by the time of the 2020 Iowa caucus, he’ll be 78 (Warren will be 70, incidentally, and Brown 67). It remains to be seen whether the young Bernie diehards hop right back on the train or decide that that lightning just can’t be rebottled.

4. Andrew Cuomo. What am I doing putting him so high on this list? Because he will be able to say the sentence, “Senator Sanders and the others on this platform talk about free college. I am the only one on this stage who actually made it happen!” The legislation that does so recently passed in Albany is full of holes and exceptions, but hey, it’s a start.

Cuomo has numerous other issues, not least ethics and the fact that liberals generally hate him. He’ll forget about Iowa and focus on New Hampshire, where he’ll have to beat Warren. He probably won’t, but that’ll be interesting to watch.

5. Kirsten Gillibrand. The junior New York senator is being quite obvious about it; if you ask me, maybe a little too obvious. Voting against nearly every Trump Cabinet nominee is, you know, fine, but Cabinet votes aren’t really a measure of very much (if they were, then the 2009 Senate Republicans were a bunch of lapdogs and rollovers). She needs an issue that’s hers. Given that Brown, Warren, and Sanders all in their different ways own the Democratic economic argument, she might have a hard time busting through there unless she comes up with some really boffo original idea.

6. Al Franken. You think a comedian can’t be president? At least he’d be intentionally funny. But he has clearly emerged as one of the smartest and best-prepared senators. There’s no real sign he’s pursuing it, but if the winds blow in the right direction, he could make a serious run.

Oh, I could go on and on. Corey Booker. Amy Klobuchar. Chris Murphy. Jeff Merkeley. Those are all senators. There aren’t many governors, though—Montana’s Steve Bullock, who got reelected in his state while Trump was carrying it by 16 points. Then in this cycle of all cycles, we have to toss some businessmen into the mix. Mark Cuban, the sports owner who takes regular shots at Trump. Howard Schultz, Mr. Starbucks.

It’s not too early to think about all this. If the Democrats do manage to recapture the House in 2018, and if Trump gets no more shots at filling a Supreme Court vacancy, then if a Democrat does capture the White House in 2020, you can begin to see the outlines of a progressive future in this country again, after only a brief interregnum, assuming we’re all still alive.