Growing up a Democrat in Colorado Springs, it would have been hard to conceive of writing regularly for The Gazette (then the Gazette Telegraph) or one of its affiliated publications. That was many years ago, before a gradual but pronounced evolution on my part toward the political center.
In that era, the paper had a columnist named Rufus Porter who before every election would implore his readers not to vote as, “it only encourages them.” And you thought cynicism and alienation were newfound factors.
I appreciate the opportunity to bring my independent, call-em-as-I-see-em outlook to Colorado Politics. Over time, I’ll surely provoke both sides of the aisle. Readers can be forewarned that is my manner and intent. Too much commentary these days is really just partisan spin masquerading as analysis. In a time of high political emotion, polarization on steroids and metastasizing ill will, I’ll often go against the grain and advance a more balanced viewpoint.
So let’s get after it with a look first at the presidential contest and just how much tolerance Democrats have for risk.
All elections are a gamble, this one with higher stakes than most. Donald Trump’s incumbent hand is largely displayed. He’ll produce a wild card (or several), but his ability to scramble the deck is limited. What you see is what you get. Democrats as the opposition party have to decide which cards to play and which to discard, and what odds they are willing to accept.
There is still time and potential for a middle-of-the-pack candidate to catch fire and emerge. But as the field now lines up, the inside positions are held by a geriatric figure nearing the end of his fifth decade in Washington and a newer voice who seemingly can’t find a cause of the activist left she won’t embrace.
Donald Trump is eminently beatable, economic good times and all. Going on three years into his presidency, he has not surpassed 50 percent public approval in any reputable poll on any sustained basis. With each passing day, voters grow more fatigued, worn out by the never-ending noise and belligerence even if not by the incompetence and low character.
Trump’s best hope for re-election, perhaps his only hope, is that the Democrats gift it to him. Don’t underestimate the chances of exactly that.
Perhaps the Democratic Party’s assessment is that Trump is finished; the country has decided to move on; and any nominee, no matter how flawed and exposed, can administer the coup de grace. Remind me how that worked out in 2016.
Let’s focus on the two Democratic frontrunners, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. (Kamala Harris has fallen way back; Bernie Sanders will inevitably wither as Warren captures the left flank; Pete Buttigieg managed to break out of the pack but not fully into the top tier.)
On paper, Joe Biden seems unlikely to lose the Rust Belt states that swung to Trump. But elections aren’t conducted on paper. They’re fought in the arena of combat. For a gaffe-prone candidate who made barely a mark in previous presidential runs, the years since walking out of the vice president’s quarters do not appear to have been kind. Political acuity and reflex are not purely functions of age. All of us grow a day older every 24 hours. But some hold onto vigor longer while others grow frail sooner. Life is unfair that way.
Any calculation of risk has to ask whether Biden, with his fumbles and stumbles during the early Democratic encounters and a full year older come next October, is whom Democrats want to trust in the ring for three high-stakes, hot-lights debates with a political predator like Donald Trump.
Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, is a far fresher face and no one questions her dynamism. But for Democrats to crown her would be to bet everything that the Trump election was an aberration; that a center or center-right country has rapidly shifted to one of distinct leftist tilt; and that white working class voters, once the backbone of the party, are now rather superfluous. A chancy bet indeed.
In her home state, Warren has run up huge margins among higher-educated and higher-income voters. But she consistently under-performed the Democratic norm in working-class communities. That might be a formula for Massachusetts, but is rather problematic in regions where this battle will be waged.
Leadership need not be an all-encompassing wish list. Democrats must ask themselves whether this is truly a nation seeking a fundamental makeover. Do they want to go all-chips-in on denying private health insurance to north of 200 million Americans who currently use it? On an outright ban on fracking? On eliminating the overwhelming chunk of student loan debt? On universal free college? On minimal border enforcement? On shuttering charter schools? On serious consideration of reparations? On voting rights for felons? On cozying up to Beto in his call for gun confiscation? And to purportedly pay for it with a “wealth tax” on top of something called “modern monetary theory”?
The totality of this agenda elicits gleeful wonderment on the part of delegates from Cambridge to Boulder to Berkeley. From Park Slope to Park Hill to Menlo Park. But how does it go over in Greensburg or Saginaw or Sheboygan?
Democrats seem consumed by two big agendas. First, what they regard as the imperative of evicting Donald Trump from the White House. Second, of rebounding from the despair of 2016 with an ambitious, leave-no-stone-unturned agenda. A new New Deal, New Frontier and Great Society all tied together with a recycled green bow for a post-industrial age.
But what if these two goals are in conflict? What if the pursuit of the all-inclusive checklist imperils the Trump removal urgency? What if, contrary to Democratic appetites, you can’t have it all?
If defeating Donald Trump is truly a non-negotiable of historic proportions, then perhaps other longings might be repressed. Don’t be fooled. Current polling of hypothetical match-ups between Democratic frontrunners and Trump measures name identification and momentary momentum, not ultimate vulnerability. Could there still be time for Democrats to look behind door-number-three?
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. His column appears every other Wednesday in Colorado Politics. Reach him at EWS@EricSondermann.com; follow him at @EricSondermann