Senator Kamala Harris is leading the pack of younger aspirants for the Democratic Party’s nomination in next year’s presidential election, behind the two tired politicians in their 70s who are first out of the starting gate in a race that has brought ideological fissures to the fore…writes Arul Louis
For now, the ghost of 76-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden’s unannounced, but presumptive, candidacy with 28.8 per cent support looms over the race denying it a definitive delineation because of the uncertainty – and the recent allegations of his impropriety with women.
Bernie Sanders, 78, the self-described socialist who undercut Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, is the other front-runner with 21.8 per cent support according to the polls aggregator RealClear Politics.
The two men have the most face recognition with their decades-long exposure to national politics, but its an open question how viable are their candidacies over time in the race for party nomination – and then the contest against incumbent Donald Trump, 72, or, if there is a political cataclysm, another the Republican contender.
The 14 or so other candidates in an ever-expanding field are a picture of America’s ideological and racial and other identity diversities, with Harris, 54, leading them with 9.8 per cent support.
The charismatic Beto O’Rourke, 46, who lost the Senate election last year in Texas, is at his heels with 9.2 percent support.
Looking at fundraising, another measure of popularity, Sanders is ahead with $18.2 million raised in this year’s first quarter; Harris follows with $12 million and O’Rourke with $9.4 million. Although Pete Buttigieg, 37, a gay mayor in an Indiana city, is at a distant seventh place with only 2.3 per cent support, he raised $7 million empowering him to shake-up the race.
Since he is not officially a candidate, Biden hasn’t built campaign coffers.
Both the popularity in opinion polls and the number of campaign contributors will count towards determining who gets to participate in the party debates that start in June and give the candidates and their platforms national exposure.
The course of the Democratic race hinges on Biden, who has let slip he will run, but hasn’t formally declared. If he drops out, the centrist and centre-left candidates will be vying for his supporters, and if he does decide to run, there will be a free-for-all attempt to topple him, while Sanders holds on to his support and, possibly, adds to it.
The Democratic contest plays out against two factors that are defining the 2020 presidential race: The outsize personality of Trump, and ideology, both his and its articulation within the Democratic party.
Trump’s abrasive persona may rally many voters to the Democratic Party as it did last year costing the Republicans their majority in the House of Representatives, but retaining them in 2020 will require a more inclusive platform, but that also runs the risk of alienating the assertive left within the Democratic Party as it had in 2016.
The competition is turning into a cauldron of ideological and personal conflicts where the candidates will fight it out going into the primaries and caucuses when the party members will select the nominee starting in February next year.
Biden is the pragmatic centrist and Sanders the leftist, with Harris in the middle and others arranging themselves within that spectrum.
In the personal battles, Biden is the first to suffer a seriously attack after he was hit with allegations in the #MeToo age of acting improperly with women. The first to make the charge was a Sanders supporter, Lucy Flores, who said that Biden had kissed the back of her head at a 2014 party event.
Other women followed with similar allegations, although many in the party have tried to brush them off as innocent, if discomfiting, touchy-feely shows of affection.
He also has his establishment image to contend with having contested his first election 50 years ago. This may seem reassuring after Trump to some voters, especially at the centre, but to others not inspiring enough for future challenges.
Trump gleefully tweeted about the Sanders connection to Flores’ attack on Biden: “The socialists are really taking care of him.” And the Republicans will be counting on the Democratic candidates to weaken each other.
Sanders’ populism is a draw for the young and the left-progressives, but a turn-off for most in the broad centre of the political spectrum, as it was in 2016, where he put up a good show but not powerful enough to even get his party nomination.
Harris, who is of Indian and Jamaican descent, draws advantage from being a woman after the defeat of Clinton and the rise of feminist consciousness that followed. Many Democrats feel it should be another woman candidate, especially with the perception of Trump demeaning women.
As a woman of colour, she is also seen as the anti-dote to assertions of white identity in Trump’s base.
But her past as a tough prosecutor in California is coming to haunt her. Her critics have dug up her prosecutions or those under her as Attorney General and the policies she advocated to claim that she harmed the poor and people of colour.
She is married to a white man, a negative to people on either extremes of the racial divide, but a rainbow of reassurance to others.
Despite his seeming charisma and charm, O’Rourke has to overcome the fact the that he could not even win the state-wide Texas Senate election, beside the view of some that he and Buttigieg are well-off white dilettantes.
Within the party, the voluble left made headway in the mid-term elections gaining support from the youth, the millennials in their 20s and 30s. The candidates’ campaigns will skew during the primaries to this group, a risk for the final presidential election.
The Democratic Party has has thrown up a wide range of ideologically-driven policy options and on most there is a broad consensus, while differences run deep on the extent of their implementation.
At the top is universal healthcare, although differences persist on how to make it available, the cost and role of private insurance.
The other items that have come up include education reform and teachers’ salaries, reducing college costs, reducing income inequalities, national minimum wage, guaranteed income for all, housing, immigration reform, control of tech giants, reining in Wall Street and big businesses, and criminal justice reforms.
Differences run deep on how these are to be translated into practice. On immigration reform, for example, suggestions run from virtually opening the borders and abolishing enforcement to only legalising some categories of illegal immigrants. Free college is an attractive idea, but cost weighs it down.
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up tech giants may seem extreme to some.
Fear of Trump may not be enough to get the winning votes for the ultimate Democratic candidate. By the time the party holds its national convention in July 2020 to anoint the candidate and publish the manifesto, they would have to build a consensus that would enthuse their base while embracing the broad centre.
For the first time, the serious declared candidates include a Hindu, Tulsi Gabbard, who is yet to make a dent in the polls.
The list of candidates will be winnowed down by this time next year, but most of them approach the contest as an opportunity to build a national profile rather than go to White House.