Editorial: Democrats must offer a new vision for the country

  • Supporters of presidential candidates gather before the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, NH. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Published: 9/11/2019 10:10:15 PM

With Labor Day in the rearview mirror and the 2020 Democratic presidential race headed into the critical weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Democrats are said to be divided between progressives who want to pursue a transformative agenda and those of a more moderate outlook who simply want things to go back to the way they were in 2016 b.T. (before Trump).

However oversimplified that storyline may be, such a split was discernible Saturday at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s state convention in Manchester, where 1,200 activists and power brokers assembled to size up the field.

Several of the progressive favorites (Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro and Bernie Sanders, to name three) explicitly urged those attending not to play it safe when choosing a candidate, thus implicitly seeking to erode the central argument for the candidacy of the putative front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden: electability.

“There is a lot at stake, and people are scared,” Warren told the crowd. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in because we’re scared. And we can’t ask other people to vote for someone we don’t believe in.”

Biden has at times struggled to explain exactly why he is running, other than that he believes he has the best chance of defeating President Donald Trump, which he sees as the overriding objective in 2020. Indeed, he is perceived by many pundits and lots of the party faithful as the most electable Democrat, given his long experience in politics, more moderate views and affable demeanor.

But “safety first” is not a prescription for generating a lot of grassroots enthusiasm, leading some Democrats to worry that the safe choice might actually be a risky bet.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., alluded to this in comments to reporters following his remarks Saturday. “Every time we’ve tried to play it safe with established and Washington-tenured figures, every single time we’ve come up short.” It’s hard to argue with him there, recalling the failed campaigns of Hubert Humphrey, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, all candidates with serious credentials.

Expect this clash between progressive aspiration and moderate caution to be further articulated beginning with Thursday’s Democratic debate in Houston. At the same time, we wonder how well this narrative comports with reality.

First, nostalgic yearning aside, Democrats must surely recognize that there is no normal in American politics that can be returned to. The mold was cracked even before Trump smashed it, and it must be recast in a new form. There’s no going back to the time when bipartisanship prevailed at the end of the day and the nation’s business got done. So, too, have the norms of political discourse and behavior been shattered in the age of social media; it’s impossible to imagine that a return to civil discourse is just a matter of unseating Trump. No new Democratic president — whether it be Biden or one of his rivals — is going to magically bring together a bitterly divided people and forge a newly unified nation. That is not a dream; it’s an illusion. Whoever is elected will have to navigate uncharted political waters, full of dangerous shoals.

Second, even if there were a “normal” to revert to, it must be remembered that that normal gave rise to a large number of embittered Americans who felt left behind as the rest of the country moved ahead, and who were primed to respond to the politics of grievance exploited so deftly by Trump.

Returning to that normality ought not and cannot be the goal of any of the Democratic candidates. Their job is to imagine a new normal and articulate a path of how to get there; the voters’ job is to assess how well those visions mesh with the times and how realistic they are.

Biden is right that what matters most to the country next year is defeating Trump. But Sanders was right, too, when he told the crowd Saturday, “Frankly, it is not enough just to defeat Trump. We must do much, much more.”

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