The Good Fight

A Strong Start for the Democrats in 2020

Kamala Harris’ presidential announcement featured a message that she—and other Democrats—can use to defeat Trump.

Kamala Harris speaking at a podium.
Sen. Kamala Harris launches her presidential campaign at a rally at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in her hometown of Oakland, California, on Jan. 27.
Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage

With Kamala Harris’ announcement speech on Sunday, the race for the Democratic nomination is officially in full swing. It is far too early to venture a guess as to who will ultimately win: While the large audience she drew and the sleek nature of her campaign rollout will help to solidify Harris’ status as a front-runner—and perhaps the outright favorite—she is up against some very stiff competition: Beto O’Rourke has the most viral appeal, Elizabeth Warren is running on the most ambitious economic plan, Joe Biden retains a lead in early polls, and Bernie Sanders boasts the most devoted fan base. Then there are a whole host of others, from Cory Booker to Sherrod Brown, who could easily vault into the first row thanks to a well-timed speech or a convincing performance in a debate.

But Harris’ excellent speech did help to clarify what the party’s message could—and should—be. Drawing on the rhetoric of Barack Obama, as well as a number of her rivals, Harris has staked out three basic positions within a long-running debate about the basic story Democrats should be telling over the next few years. Whether coming from her or someone else, these themes should prove fully capable of helping a candidate secure the Democratic nomination and beat Donald Trump:

1. Preach Love, Not Hate

The Democratic base is desperate to see Donald Trump thrown out of the White House. It would be tempting to conclude that a winning Democratic candidate should be just as angry as the president, and fight just as dirty.

Tempting, but wrong: The Democratic base—not to mention the large majority of Americans—is not nearly as partisan as the loudest voices on Twitter or cable news. Though they have a strong preference for one party over the other, they don’t just want their own side to win; they want American politics to become less nasty in the process.

“People in power are trying to convince us that the villain in our American story is each other,” Harris said on Sunday. “But that is not our story. That is not who we are.” If Harris is a prominent advocate of love over hate, she is hardly alone. O’Rourke has explicitly based his appeal on the wager that, even at this nasty juncture in the American experiment, it is worth betting on our better angels.  “We can either be governed by fear,” he said on the campaign trail, “or we can be governed by our ambitions and our aspirations and our desire to make the most out of all of us. And that’s America at its best.”

Meanwhile, Cory Booker has long mined the same quarry in even more exuberant fashion: “I think about those words at the end of the Declaration of Independence, our declaration of interdependence, our declaration of love,” he recently told Franklin Foer in a fascinating interview about love and politics. “If we’re going to succeed, we must mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. That is not just about tolerance, isn’t just bipartisanship. We are at our best when we give the ultimate sacrifice of putting other people, putting the country, putting our communities ahead of ourselves. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”

2. Recognize That America Is Flawed but Deny That It Is Rotten

There is no way for any liberal to look at the United States right now without seeing big, ugly stains. But there is a great range of opinions about how these stains should inform our overall view of the country. A growing number of writers and politicians believe that the rise of Trump is the last piece of evidence that was needed to prove the essential rottenness of America. According to this vision, there has been scant progress over the past 50 years. Today’s mass incarceration is as bad as Jim Crow. America is as racist now as it was in the 1960s. The might of its army has the sole purpose of subjugating the rest of the world. Our country is irremediably fallen—and will likely remain so.

The competing vision Harris presents is no less indignant about the present injustices, but both more positive about the “true” nature of America and more hopeful about its future. It recognizes that America has come a very long way from its ugly past. It stipulates that it is, though perhaps not inevitable, entirely within our agency to bend history in an even better direction. And though it recognizes how far America’s global standing has sunk under Donald Trump, it still aspires to the United States playing a role of moral leadership in the world. Perhaps most importantly, rather than throwing American symbols on the dustbin of history, it claims that liberals and progressives capture the true soul of America.

Speaking at Netroots, a giant gathering of progressive activists, last year, Harris first emphasized this theme:

The American people know that we are better than this. I know we are better than this because 13 years ago, New Orleans was under water and the initial response was appalling. Katrina exposed a shocking level of racism and neglect. But ultimately Americans of every race and religion and background—local leaders, church groups, college students—came together to bring the city back to life. That’s who we are. That’s our American identity. … We are a country that is aspirational. We have not achieved all of those ideals. But we have those ideals and it is part of our identity to fight for those ideals. So let’s not let anybody take our flag from us, OK? That’s our flag.

On Sunday, she doubled down on the same message: “The truth is that as Americans we have so much more in common than what separates us,” she exclaimed. “We are already standing on common ground. I say we rise together or we fall together as one nation indivisible.”

3. Focus on the Big Picture and Avoid the Infighting

People with an extreme interest in politics are highly attuned to subtle differences in policy and ideology between different candidates. Do they want everyone to be able to buy into Medicare, or do they want Medicare to start substituting for private insurers? And do they justify policies like a “baby bond,” which would give disadvantaged kids a capital stock when they turn 18, on grounds of giving poor Americans more opportunity or as a way of redressing the racial wealth gap?

These questions are undoubtedly important. But the vast majority of people, even primary voters, are not especially interested in determining a candidate’s exact position along an imagined line from radical progressive to moderate liberal. Instead, they want to be sure that the Democratic presidential candidate will do three things: resist the administration’s egregious attacks on minorities and democratic institutions; fight for the economic interests of working people; and stand up, rather than sell out, to Wall Street and corporate America.

There are some bomb-throwing culture warriors on the most radical end of the party as well as some Blue Dog Dems in its most moderate reaches who fail this test. But most realistic presidential candidates easily pass the only litmus test the base actually cares about. The span of potential candidates who bridge this divide is, in ideological terms, very wide: It easily reaches from Joe Biden all the way to Elizabeth Warren.

One way to stay out of the infighting is to eschew divisive political labels and go light on policy. If O’Rourke refuses to call himself either a moderate or a progressive, it is because he has understood this core insight. And if he declines to pick sides in the intricate war of rival policies beloved by the hyperpolitical class, it is for the same reason: Instead of being drawn into dogfights about the specific means to accomplish shared ends, he prefers to focus on describing the urgency of the problem (America’s terrible system of health provision, for example) and the general nature of the solution (say, to give everyone affordable and high-quality health care).

Another way to stay out of the infighting, meanwhile, is to design a policy package that defies the imagined one-dimensional spectrum from progressives to moderates. This seems to be the course that Harris is shrewdly charting for herself. This is why, despite recent criticisms, she did not shy away from emphasizing her record as a public prosecutor on Sunday, emphasizing that she cares both about fighting overincarceration and about ensuring that people in marginalized communities can have a feeling of safety. (“I knew that the people who are most often targeted with violence are also most often the voiceless,” she said. “I believed then as I do now: No one should be left to fight alone.”) And it is also why she has put a massive tax cut for the working and middle class at the heart of her campaign, avoiding anti-capitalist rhetoric while making clear that she does not shy away from taxing the rich to boost the incomes of the poor.

There’s a temptation to assume that presidential politics are all about some mixture of personality and demographics. As a result, much of the early debate on the 2020 campaign has been consumed with silliness. Is Elizabeth Warren sufficiently likable to win the general election? Can a white candidate possibly mobilize Latino and black people? Won’t a Latino or black candidate be sure to scare off moderate whites?

The truth of it is that a candidate’s prospects have far less to do with who they are than with what they stand for. And on that front, the winning message is actually relatively clear. To both win in the primaries and beat Trump, Democrats will have to take the fight to crony capitalism without lecturing their voters on the supposed advantages of socialism. And they will have to stand up to the president’s hateful demagoguery with passion and conviction while making it clear that they are the champions of all Americans.

On Sunday, Harris has made an excellent start in this vein. Over the coming weeks and months, many more presidential hopefuls are likely to follow her lead. In the process, some candidates will prove unexpectedly weak and others surprisingly charismatic. That’s good: A lively primary process will help to reveal who has the best personal attributes for taking the fight to Trump much better than premature speculation ever could. And since Democrats are already honing in on the winning message, they have a good bit of time to settle on the best messenger.