Symposium | Halfway Home?

The Template for 2020

By Alex S. Jones

Tagged DemocratsElections

Frenzied post-election analysis of the midterm elections has narrowed to one key issue: What has the November 6 outcome told Democrats about their prospects of winning the White House in 2020? That is, of course, the prize, and every Democratic eye should be on it.

I live in Democrat Joe Cunningham’s district, centered in Charleston, South Carolina, which had been a Republican seat for almost 40 years. His stunning upset of a red in tooth-and-claw Trump Republican is one template for 2020.

He promised not to vote for Nancy Pelosi for House speaker, and his yard signs said, “Put Country Over Party.”

His most powerful television ad featured Republican mayors and councilmen of coastal towns endorsing him over his opponent because of his outspoken opposition to offshore oil drilling.

He is young, engaging, and likeable, and he won by focusing on the local. Trump was the subtext, of course. I waited an hour in line to vote. Because of this focus, Joe made it possible for people who voted for Trump in 2016 to feel safe voting against him two years later.

But 2020 will not be a proxy election, nor will it be local. It will be Trump versus X, and the number one issue is: Should X be some version of Joe Cunningham?

Yes, and no.

Yes, X must make it safe to have voted for Trump, and then vote against him. Ads with Republicans explaining why this time they were voting for the Democrat would be powerful. But it will also take a platform, a purpose, and a message that is not just anti-Trump. Charisma and charm would also be nice.

But X must be able to stand in the ring with a guy who fights dirty and not look just as dirty. But also not look weak.

I am reminded of the Ali-Liston fights, when Ali declined to stand toe to toe with Sonny Liston and slug it out. He knew that was a mug’s game. His strategy was to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. And he had a sting. He used it when the moment was right. He didn’t play Liston’s game.

Trump will wage a savage campaign, full of insults and name-calling. Instead of responding in kind, X might use rhetorical jiujitsu.
“Ask yourself, why is Donald Trump calling me names? What is his purpose? What is he trying to avoid? What is his real reason for denouncing the press? Why does he try to incite Americans to hate other Americans?”

Posing those questions—and then offering some answers—might sting like a bee.

What of young versus old? Is that important in 2020?

I would say yes.

One much-discussed prospective candidate who seems to check all the boxes is Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Beto has never won statewide office and just lost his bid for the Senate to Ted Cruz in Texas. True. But almost beating Ted Cruz as a Texas Democrat is no small feat, and it is plausible that as a presidential nominee he might carry the state. He came close on November 6.

It is worth remembering that we’ve already had a President who was a congressman and who had never won a statewide election, while also losing his bid for a Senate seat two years before he got to the White House.

His name: Abraham Lincoln.

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Alex S. Jones is the co-executive editor of DailyChatter and former director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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