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Opinions | More than anything, Democrats need a Trump-toppler

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/7/2019 Jennifer Rubin
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) greets the crowd at an event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News) © Daniel Acker/Bloomberg Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) greets the crowd at an event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) started her 2020 trek in Iowa this past weekend, sounding her familiar themes of economic populism. She told a spillover crowd that, “ultimately, I think what 2020 is going to be about is not about my family, it’s about the tens of millions of families across this country who just want a level playing field, who just want a chance to build an America that doesn’t just work for a handful of folks at the top, but an America that works for all of us."

At times, she seems to echo Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "They work for the rich and the powerful and not the rest of us. It’s throughout the system,” Warren said of wealthy special interests. "This is corruption, pure and simple. It is corruption, and it is eating away at our democracy and every fiber of our lives.” She added, “We need big structural change. We’ve got to go big on this.”

What is striking is not how different she sounds from any of the other potential Democratic presidential candidates but how likely she is to sound pretty much like all the rest of them. The message of combating income inequality and corruption will and should be front and center in the Democratic primary. (The biggest difference among the candidates ironically may be on foreign policy where internationalists will contrast themselves with those favoring retrenchment, a less chaotic version of President Trump’s retreat from the world.)

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Frankly, every Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt has run on some variation on this basic theme. Bill Clinton ran on “the ideal that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded, you’ll do a little better next year than you did last year, your kids will do better than you”; Barack Obama opened his 2008 campaign with a message of fairness (“The cynics, and the lobbyists, and the special interests who’ve turned our government into a game only they can afford to play. They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we’re here today to take it back. The time for that politics is over. It’s time to turn the page.”)

A message for the little guy takes on heightened relevance and power given Trump’s betrayal of the “forgotten man and woman.” Trump ran on the promise of a better, cheaper health-care system, a middle-class tax break, draining the Washington swamp and getting better trade deals. Instead, he tried to repeal Obamacare with no sufficient substitute; delivered an outsize tax break to the wealthy and corporations; engaged in unprecedented self-enrichment, conflicts of interest, attacks on the rule of law and obstruction; and started a tariff war that hurts consumers and farmers. Had he delivered on even part of his original message, Warren and her fellow Democrats would face a steeper hill to climb; with Trump in the White House, their overarching pitch doesn’t seem particularly radical.

No matter how many Democrats throw their hat into the ring, you’re going to hear some variation of the standard Democratic message. Sure, some will offer sweeping solutions (single payer health care, free college tuition, guaranteed income), and some will sound more pragmatic (fix Obamacare, redo the tax cuts). We’ll hear candidates with a more unifying, optimistic message (e.g., Texas’s Beto O’Rourke) and some who sound more combative. However, with the possibility of two dozen or so candidates in the field, the fine ideological distinctions among candidates likely will get blurred and their pitches with all contain both uplifting and aggressive rhetoric.

So what will make the difference in the race?

For all the talk of an ideological rift in the party, the driving force among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents is the hunger to win. Instead of ideological litmus tests, Democratic voters will most likely be looking for the candidate who’s going to take down Trump.

Charismatic or sober; fiery or steady — candidates will be rejected or chosen based on whether they’re seen as plausible rivals to Trump and compelling unifiers of the party. If Democrats are smart, they won’t go far left, because plausibility requires a message that does not scare away critical segments of the electorate. However, ultimately the 2020 Democratic primary likely won’t turn on who’s got the best, most progressive of similar-sounding messages, but rather on the best messenger.

Over the course of a long campaign, voters can see who has the temperament, ability to connect emotionally with voters, the resilience, the heft, the energy and the toughness required to beat Trump. Everything else — experience, ideology, voting record — will in all probability become secondary.

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