America’s political parties use primary elections to decide who will represent them in the next campaign, and the primary season for our 2020 presidential election is just warming up. As someone who has experienced single-party politics in my Foreign Service career, it’s interesting for me to compare the way our candidates make extreme promises to gain support, as distinct from the manner in which party elders in a single-party meet to select their candidates, not unlike Hillary’s hope two years ago.
Political scientists tell us candidates move to their party’s extreme during a primary, and to the center during the general election. So we are now seeing early Democratic candidates announcing their candidacy for the 2020 general election by promising their base they’re the most liberal candidate who could represent the party against Donald Trump, the presumed Republican candidate.
California Sen. Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general from 2011 to 2017, declared her intention to run for the presidency Jan. 21 to a large crowd in Oakland. Her slogan, “For The People,” allows her to present herself just about any way she thinks voters will best support her, a useful position to adopt this early in the campaign season. But her announcement speech was unabashedly liberal: free health care, free university education, and a willingness to open the border and consider abolishing ICE. About the only time voters might have noticed Harris before this announcement was her aggressive questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Now, with the prospect of tying up California’s 55 electoral votes, she’s well positioned to be the Democratic front runner.
We can expect Harris to continue moving left as a response to pressure from other candidates such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has announced an exploratory committee, or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, both of whom have embraced socialist policies and are expected to announce before long.
While Harris, Warren, Sanders and Booker burnish their liberal credentials, Texas Democratic Congressman Robert Francis (Beto) O’Rourke and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper are rumored to be considering joining the race. If they do, expect them to try to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd by calling for ever more liberal policies, certainly mirroring Harris’ promise of free health care and free university, and possibly including national legalization of marijuana, increased gun control, or a higher national minimum wage. It’s entirely possible the Democrats will have as many candidates in their primary debates as the Republicans had in 2016, with economic promises that can’t be implemented without a major tax increase.
And now former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says he wants to be the Independent Party’s nominee for the presidency because America’s huge debt is unsustainable and the Democrats have moved too far left. He’s a political newcomer, but has impressive business credentials and has staked out liberal positions before he talked about running for president. Democrats have been quick to criticize him for running, as they worry he will split the Democratic vote and guarantee Trump a second term.
It defies understanding an American political candidate can support expanded immigration while we have caravans forming in Central America to enter our country illegally. Or call for American socialism while socialist Venezuela slowly crumbles in our own hemisphere and its people flee by the millions. But we’re seeing the most extreme policies being promised, and that will continue until a single candidate emerges. This will be a long campaign season with many unsustainable promises that will likely be moderated when the general election kicks off.
Fred LaSor retired from U.S. government service 30 years ago and lives in the Carson Valley.