What Democrats Need in 2020: Unassailability

Lisa Van Dusen

Dec. 19, 2018

This is a Policy Magazine re-post of a Hill Times column published on Dec. 19, 2018.

The annoying thing about life on the cusp of the third decade of the 21st century is that some nutter with too much time on his hands can overtake an otherwise productive day with one flagrantly fabricated, asinine tweet. The awesome thing is that the president of the United States isn’t the only one with a Twitter account.

With a single tweet on Dec. 12, the aspirational conversation about life in America absent the relentless crank press of pulp fiction that is the Trump presidency was monopolized by an image. The photo was of former vice-president Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris, clearly having a blast on a Washington sidewalk, as though they knew precisely what kind of speculation this would fuel and didn’t care. It set off a good 18 hours of chatter about what a Biden/Harris 2020 ticket could offer. The photo seemed to reply “fun,” which is not as frivolous a selling point as it would be absent the perpetual bedlam of the current White House.

It might be hard for Canadians to imagine that the Democrats could run anyone with a pulse against Donald Trump at this point and not actually win a landslide but, a) we’ve all seen that movie and, b) If this were an age of politics as usual, Trump wouldn’t be president.

This is an age of operationalized politics, in which social media enable the manipulation of large swaths of persuadable voters in a matter of seconds, in which careers are made and broken by engineered narratives deployed by special interests seeking to sway outcomes, and in which everybody’s podiatrist’s brother has a polling operation, some seemingly more bent on influencing public opinion than measuring it. Presidential campaigns, alas, are no longer the contests of character they were when pussies were only involuntarily apprehended in awkward holiday-card photos and Jennifer was spelled with a “G.”

The Democrats can’t count on Trump to win the 2020 election for them. Too many of the standard variables are susceptible to hacking, corruption, misrepresentation, distortion, and all the other ways in which democratic outcomes of any value above homecoming queen have been hijacked within the cat’s cradle of global cyberarsery enabled by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The presidential nominee has to be someone for whom defeat at the hands of Trump would be five times as unthinkable as was the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. It has to be someone who will run a campaign so flawless on every level—moral, tactical, strategic, communications, ground game—that its success becomes an unassailable certainty. Not based on manufactured inevitability. Not as the lesser of two evils. The nominee must be the 2020 version of Barack Obama in 2008, who effectively left more than half the country at a loss for a reason not to vote for him.

Whoever follows Trump will have a massive repair job on their hands that cannot be left to chance or inexperience. With more than a year to go before the Iowa caucuses, the early top tier of contenders—including Biden, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, and Elizabeth Warren—may all end up satisfying that requirement to varying degrees.

A Biden/Harris ticket would offer experience and promise, authenticity and polish, integrity and balance, emotional and policy intelligence, and genuine relatability. Biden—his “gaffe machine” tag disarmed by a gaffe-factory incumbent—appeals to working-class white voters and policy nerds. Harris, a former state attorney general, has an Obama-esque American Dream pedigree (by way of a Montreal adolescence) as the daughter of a Tamil mother and Jamaican father. They offer the possibility of a presidency that looks and acts like America, not a caricature of America.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.