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The race to challenge Trump

Mar 11,2019 - Last updated at Mar 11,2019

STANFORD — With the first debate between Democratic candidates just four months away, the 2020 US presidential campaign is off to an early start. This election will be hugely consequential for the United States, its allies and adversaries, its trading partners and the global economy. US policy on trade, energy, corporate taxation, debt, defence, climate change and more is on the line.

It is far too early to predict the eventual Democratic nominee, let alone whether he or she will win the presidency in 2020. But with 12 candidates already in the race, Democrats clearly believe that President Donald Trump is extremely vulnerable, his job-approval rating currently hovers around 44 per cent. An early take on the Democratic field is therefore in order.

Attention so far has focused on the senators: Kamala Harris (California), Cory Booker (New Jersey), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) and Bernie Sanders (Vermont). Former vice president Joe Biden is expected to join the race; in early polling, he runs first and Sanders second. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, Senator Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and media sensation Beto O’Rourke may also run.

The current Democratic candidates fall into two camps. Those on the far left, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Booker and Gillibrand, favour a huge expansion of government along Scandinavian democratic socialist lines. This entails higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and a government-run healthcare system. They also support a radical restructuring of American energy under the so-called Green New Deal, which is being backed by new Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others. The initiative calls for retrofitting every building in the US for green efficiency, rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and replacing much air travel with a national high-speed rail system. Also included is the left’s “social justice” wish list of guaranteed jobs and vacations, and a basic income for those “unable or unwilling to work“.

By contrast, the likely centre-left candidates, Biden, Klobuchar, Bloomberg and Brown, if they run, favour more incremental policy proposals, claiming that the country is willing to go only so far and can afford only so much. All will claim they can win the presidency with the support of undecided independents and moderate Republicans.

If history is any guide, candidates who are not incumbent presidents rarely waltz to their party’s nomination. Bill Clinton eventually won the 1992 Democratic nomination after recovering from potentially fatal setbacks early in his campaign. And on the Republican side, John McCain was down and almost out before roaring back to capture the 2008 nomination.

Some of the Democratic candidates for 2020 may also overcome inevitable early stumbles. These include Warren’s controversial DNA test that disproved her Native American heritage, Booker saying that the world cannot continue eating meat because cow flatulence emits methane and Harris planning to eliminate employer-provided health insurance, upon which most Americans now rely. One of these three may even record an upset and become president. Or they may secure the nomination, fizzle on the big stage and fade to an historical footnote, like George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

There is far less uncertainty among Republicans: barring a lightning strike, Trump will easily be renominated. Former Massachusetts governor William Weld is a minor distraction, while former Ohio governor John Kasich also is considering a challenge. Ex-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz may run as an independent, enraging Democrats who fear he would siphon off votes from their candidate.

The most important factor in the 2020 election will be the state of the economy, which is currently very strong, thanks in part to Trump’s tax reforms and his rollback of stifling Obama-era regulation, although only a fraction of voters give him credit for this. In addition, Trump can appeal to likely Republican voters by pointing to some of his other major first-term accomplishments. These include the start of military rebuilding, the appointment of two conservative Supreme Court justices and new, albeit risky, approaches to North Korea and China.

The challenge for Trump in 2020 will be to persuade enough voters in the middle to give him another four years, despite their discomfort with some of his behaviour. It remains to be seen whether Trump can tone down his Tweeting to offend fewer potential voters and, as in his recent state of the union address, reach for bipartisan compromise on important issues, as he recently did on major legislation to reform the criminal justice system.

Polls show that Democrats most value a candidate who can defeat Trump. Should Trump’s re-election prospects weaken, this could increase the likelihood of a far-left Democratic nominee with a radical agenda. But if Trump’s approval ratings improve, such a nominee could spell electoral disaster for the Democrats.

If the 2020 election is close, the result will hinge on a modest number of contested states, some of which are in the Midwest and are home to working-class voters who feel under assault from national Democrats. The Green New Deal will not go down well with Pennsylvania’s frackers, Ohio’s coal miners and the region’s electricity consumers. Nor will the left’s cultural agenda.

As of now, the best thing going for the Democratic contenders, absent an economic downturn, is Trump’s behaviour, whereas Trump’s best hope is the radical policy agenda of many Democratic candidates. If these trends continue, the 2020 presidential election could be as dramatic and unpredictable as the last one.


Michael J. Boskin, professor of Economics at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, was chairman of George H.W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1993. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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