Jules Witcover: Who leads the Democratic Party?
WASHINGTON — As the rest of the Republican Party essentially stands by and allows Donald Trump to remake it in his demagogic and racist image, the rival Democratic Party staggers devoid of national leadership of its own. It is a headless horseman devoid of a single dominant figure, relying so far on Trump’s chaotic if charismatic authoritarian rule to ignite any effective opposition against him.
There’s an old political axiom that you can’t beat a somebody with a nobody. The Democrats are defying common sense in failing so far to identify one of their own to embody repulsion toward Trump, or find that someone to create positive reaction to their time-honored claim to be “the party of the people.”
That slogan lays claim to being the political vehicle of the nation’s working stiffs, meaning broadly all who work with their hands or brains in the manufacturing segment of the society, putting food on the table or at least the mechanisms of doing so.
In 2016, Trump engineered a successful raid on these workers, particularly among white men in states of dying coal mines like West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and of shrinking auto-making like Ohio and Wisconsin. Trump managed to cobble together enough Electoral College votes in those states to take the White House from the popular vote winner, Hillary Clinton.
Arguably the most popular living Democrats are former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and both were sent to the showers by the two-term constitutional limit.
That leaves as the most obvious contender by such yardsticks former Vice President Joe Biden, the self-styled workingman’s hero from coal-capital Scranton, Pa. But he would be 79 upon taking office in 2021. He says now only that he has not closed to door to running.
Also, while Biden is the darling of the older lunch-bucket set, he may not similarly excite millennials, especially those who know little of his key roles in enacting such legislation as the Violence Against Women Act as a senator from Delaware.
Furthermore, the Republicans have done a thorough job of demonizing him over the years as a motor-mouth, despite his deep experience as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees prior to his eight years as vice president.
The current favorite of Democratic women is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who carries the flag of party progressivism, along with the seemingly ageless Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, still tagged as a democratic socialist. It’s questionable that the Democrats will risk running another woman so soon after the Hillary Clinton demise.
Among the lesser-known rest is Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, seeking re-election on a solid record as a champion of organized labor in his state and region, and with a potential for political growth. But the field seems wide open as of now, especially in light of a Democratic desire for a fresh face with charismatic appeal not yet apparent.
While former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remains the darling of longtime liberals, she is 78 and generally dismissed as presidential material and a particular target of Republicans and conservatives as the epitome of “San Francisco extremism.”
In the contemporary Democratic objective of winning control of both houses of Congress in the November midterm congressional elections, these and other party hopefuls for greater prominence will be involved, and one or more may emerge from the pack.
For all that, however. the prime question in the midterms will be whether they prove to be a clear referendum on the Trump presidency near the halfway point in his stormy first term, and whether they enhance or stem a premature end to it.
Obviously, another prominent figure in the Trump drama remains Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, a Republican, and his investigation into past and current Russian meddling in our elections. In the end, his hand on the scales may be more significant than any energized Democratic Party opposition to Trump in the next nationwide balloting for Congress.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.