If you look at the big, divided primaries of the last 20 years, there are a few lessons.
One, there will probably come a point in the long, long Democratic primary where the candidate of reconciliation can attempt to walk into the foreground and bring together the factions. In 2004, after a bitter fight between Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, John Kerry brought together the primary electorate.
Four candidates moved toward policy debates on Thursday night: Julián Castro (super aggressive toward Joe Biden), Amy Klobuchar (critical of Bernie Sanders), Beto O’Rourke (calmer reconciliation of the stage), and Pete Buttigieg (ibid.). Each one offered either explicit or implicit generational arguments, since almost any of these candidates definitely seeks to replace Biden in the minds of voters.
As Lis Smith, a senior adviser to Buttigieg, recently told BuzzFeed News, “I witnessed the 2004 primary and the dynamics there with Gephardt and Dean, and I think that any presidential campaign that doesn’t understand a multiway primary and how [going negative] will affect their long-term standing is probably not going to be the campaign that will take on Donald Trump.”
Aided by the fact that, at multiple points, other candidates commended and thanked O’Rourke for his response to August’s suspected hate crime in El Paso, he modeled a way the reconciliation path could work for someone.
Specifically, he shifted the health care debate between Biden, Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren toward the public option, which is generally more popular than Medicare for All, while making Biden sound like an incrementalist:
Listen, I’m grateful that we all agree about the urgency of this challenge and the fact that Donald Trump is undermining the limited protections that we have right now. But I also think we’re being offered a false choice between those who propose an all-or-nothing gambit, forcing tens of millions off of insurance that they like, that works for them, to force them onto Medicare — and others who want to, as the vice president does, incrementally improve what we have, which will still leave many, maybe millions uninsured and uncared for. In a state like Texas, where the largest provider of mental health care services is the county jail system, we’ve got to do better. In my proposal, Medicare for America, says everyone who’s uninsured will be enrolled in Medicare. Everyone who’s insufficiently insured, cannot afford it, can move over to Medicare. And those, like members of unions who’ve fought for the health care plans that work for them and their families, are able to keep them. This is the best possible path forward.
The second possible item from the divided fields of the last 20 years is highly defined and focused platforms — even if there aren’t any details below them. The idea that the voter knows what you’re doing for them would matter here, and having whatever that is be a little bit distinct compared with the rest of the field.
In 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump actually articulated the clearest platform in the Republican field: more jobs, harsh immigration policies, renegotiating trade deals, withdrawing troops, law and order, a general move away from Christian conservatism. Everyone else sort of blurred together (Ben Carson excepted). Just free yourself mentally for a second from whether Trump actually meant it, or has done this as president: In a big field, providing a distinct set of issues matters.
Can’t beat Warren and Sanders for telling you exactly what you’re going to get. But O’Rourke’s new verve for mandatory gun buybacks (i.e., confiscation) of AR-15s is a distinct policy popular with a base of voters. “Hell yes,” he said and has basically said the last few days when asked about big-time gun control. And, of course, here it is on a T-shirt:
In the last few weeks, he’s essentially restructured his campaign around climate change, immigration, and gun control. These aren’t especially promising general election issues for Democrats, generally, but this is a candidate — like all the others who are not Biden, Bernie, and Warren — looking to get above 5%.