The voting may not have started, but the 2020 primary season is already upon us. The dynamic of an incumbent Republican President who has very strong support within his own party, but who is extremely vulnerable in a general election, has drawn many A-list Democrats into the race. A major part of the political conversation during the next year will consist of the pre-game skirmishing between these candidates. Can Kamala Harris, the first term Senator from California, reconstitute the Obama coalition? Can a minor candidate like Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard or even Andrew Yang draw enough support to mount a viable campaign? Can a conservative and deep pocketed candidate like Michael Bloomberg make a strong bid for the nomination despite the difficulties he will have winning support from non-white voters?
All of these questions are interesting. Debating and discussing them can be exciting, fun and make good fodder for podcasts, Sunday morning talk shows, Tweets and blogs. There is also something comforting about this discourse. The political class has been having this conversation, in one form or another, for close to half a century. Continuing to act as if 2020 is just another exciting presidential year in a functioning and democratic (if flawed) country makes us feel good, even optimistic, about our country, but it also obscures a much larger and more troubling reality. The core assumption that underlies any discussion about an American presidential election, that the loser will leave office, or conceded defeat, gracefully, can no longer be taken for granted.
This means that rather than turning to our attention to who might win Iowa, which candidate is racking up the most endorsements, the latest great speech, gaffe or negative story about a candidate, we might be better off paying attention to a different set of issues. The question of whether or not the 2020 election is likely to be conducted freely, fairly and democratically is much more central to the future of our country than whether Kirsten Gillibrand or Corey Booker is second place in Iowa or other such inside baseball campaign dynamics. The questions of which states are passing more restrictive voting laws, which of these laws are being upheld in the courts, why the federal government continues to do nothing to protect our elections from further Russian interference like what we saw in 2016 and the extent to which major media outlets traffic in lies and fear-mongering are among the much extremely critical issues that too easily get overlooked as we all handicap the Democratic primary.
As Donald Trump moves into the third year of his presidency, the evidence that he cannot get reelected in a free and fair election is becoming stronger every day. Despite this, questions like who can beat Trump, continue to dominate the coverage of the race. By the way, the answer to that question is that pretty much any Democrat with pulse and a modicum of experience can beag Trump. This question generates attention, not because it is difficult to answer-it isn’t, but because we have always asked it, and because it suggests a soothing normalcy and predictability in American political life that no longer exists.
A more useful set of questions to begin asking include, will President Trump announce before the election that he will accept the outcome if he loses, something he refused to do in 2016? Will the 2020 elections meet international standards for democratic elections? What will his most loyal supporters, anywhere from 20-35% of the electorate do if Trump loses the election, but claims it was stolen from him? How would a newly elected Democratic President be able to govern if Trump, after leaving office, continues to Tweet, hold rallies and claim the election was stolen from him? Given the very likely legal hassles that will take over his life after he leaves office, what will Trump do to remain in the White House? What will Moscow do in the 2020 election and are we prepared to stop it?
These questions are jarring and upsetting for many. They may even sound slightly extreme, but to ignore them would be to ignore every lesson we should have learned from Donald Trump’s brief, but extremely impactful, political career. There is a good chance that in November of 2020, the Democrat, whoever that candidate is, will win by a healthy margin and Trump will have to accept defeat, and much smaller chance that Trump will win a decisive victory and get reelected, but the chance that we will end up somewhere else when the polls close on November 3rd 2020 cannot be ignored. More than simply not ignoring that, we need to begin paying attention to it and crafting a strategy to counter the outrageous and false claims that may come from the White House during the hours immediately following the voting. To be unprepared because we are so focused on who is up or down in New Hampshire, or which Democratic candidate Tweeted what today, could be a devastating mistake.
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