The 2040 plan for unexciting Democrats

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)

Consider this a public service announcement: While you were doing your Christmas shopping and trying not to think about the fast-collapsing stock market, the 2020 campaign officially lurched into motion.

Here’s what you missed. Elizabeth Warren announced she’s not a person of color and is aware of that. Cory Booker let it be known he’s heterosexual and is aware of that, too. Julian Castro wants you to know he’s not actually his twin brother.

And of course … Betomania! Over at CNN, where they’re now ranking the Democratic candidates monthly as if they were bowl contenders or Fortnite players, the mystics Chris Cillizza and Harry Enten actually wrote this line and somehow got it published: “It’s Beto O’Rourke’s world, every other Democrat is just living in it.”

Leaving aside the obvious problems of grammar and cliché here, this brought to mind one of my favorite Newsweek covers of all time, which used to hang in the lunchroom of the magazine’s Washington bureau like a warning to young reporters: Can Anyone Stop Fritz?

(Students of political history will point out that Fritz — as former Vice President Walter Mondale was known — did in fact outlast his closest rival, Gary Hart, in 1984 and wrest the nomination, by a microscopic margin. He’s still sharp and probably has a better chance of repeating that feat than half the people CNN is ranking.)

We really know only one thing about the race to challenge President Trump in 2020 (assuming he runs for reelection, which I’ll believe when I see it), which is that, as much as Democrats like to think they’re nothing like Republicans and have only the most sane and sophisticated voters to impress, they’re about to run into the exact same 20-car pileup that got Trump nominated in 2016.

As I explained in some detail here, a combination of factors in our politics — an infatuation with celebrity, the rise of super-PACs, the weakness of incumbents, the declining value of both expertise and TV advertising — has created an environment where more candidates will get in and stay in than ever before.

And as we saw in 2016, that means that a candidate who can get his or her hooks into 25 percent of the electorate, and hold onto it no matter what, might have just enough support in a fractured field to win the nomination. It’s a dynamic that rewards pockets of passion and fury, and discourages attempts to grapple with complexity.

Which means we know something else, too — that the energy in the Democratic Party will be on the reactionary left, as it has been for a few years now. The loudest applause will be reserved for orators who call the social and economic order “rigged” (as Warren does), and who demonize capital in the society, and who make all kinds of expansive promises they can’t really keep.

You can see how this works for a candidate like Warren or Bernie Sanders, who champion social justice and can whip up a crowd, and who won’t feel the need to say anything that challenges the orthodoxy of the baby-boomer left.

But it’s harder to see a path here if you’re a less inspiring, less doctrinaire governor, like John Hickenlooper or Terry McAuliffe, or a senator like Kirsten Gillibrand or Michael Bennet, or a young mayor like Pete Buttigieg, or a businessman like Howard Schultz.

(Or, say, a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg, whose inclination to run in the Democratic primaries, rather than as an independent, seems completely baffling to me, but I’ll get to that subject in the new year.)

If you really think you’re going to go out there, on a stage where Warren and Sanders and Kamala Harris are arguing over who can be the first one to reach the door of the Bastille with a guillotine, and talk calmly about your record of good governance and your plan for budgetary reform, then I’ve got a few friends from the other party you should talk to.

Their names are John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. They’ve got plenty of time to chat.

Now, none of these governing Democrats are likely to ask my advice for how to break through the shouting and stand out among the suits. But if they did, I would offer a somewhat radical idea.

Don’t bother running a campaign for 2020. Run a campaign for 2040.

Because the thing that scares a lot of us about Trumpism, whether we articulate it this way or not, isn’t just the ineptitude and the meanness and the contempt for otherness in all its forms. It’s the shallow, instant-gratification thinking behind everything the president and his allies do.

Want to goose growth for the next quarter? Slash corporate taxes and bankrupt the Treasury!

Want to create a few more energy jobs? Tear up the climate accords and drill on the nature preserves!

Want to protect a few dying industries for another couple of years? Tell all those Pacific countries to trade with China instead!

Who cares what it’s all going to mean in a couple of decades? Let our kids sort out the mess of a dying planet and a second-tier economy, just so long as Trump gets to reel off his talking points right now.

The contrast to focus on isn’t just right versus left. It’s short term versus long term. It’s quarterly returns versus a half century of peril.

China’s got some 100-year plan to dominate the world, economically and militarily. We’re negotiating to keep the government open for a few more months.

So if I were a serious-minded, governing candidate in search of a compelling message, here’s what I think I’d say:

Guess what? I can’t solve the country’s problems in the next four years, and anyone who tells you he or she can is lying. But I can push us onto the right track, so your kids won’t be doomed to manage decline.

I’m running on the 2040 agenda, and that’s the year I’m going to talk about. And some of my ideas may not do you a lot of good right now, like energy taxes aimed at complying with climate goals, or the restructuring of entitlement programs to free up money for infrastructure.

But I’m all about your children, not you.

All the celebrity candidates in this Democratic campaign are going to whale on Trump, and they should. They’re going to say he’s sexist and xenophobic and out of touch. No argument here.

But the most salient critique of Trump isn’t that he’s a bad person. It’s that he’s a bad executive who cares only about a small group of investors, rather than the trajectory of the business. And replacing him, by itself, won’t change that trajectory.

What the country needs is a long-term strategic plan. And if you’re a drab Democrat with designs on the presidency, so do you.

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