This brings us to the party’s second problem. Thanks to technology and celebrity, no messenger in the history of American politics has ever had a megaphone as deafening as Trump’s. If Democrats want to compete for voters’ attention — if they don’t want Trump’s latest tweet to be the only message Americans are hearing, day after day — they need to find a way to fight back. Finding someone to fight back is a good place to start.
The players: So who will it be? Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — last year’s primary runner-up — is an obvious contender. He’s got the street cred. He’s got the followers. And he’s shown that he knows how to tango with Trump. When Sanders displayed a giant printout of an @realDonaldTrump tweet on the Senate floor earlier this month, the image immediately went viral. Ultimately, however, Sanders is a party of one, and he isn’t likely to put Democrats’ interests ahead of his own.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is just as popular and progressive as Bernie; she also happens to be a Democrat, and she’s an even sharper communicator, as she has shown during her ferocious Twitter wars with Trump. The same goes for former Vice President Joe Biden, who clearly relishes an opportunity to beat the incoming presidentat his own populist game. Both Warren and Biden have hinted at possible White House runs in 2020, even though they’d be septuagenarians; whatever happens four years from now, such speculation could help them position themselves as the party’s top anti-Trumps in the weeks and months ahead.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has replaced Nevada’s Harry Reid as the official head of the legislative opposition, and he may well score some parliamentary points against the Trump agenda. (His recent revisions of an old Mitch McConnell letter proved to be Twitter gold.) But there’s a reason why Senate leaders rarely become party leaders. Their aims are narrower and more institutional: protecting vulnerable members, amending bills, striking deals. On top of that, Schumer is much less defiant by nature than Reid. As one senior Democratic Senate aide recently told New York magazine, “Chuck will go to the ramparts on an issue when it’s polling at 60 percent, but as soon as it gets hairy, he’s gone.” Compromise isn’t going to cut it.
In California, pretty much every Democrat of note — state Senate President Kevin de Leon, incoming Attorney General Xavier Becerra, gubernatorial wannabe Gavin Newsom — has vowed to block the Trump administration from imposing its agenda on the Golden State. But only Gov. Jerry Brown — who has been equally defiant — has any sort of national profile. If Brown succeeds in making California the center of the resistance, it’s possible that he’ll become as a spiritual figurehead of sorts — the movement’s Yoda, if you will.
What about a Luke Skywalker, though? What about the next generation of Democrats? Beltway pundits are already busying themselves with lists of 2020 hopefuls. The same names keep popping up in every outlet: new California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. All of these pols are still so unfamiliar, however, that it’s hard to imagine them commanding the same sort of national attention as Trump — or wanting to. More likely they’ll choose their battles, build their profiles and focus on laying the groundwork for future runs instead.
One last option to consider. Typically, ex-presidents retreat from the political fray. They write books. They build houses. They start foundations. They clear brush. Barack Obama has signaled that he wants to do the same, more or less. But what if he followed Trump’s lead and broke all the rules instead? At 55, Obama is one of the youngest ex-presidents in U.S. history. He’s also one of the most popular, with approval ratings currently hovering above 55 percent. He has no obvious Democratic successor. And the man who is replacing him in the Oval Office has vowed to undo his entire legacy. Could Obama step away for a few weeks or months, then reemerge in response to some particularly egregious offense on Trump’s part? As Michael Corleone once put it, “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.”
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