Bernie Sanders
Credit: Associated Press

We’re at that point in the political cycle where, with the 2018 midterms over, all of the horse-race attention turns to the 2020 presidential contest. Christopher Hooks provided an important warning to Democrats about letting that consume all of their attention.

The nationalization of American politics and an overemphasis on the top of the ballot is a nationwide sickness, but it mostly afflicts the Democratic Party. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and then forgot about the rest of politics — the state legislatures, the governors’ mansions — and, as a result, they spent much of the next decade in political hell…

Democrats, taking advantage of the president’s unpopularity, stand a chance of winning control of more state legislatures in 2020 and building the foundations of their party, just as Republicans did in 2010. It’s a great opportunity, and yet Democrats seem singularly focused on the upcoming presidential primary. Democrats, God bless them, are slow learners.

But because presidential candidates must now begin the process of building a campaign infrastructure early next year, we can expect them to make their intentions clear over the next few months. That is why talk has already begun about the myriad of Democrats who are likely to enter their party’s primary. So it’s not too soon for the kind of advice Jonathan Capehart recently dispensed.

Democrats have this annoying habit of always looking for “The One.” The one who will sweep them off their feet in a fit of electoral ecstasy. Only their “one” should make a go of it. All others are deemed inadequate or somehow all wrong for the party or the times. Then there’s this other annoying habit. If their “one” doesn’t win the nomination, then the person who actually does win is dead to them…

So, here’s what I mean when I say Democrats need to act like Republicans.

* Every Democrat who wants to run should run.
* Circle the wagons around the nominee.
* Don’t fall for the false narrative that Democrats don’t have a message.

His advice reminded me of a time not too long ago during a presidential primary when I was trying to decide whether to support the candidate that aligned more closely with my priorities, or the one who was most likely to win the general election (which is always a vague notion). While I was ruminating on all of that, I went to hear the late, great Molly Ivins speak. Her advice is something that has grounded me ever since. She said, “In the primary, vote with your heart. In the general, go with your head.” That is precisely why Capehart ended his column with this:

Unseating a sitting president is not easy. In my lifetime, there have been just two one-term presidents, President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) and President George H.W. Bush (1989-1993). We’ve had three two-term presidents in the past 24 years. So, evicting Trump from 1600 in 2020 will be a heavy lift. Democrats need not make it harder by hobbling their nominee with needless infighting that distracts them from what must be their No. 1 goal.

In the last two presidential elections that included Democratic primaries, we have examples of how that kind of advice played out very differently. We can sometimes forget that in 2008, there were initially eight candidates. Eventually, the field was winnowed down to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—who fought it out in a way that left some scars. But in the end, Clinton and most of her supporters took Ivins’ advice and voted with their head in the general election. That was emphasized when, in her 2016 presidential race, Clinton built a policy agenda around expanding on Obama’s accomplishments.

Initially there were six candidates who entered the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Once again, the field narrowed fairly quickly down to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. While Sanders eventually took the high road and nominated Clinton from the floor of the Democratic Convention, many of his supporters chose not to go with their heads in the general election and either stayed home or voted for a third party candidate.

The tension between the two camps persists two years later and is already infecting the discussion about potential 2020 candidates. For example, one Sanders supporter is already criticizing Beto O’Rourke for his involvement in a “group organized to carry on the ideas of Clintonite policies.” More subtly, that same author suggests that the Democratic base has coalesced around single payer health care and free college while claiming that O’Rourke’s defense of kneeling NFL players was “ultimately symbolic and emotional.” In other words, the Democratic base is all about the proposals espoused by Bernie Sanders and they should not be distracted by those who engage in “symbolic” gestures about the murder of unarmed black men. That is a crude dismissal of a life-and-death issue for African Americans, who have reliably been the Democratic base for decades.

Given that kind of analysis, which was championed by another Sanders supporter at the Washington Post, I’m not terribly hopeful that Democrats will ultimately heed the advice of people like Molly Ivins and Jonathan Capehart. To the extent that the wounds inflicted during the primary between Clinton and Sanders are simply carried over into the 2020 race, it will be difficult to come out of the process with a united front.

While I agree with Capehart’s advice that “every Democrat who wants to run should run,” it is my hope that Sanders will either decide not to run or be eliminated early in the process. There are plenty of other progressive standard-bearers who could carry his agenda forward (i.e., it is clear that Sen. Elizabeth Warren plans enter the race). Since another run by Clinton is only real in the minds of Hillary haters, that would take the two candidates who battled it out last time off the table and not inflict old wounds on the 2020 race.

Democrats should have a wide-open debate about who their nominee will be in the 2020 presidential race. It certainly looks like there will be no shortage of candidates who will make their case during the primaries. As Capehart wrote:

Competition is a good thing and revelatory. Political dreamboats reveal themselves duds on the stump. Dark horses streak past the favorites. And through it all, we get to watch how all of them react to being under the most intense microscope in the world.

That can be a very healthy process through which Democrats have the opportunity to vote with their hearts in the primary. But they’re going to need to let the old wounds from 2016 heal and eventually vote with their heads in the general election. There is too much riding on this one to do otherwise.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.