Which Democrat Will Survive the Accountability Primary?

In life as in politics, sometimes the smallest events can tell the biggest truths. Two small events happened in the last few days on the road to the Democratic nomination that will likely be forgotten by next month. But they are indicative of how difficult the path will be for candidates who do not yet understand the dynamics of the race to win the nod to defeat Trump. In particular, candidates who fail to grasp the degree to which the Democratic base will hold them accountable for failure to address their areas of greatest weakness, will consistently find themselves beating back a barrage of bad press.

First, there was this controversial CNBC story about Kirsten Gillibrand purportedly seeking the approval of Wall Street executives before jumping into the race:

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, is reaching out to Wall Street executives to gauge potential support if she were to run for president in 2020, CNBC has learned.

Gillibrand has personally been working the phones and calling senior executives at Wall Street firms in recent weeks to see whether they would back her campaign if she jumps into the race, according to two senior business leaders who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Some have taken issue with the story for various reasons: a few have questioned the sourcing for the story based on the word of two anonymous “senior business leaders” (though it’s important to note that Senator Gillibrand didn’t deny the core allegation); some have noted that Democratic brand loyalists still angry with Gillibrand over what they bizarrely see as a form of partisan betrayal in her clear moral stand against Al Franken remaining in the Senate have plenty of reason to plant such a story. Still others suspect an attempt by Sanders backers to kneecap a potential opponent.

For her part, Senator Gillibrand responded by tweeting out her votes for Wall Street accountability, including support for a financial transaction tax and reinstating Glass Steagall.

Second, Bernie Sanders was involved in yet another kerfuffle on racial issues, this time by tweeting out a reference to Frederick Douglass and then listing a series of economic justice issues–none of which directly centered on race. This predictably led to Sanders critics calling him out for appropriating Mr. Douglass into a schema of promoting economic justice issues while decentering race and identity.

Both of these cases feature a politician who made an unforced error on an issue on which they were most vulnerable and faced considerable distrust from at least one faction of the Democratic base, and they paid an immediate price for it.

Many Democrats feel that Sanders is either weak or untrustworthy on issues of social equality, especially race and gender. A tweet mentioning Frederick Douglass without directly mentioning racial equality plays into that narrative and understandably generates greater distrust. Many Democrats also feel that Senator Gillibrand has been far too helpful to Wall Street over the course of her career to be trusted with greater power. Doing the rounds with Wall Street executives in a way that could even begin to lead to a negative story on that front was not the greatest decision.

One of the kindest things that we can say about the 2016 Democratic primary is that voters on all sides of the Democratic base made it clear that they do not intend to see their core issues ignored. Those who vehemently opposed Sanders plainly indicated that no candidate who fails to center social justice by explicitly foregrounding race and gender will have an easy road to the nomination. Similarly, those who opposed Clinton made it equally clear that being cozy with the fossil fuel and finance industries–and failing to support universal benefit programs over needlessly complicated, means tested Rube Goldberg policy mazes–would make a candidate’s path to the nomination fiendishly difficult.

Nearly every serious potential candidate has an Achilles heel that parts of the Democratic base will find unpalatable. For instance, in addition to the problems with Senators Sanders and Gillibrand mentioned above, Senator Warren must prove that she can make Trump sing to her tune rather than allow him to dictate the tempo to her. Senator Cory Booker will have to overcome his support for charter schools and his donations from and statements in defense of Wall Street. Senator Kamala Harris will have to account for her refusal to prosecute OneWest Bank and potentially put Steve Mnuchin behind bars where he belongs. Joe Biden will need to address…well, a mountain of horrible, cringe-worthy problems. And so on.

If candidates fail to aggressively address these issues–or worse, make unforced errors that compound distrust relating to them–then they will find it extremely difficult to win the presidency in a large field of hopefuls each clamoring for attention. It won’t take too many missteps to take a candidate out of the running if they don’t understand that the Democratic base intends to hold them accountable. The candidate who can do the best job of uniting all the factions of the party and shoring up their own weaknesses will likely be the eventual winner.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.