- - Tuesday, March 13, 2018


In 2020, Democrats must choose from two different paths: To be Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Despite being the party’s last two successful candidates, they are divergent. The correct choice is especially important to Democrats in need of a known route in order to avoid falling into the trap of overreacting to Donald Trump.

Only two Democrats have won the presidency since Jimmy Carter in 1976. It is therefore logical to look to President Clinton and President Obama’s successes to determine the party’s course in 2020.

Separated by only 16 years, their policy separation was far greater. With Mr. Clinton center-right and Mr. Obama left-center, they span a broader range than Republicans since then.

Despite facing Bush I, in 1992 Mr. Clinton was running against Ronald Reagan’s legacy. Because he could not touch it, he ran against the economy hoping to neutralize it. His center-right approach was thrust upon him — first by President Reagan’s legacy and, after 1994’s Republican tidal wave, by political necessity — but it fit both the nation and his political pedigree.

Being from conservative Arkansas, the Democrats he knew best were the equivalent of national Republicans (just as Arkansas’ entire congressional delegation is today). While his policy failures that cost Democrats control of Congress for the first time in four decades were liberal — a tax increase and the failed Clintoncare — his policy legacies were center: A strong economy, NAFTA’s approval, lower spending, a balanced budget and welfare reform.

Mr. Obama forged his legacy on the other side of center. His policy wins were Obamacare, tax increases, higher spending, the Dodd-Frank Act and unilateral administrative actions — such as DACA.

With such an expansive range, Democrats have far more room than Republicans in which to shape their 2020 identity.

If there is one similarity between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama it is in being “outsiders.” Being an outsider is a given for Democrats. No Democratic “insider” has won a first term since LBJ in 1964.

Another apparent certainty comes from 2016. Faced with an actual choice to be a Clinton, Democrats made it — but just barely. Notably, Hillary Clinton ran more on Mr. Obama’s legacy than her husband’s. And she still struggled with her challenge from the left.

Despite having no real chance, Bernie Sanders polled 40 percent-plus throughout the primaries. Mrs. Clinton never put him away. Only by virtue of party establishment “super delegates” did she win. The clearest evidence of the party’s thrust was the campaign’s direction: Sen. Sanders pulled Mrs. Clinton left; despite all her advantages, she never pulled Mr. Sanders center.

Exit polls from 2016 also confirm the likelihood Democrats choose a liberal outsider in 2020. Mrs. Clinton won 84 percent of liberal voters — higher than Mr. Trump’s 81 percent of conservatives. Democrats are more dependent on liberals than Republicans are on conservatives.

Since 2016, Democrats have been intent on burying the Clinton legacy — all of it, not just the aftertaste of Hillary Clinton’s bitter defeat. Bill Clinton’s center-right approach is not lost on today’s Democrats, any more than it was on the most liberal then: Notable high-level resignations occurred when he signed welfare reform. “Triangulation,” an explicit Bill Clinton administration strategy, is an illicit one for core Democrats two decades removed.

The almost virtual guarantee that Democrats’ next nominee will be a liberal outsider raises what should be their core concern. The party’s biggest worry lies in their seemingly biggest advantage: Donald Trump. Democrats must worry not about being motivated to beat Mr. Trump, but that they overreact to it.

Already inclined to the left, their acute animosity toward Mr. Trump encourages Democrats to veer even more that direction. There are several reasons that will be a 2020 problem.

For one, the left is the decided minority in America’s ideological trilogy. In 2016, liberals were just a quarter (26 percent) of the electorate. To win 50 percent of the overall electorate, liberals must combine with just under two-thirds of moderate voters (39 percent of 2016 voters). A tall order under any circumstances (Hillary Clinton only won 52 percent), drifting further from them only makes it harder.

For another, Mr. Trump will be harder to beat than Democrats are willing to admit. He has already proved too hard once — and against a more centrist Democrat than he will likely face in 2020. Democrats must remember: Mr. Obama won by appearing to be a centrist (despite governing from the left). Mrs. Clinton lost by appearing not to be.

Also in 2016, Democrats were running against just Mr. Trump. Now, he is President Trump. Incumbents are extremely hard to defeat: Only three elected ones (Bush I, Carter and Hoover) have lost in the last 100 years. A strengthening economy, makes the task still harder.

Democrats have a tougher road back to the White House than many now realize. They can look to the two distinctly different ways they have gotten there most recently. The one to the center is the surer, but it is also sure this will not be their first inclination. For a party where now left is right and right is wrong, it will be all too easy to be lost before they are started.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

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