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Barbershop: The Progressive Push In 2020 Presidential Race

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This afternoon, Senator Bernie Sanders held a big campaign kickoff for his 2020 presidential run. Sanders is, technically, an Independent, but he joins more than a dozen Democrats already in the race. And he's clearly hoping to appeal to the same activist progressives he won over in 2016. But this time, many of the other candidates are speaking to the issues he raised back then - "Medicare-for-all", free or heavily subsidized college tuition, criminal justice reform, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, aggressive attention to climate change.

And, already, Republicans are clapping back, arguing that this new crop of Democrats are so extreme that they are scary, that they will bankrupt the country, that they will - as various speakers suggested at a gathering of conservatives this week - make America unrecognizable. So we wanted to talk about what the progressive push means for the 2020 race and what it says about how the center of gravity in American politics may be shifting.

We're taking this question to the Barbershop. That's where we gather interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. So here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios - Corey Ealons, senior vice president at VOX Global, former communications aide to President Barack Obama. Welcome back.

COREY EALONS: Thank you, Michel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Matt Bennett. He is a co-founder of Third Way. That's a center-left think tank here in Washington, D.C. He worked on both of Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns and served in the Clinton White House. Welcome to you, Matt Bennett.

MATT BENNETT: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And joining us via Skype is Doug Rubin. He's a founding partner of Northwind Strategies and a longtime political strategist. He worked on Elizabeth Warren's Senate campaign and spent three years as the chief of staff to former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. And Doug Rubin joins us from his home in Boston. Doug, thank you so much for joining us as well.

DOUG RUBIN: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So I'm going to start with Bernie Sanders because I think we can argue that, even though he's not the first to jump in, he's got the potential to make a big splash. He's already shown impressive fundraising numbers, but you can also see whether there are rumblings that he should step aside for somebody younger or, you know, to be even more blunt about it, a candidate of color.

Doug, why don't I start with you? Because you worked for Elizabeth Warren, you know, what is your take on that? Does Bernie Sanders add to the race? Does he add to the Democratic argument for this year, or does he take away from it?

RUBIN: I think he definitely adds to the race. And I think he has a right - every right to be there. A lot of the issues that are central to most of the Democratic candidates in the race right now started with Bernie in 2016. And I think he's got tremendous credibility on those issues. And, look, he, out of the gate, was able to raise a lot of money right away, sign up a million people. There's a lot of energy, clearly, around his campaign, and I think he has every right to be there and is, probably, right now one of the front-runners.

MARTIN: OK. Corey?

EALONS: Yeah. The challenge for Bernie Sanders is he's not the only Bernie Sanders in the race this cycle. I mean, you just talked about all the issues from his previous platform that have been adopted by other - what some might argue are more attractive candidates in the race. So, while it's been alluded to that he raised a lot of money and that's absolutely true, he might have the moral victory of moving the party further to the left over the past two years. But he may not, despite that fundraising advantage, have the electoral victory of actually capturing the nomination this cycle.

MARTIN: I was detecting skepticism that he enhances the argument for the Democrats. And just be more blunt about it. Why is that?

EALONS: Well, I think that - again, I think there are just more attractive candidates that are available to the Democratic Party right now.

MARTIN: Why are they more attractive?

EALONS: Mainly because they have an opportunity - they don't have the baggage that he has from the previous cycle, meaning with his issues or with the operations of his campaign. And, like you just alluded to, people are looking for fresh faces. And that's the same thing they were looking for 10 years ago when they ultimately went with Barack Obama. I think we're in the same cycle this time.

MARTIN: Matt, what do you think?

BENNETT: I agree very much with Corey on that. But I also think, in addition to fresh faces, they're looking for fresh ideas. You noted that some of the other candidates who are in the race already have adopted a few of his ideas, at least to start. But those ideas are not broadly popular in the Democratic primary electorate. We saw that in 2018 in the midterms when Democrats went to the polls in huge numbers, record numbers for midterms, voted for people that didn't sound anything like Bernie Sanders and who went on to beat Republicans and take back the House.

MARTIN: So some of them sounded a lot like Bernie Sanders. They just were - I mean, one of the things, though, I'm hearing from you, though - and, in fact, there's an interesting story on the front page of the Washington Post today that - the headline is "Centrists See A Risk In Moving To The Left." Is that what you're saying? Is there a concern for people who have basically done very well by trying to hold the center, that there's just something about these messages that make the party unwinnable?

BENNETT: Yeah. That's what we're saying. They work very well in certain places. They certainly work in Queens, but they don't necessarily work in Michigan and Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, the places the Democrats absolutely, positively must win in 2020 if we're going to beat Trump.

RUBIN: Doug, what do you have to say about that?

RUBIN: Yeah. I guess I would respectfully disagree with my two colleagues on the show. I do think that there is a lot of energy and excitement and momentum around a lot of these ideas in Democratic politics, Democratic primary and the grassroots. And I think candidates like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and others have real power behind that message, behind those ideas. And I do think that they will be very strong candidates in this race and very strong candidates if one of them wins in the general election because they're able to motivate and turn out voters who may not normally turn out if we tried a strategy where we move to the center.

MARTIN: OK. Corey, why don't you take this on? Because you're from Alabama. You've worked for Barack Obama, but you've also worked for candidates who are considerably more centrist than he was, OK? What's your take on this argument about whether the platform or whether the - just the overall profile of these candidates pulls the Democratic Party so far to the left that it becomes kind of untenable in other places other than the obvious?

EALONS: Well, the challenge is always this, that you have to win the primary no doubt about that. And, despite whatever party you're talking about, it's always going to be further to the left or the right. The question is how can you get back to the center and do so in a way that galvanizes the vote and prepares your candidate for election later in the cycle. If the risk is that Democrats move so far to the left, talking about issues that are so radically different and that are not able to be translated into kitchen-table issues - that they begin to lose people. That's the risk...

MARTIN: Well, give an example of what that is because I think that Democrats, so far, are arguing that these are kitchen-table issues. I mean, they're arguing that you know affordable health care. They're arguing that you know, gosh, you know, picking - a $15 minimum wage is a kitchen-table issue.

RUBIN: Absolutely. The key is how do you translate that. And we haven't been successful. Democrats have not necessarily been successful in doing that in recent elections. They did so in the 2018 midterms. They're going to have to carry that into 2020.

MARTIN: Matt?

BENNETT: I don't think there's any disagreement about the ends among Democrats. Everybody agrees we need to have universal health care. It needs to be affordable and stable. The question is means. And so one of the issues that Senator Sanders championed and that some of the others are drifting towards is "Medicare-for-all." Take that for example. Not a single Democrat who flipped a Republican seat - of the 40 Republican seats that we flipped on net in 2018, not one ran an ad in the general election about "Medicare-for-all." Two in other districts did run ads on "Medicare-for-all," and they both lost. This is not an issue that is going to help Democrats. There's a bunch of reasons why it could be a very dangerous weapon in the hands of Donald Trump.

By contrast, other Democrats - they're talking about things like ensuring that we provide stability to the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, ensuring that we put caps on the costs that middle-class families face. Those are the kinds of things that are going to attract voters.

MARTIN: Doug, what do you have to say about that?

RUBIN: I just think that we're in a situation in politics right now where - I guess I would respectfully disagree with Matt on this, in that people are fed up with what's going on. People outside of D.C. are fed up with what's going on in D.C., and they are not looking for incremental change right now. That's not what's going to motivate the Democratic base, incremental change.

This - for too long, they've been kind of not - they've been electing people and not seeing results and not seeing movement on a lot of these progressive issues that are actually pretty popular. A number of them are pretty popular among the general electorate. And I think they are in a mood now. The electorate's in a mood for big bold ideas and big vision and real change, and I don't think they're going to settle for anything less. And I - my worry is that if Democrats try this more incremental approach that we will not get the people out to the polls in November that we need to win this election.

MARTIN: And can I just ask as briefly as we can all about the whole question of what's an attractive candidate? So, picking up on an issue that Corey raised, what's an attractive candidate right now? Is your identity or your demographics a part of it? I mean, just - obviously, some of the Twitter rumblings around Bernie Sanders is he's too old. I mean, does he not present enough of a - just a visual contrast and an energy level contrast, despite his compelling biography that he took pains to share with us today. And does that really matter, as briefly as you can? And, Corey, why don't you start?

EALONS: I think - well, I think the Democrats have an embarrassment of riches of attractive candidates this cycle because the diversity - the broad swath of diversity amongst the 200-some-odd people that are going to be running for the nomination. I mean, you already have five women. You have two African-Americans. You have one - a gay mayor from South Bend, Ind., who's running. It's an extraordinary level of diversity. That in and of itself makes those individuals attractive to a broader swath of Democrats. And the enthusiasm that comes from that is going to be critically important in being successful next year.

MARTIN: Matt.

BENNETT: The answer is, yes, demographics matter. Youth and newness are going to help, but it's not going to be the only thing people are thinking about.

MARTIN: OK. Doug, final thought?

RUBIN: I think we just got to be careful about what we think is a favorable candidate. I mean, last time around, we had probably the best candidate we've ever had and Hillary Clinton running, and Bernie Sanders gave her a pretty good run for her money.

MARTIN: OK. All right. That's Doug Rubin of Northwind Strategies, Corey Ealons of VOX Global, and Matt Bennett of Third Way. Thank you all so much for talking with us.

BENNETT: Thank you.

EALONS: Thank you.

RUBIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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