The Democratic Party would do well to heed the advice of The Boss.
In two different interviews, rocker Bruce Springsteen highlighted a big challenge for Democrats looking to unseat Donald Trump in 2020: a lack of connection to a broad swath of the American electorate. The man who once opened for John Kerry on the 2004 presidential campaign trail predicted the president would win re-election in two years — at least based on the current field of challengers.
Springsteen made it clear to Esquire that he's no fan of President Trump and the lack of "unity" in his administration. Trump is "deeply damaged at his core," Springsteen alleged, in part because Trump has "forsaken … the ties you can't break among your community and your fellow citizens." Without those ties, Springsteen argued, Trump is a "dangerous man." Unfortunately, Democrats don't have a candidate who is any better, Springsteen then told The Times. Surveying the ever-expanding 2020 field, Springsteen declared that "I don't see anyone out there at the moment ... the man who can beat Trump, or the woman who can beat Trump."
If Trump has forsaken communal ties, he at least recognizes how to evoke them with people who felt locked out of the system. "You need someone who can speak some of the same language," Springsteen said of these voters, "and the Democrats don't have an obvious, effective presidential candidate."
That's all true. However, the problems for Democrats run deeper than just language, or even communal ties. Democrats have failed to grasp the roots of a populist revolt by the electorate who feel abandoned by traditional politics and politicians. Rather than look for someone who shares these voters' frustrations with Washington and the political clique, the 2020 field looks like an audition for Who Wants to Keep Being a Beltway-aire.
This week alone, three former presidential aspirants have hinted at making another run for the White House. Among them is Kerry himself, who told a Harvard (!) audience that he's "going to think about" another presidential campaign effort. Kerry left public office at the end of the Obama presidency, but before then he spent more than 30 years in Washington, most of them in the Senate. Hillary Clinton has explicitly demurred on making a third go at the presidency, but her ongoing efforts to remain in the public eye seem calculated to leaving open the possibility of running again.
Of the three old war horses, former Vice President Joe Biden has the best argument for giving it another try. Of all the Democrats in the field, Biden has the strongest abilities to connect with the old Democratic coalition of blue-collar workers, populist farmers, and the current urban-academic core of the party. His speech at the 2012 Democratic convention was a brilliant final attempt to keep those bonds unbroken. Furthermore, Biden's personal losses offer a sympathetic entrée for one last effort; his popularity among Democrats is a reflection of all those qualities.
However, Biden has a longer case of Beltway-itis than either Clinton or Kerry. Until he left office in early 2017, Biden had spent an unbroken string of 44 years in Washington, more than half of his life. Seventy-six years old now, Biden would be by far the oldest major-party candidate in history for the job, a Baby Boomer in an environment where even millennials are starting to get more established. Biden also represented Delaware, the most friendly state for corporations, in a Democratic Party more consumed with hostility toward corporations than ever.
The rest of the field so far doesn't show much more promise, either for voice or connection to the heartland. Democratic senators such as Kamala Harris (Calif.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) trail well behind Biden and are much more tied to both the Beltway and to the urban-academic core, which has trouble attracting voters outside of it. The only outsiders thus far are more in line with the novelty-candidate profile. Stormy Daniels attorney Michael Avenatti announced this week that he's decided against a presidential run after a months-long public relations campaign collapsed under legal woes. Robert "Beto" O'Rourke and Stacey Abrams have publicly teased presidential runs, but both lost their state-wide races.
Democrats need an answer to Trump, who trounced the establishment in his own party and endured against the Clinton establishment. That doesn't require a novelty candidate like Trump, but rather a candidate who has built a strong following outside of Washington. The ranks of Democratic governors have been decimated for the past decade before a modest improvement last month, a further symptom of the woes Springsteen diagnosed and the result of a massive retreat in state legislatures since 2010. Still, if Democrats want to respond to the anti-establishment populism that swept the electorate in 2016 and arguably boosted them in 2018's midterms, that's where they need to look.
However, Democrats might not need to solve the whole problem in 2020 to win the White House. After all, they won back their standing in last month's midterms in the states Trump won two years earlier, even without the authentic voices and connections Springsteen wants. If Republicans can't figure out how to expand their reach in suburbs and with minority voters, it may not matter much which Democrat gets the nomination two years from now.