The AOC Election?
Who would win an election between Donald Trump and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? We’ll never know, of course, because the two can’t appear on the same ballot; AOC, as she is by now known, won’t be old enough to run for president until 2024.
Nevertheless, in a way, AOC will be on the ballot in 2020—because her ideas are all over the place, including, “70 percent top income tax rate,” “Green New Deal,” and “Medicare for All,” to name just three.
Interestingly, with her social-media sixth sense, AOC knows that she will be a key part of the 2020 national election. As she tweeted on February 9:
It’s pretty wild that the GOP can’t decide whether they’re going to run with the conspiracy theory that I’m secretly rich, or the exaggeration & mockery of my family’s struggle after my dad died during the financial crisis. Instead, they decide to defy logic and run with both.
Of course, it can be argued that the Democrats’ 2020 nominee, whoever he or she might be, will be the one determining the party’s issues agenda. However, in reality, it doesn’t work that way. In the run-up to the Democratic national convention next year, activists and ideologues will be shaping the issues “race track” on which the Democrats will be running.
And by all accounts, that track is being shaped to the left. The Democratic hopefuls will be asked, every day, where they stand on lefty issues, even as they seek to jump through various progressive hoops.
In fact, many Democratic wannabes are already joining the leftward lurch; at least four White House aspirants—Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren—have endorsed the Green New Deal, even if nobody really knows what it is. Of course, in fairness to the unknowing, the Green New Deal keeps changing, as AOC staffers rework it in the face of withering criticism from the right.
Yet still, enough of the Green New Deal’s hard-leftism is visible, and, as a result, moderate and even liberal pundits are horrified by what they see. For instance, the headline atop Noah Smith’s column for Bloomberg News reads, “The Green New Deal Would Spend the U.S. Into Oblivion.” Smith adds:
Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal appears to take every big spending idea that has emerged on the political left in recent years and combine them into one large package deal, with little notion of how to pay for them all.
And then there’s Medicare For All, or, as lefty activists like to style it, M4A. The same Sens. Harris, Gillibrand, and Warren have endorsed M4A, as well as, needless to say, the granddaddy of democratic socialism, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Yet here again, mainstream pundits are throwing cautionary flags. One such is The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein, who advises Democrats to stick to safer ground, such as the defense of Obamacare:
As more Democrats propose moving beyond the Affordable Care Act, the party may be steaming toward the same iceberg that sank Republican efforts to repeal the law.
So we can see: The Democrats are at risk of AOC-ization. That is, in their giddy eagerness to embrace the latest lefty causes, they risk making their ’20 nominee unelectable. And if the Democrat can’t win, that means a victory for you-know-who.
Could the Democrats really do this to themselves? Could they run themselves off the road, skidding into a political ditch?
It’s happened before. In fact, it’s happened to both parties. And so let’s take a moment to consider a deep cycle in American presidential elections, because in understanding it, we gain insight into the likely dynamics of 2020.
The Cycle of Presidential Elections
U.S. presidential elections follow a predictable cycle, which we can formulate into a thesis, the first part of which runs like this:
When a party loses the White House, its establishment is discredited; after all, the establishment’s candidate just lost. And so in the absence of establishmentarian constraints, the party’s base—that is, the activists out in the grassroots, expressing a purer, more zealous ideology—finds itself in charge. Such dominance by the activist base then shapes the next presidential nomination. So in the first “out-year” presidential election—that is, four years after losing the White House—the party’s new nominee is now reflective of the base’s activist ideology. So the base candidate is therefore easily painted as an extremist in the general election, and, as a result, the base candidate loses, often in a landslide.
To illustrate the playing out of this cycle, we can look at some of the presidential elections of the last half-century.
In 1960, the Republicans lost the White House with candidate Richard Nixon. Nixon was an establishmentarian, the favorite of party insiders; he had, after all, been Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president for the previous eight years. Yet when Nixon lost, narrowly, to John F. Kennedy in ’60, Republican activists—the outsiders—revolted against the insiders. The activists were determined not only to repudiate Nixon, but also to take over the entire party. They argued that Nixon was weak-kneed, too compromising, thus lacking the ability to carry the fight to the Democrats and win.
The solution, right-wing activists argued, was to nominate a hardcore conservative, such as Sen. Barry Goldwater. The activists were confident that the Arizonan would boldly hold high the torch of their beliefs. For their part, the establishmentarians warned that Goldwater was too extreme, and yet they had been discredited by losing with their man, Nixon, back in ‘60.
Thus the conservative activists were on the upswing; they took over the GOP, nominating Goldwater for the presidency in 1964. Sadly for those activists, Goldwater lost the general election in an epic landslide.
This massive defeat was a bitter bill for right-wingers; they had just learned, the hard way, that a candidate fully reflective of the base’s ideology was not necessarily electable—indeed, was perhaps markedly un-electable.
So now, after 1964, the GOP establishmentarians, the ones who had lost with Nixon, were able to make a comeback within the party. Yes, their establishment man had lost in ‘60, but he had lost narrowly, while Goldwater had lost widely—and taken many down-ballot Republicans with him. Republican regulars were thus cured of any further romance with radicalism.
Moreover, after years in the wilderness, all Republicans were eager to win back the White House, even with a candidate who wasn’t as ideologically pure as they might wish.
So by 1968, the GOP establishment was back in charge. Indeed, the establishmentarians ran the exact same candidate, Nixon. Yet this time, Nixon won. The GOP establishment was thus vindicated by victory.
Now we come to second part of the thesis:
After the activists run, and lose, in the first “out-year” presidential election, the moderate establishment makes a comeback in the second “out-year” election, most likely leading the party back to victory. After all, national elections are won in the middle.
This cycle of defeat-followed-by-victory might be distressing to activists, because it suggests that their preferred kind of candidate can’t win the White House. And that is, in fact, the lesson: They can’t. The Nixon-Goldwater-Nixon sequence proves this point, as do other presidential-election sequences.
Indeed, the very year that Nixon won the White House, 1968, the Democrats entered into the same cycle, on their side of the aisle. The Democratic candidate in ’68, Hubert Humphrey, was the incumbent vice president; in other words, like Nixon in ’60, he was obviously the insider candidate. So after Humphrey lost in ’68, Democratic activists scorned their party’s establishment, instead gravitating to a more left-wing anti-establishment candidate, Sen. George McGovern.
We might pause to note that McGovern, along with his supporters, and Goldwater, along with his supporters, were, in fact, mirror images of each other. That is, they were all on the edge of their respective parties, and they were dismissive, even contemptuous, of the party establishments.
And so just as the Goldwaterites took over the Republican Party after the 1960 election, so did the McGovernites take over the Democratic Party after 1968. And yet the result, four years later, was similar; like Goldwater in ’64, McGovern in ’72 was crushed in the November voting.
By 1976, the Democrats, hungering for victory after eight years on the outs, did what the Republicans had done in 1968—they nominated a candidate closer to the middle. That candidate, of course, was Jimmy Carter, who won the general election.
Yet for our purposes here, we don’t need to worry about what happens eight years after a party loses the White House; we need to think only of what happens four years after it loses. And of course, to look four years after the Democrats lost in 2016 takes us to 2020.
If Hillary Clinton, the establishment favorite, lost in ’16, then, for the cyclical reasons we have seen, an anti-establishment Democrat is likely to win the nomination in ’20.
So yes, the ghost of George McGovern, and McGovernization, is looming over today’s Democratic Party—and the activists wouldn’t have it any other way. Oh sure, the more historically literate of them might realize that they are on their way to nominating a general-election loser, but they can’t help themselves: It’s who they are.
AOC-ization in 2020
A year before the Iowa caucuses, the ascendancy of post-Hillary Democratic lefties is visible everywhere. After all, 2018, saw the victory of not only AOC, but also Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. They, and other Democrats, are associated with even more radical causes, such as the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is popular in many college enclaves—but not with the rest of the country.
Eyeing this surge in lefty activism, National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar drew the obvious conclusion: Radical Democrats, without intending to do so, are doing Trump a favor. Kraushaar headlined his piece, “Democrats Are Boosting Trump’s Reelection Prospects,” and the sub-headline read, “Their top 2020 presidential hopefuls are embracing socialist-minded economic policy, from a Green New Deal to single-payer health insurance. It’s playing right into the president’s hands.” In the article itself, Kraushaar added, “It’s easy to see how Democrats could be giving President Trump a lifeline to a second term despite his widespread unpopularity.”
Kraushaar even quoted one liberal Democratic strategist: “We are on an out-of-control roller coaster going 100 miles-per-hour, and we have no functioning brake.”
Vivid analogies about brakeless rollercoasters aside, we can step back and see that activists have a way of whipping themselves into frenzies of enthusiasm that most voters don’t share. So if this tendency continues—and as we have seen, history suggests that it will—then the Democrats will run a McGovernish candidate next year. That is, someone who is too far out of the middle to win.
Yes, the Democrats desperately want to beat Trump. But the cyclical history of presidential politics suggests that they will likely run a candidate who is too far out of the mainstream, and thus won’t be able, in fact, to beat Trump.
In the meantime, whenever we hear the Democrats talking about a Green New Deal, or M4A, or BDS, that’s an indicator that the party is dooming itself to that familiar cycle of defeat in 2020.
Yes, for reasons we have seen, the Democrats’ prospects are far better in 2024. And yet that’s a long way away—even if, of course, AOC is paying close attention.
But that’s not Trump’s problem.