Most US Democratic candidates are inexperienced but with different foreign policies than Trump
February has not been a good month for Democrats seeking to challenge US President Donald Trump in November’s election.
The bungled vote count for the Iowa caucus, where Democratic candidates have been competing for months, was a huge embarrassment for the party. In addition, Trump’s poll numbers inched up, he gave a good State of the Union speech and was acquitted in the US Senate after being impeached in the US House of Representatives in December.
The Iowa caucus debacle — as of February 6, the true vote count was not yet known, a full three days after the event — was bad for optics. Republicans gleefully remarked that Americans should not trust a party that cannot even pull off a statewide election.
The two leading candidates from the preliminary vote tallies in Iowa, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have alarmed the Democratic Party establishment.
Buttigieg is only 38 years old. Although he is very smart and is a military veteran (having served as a US Navy intelligence officer in Afghanistan), he may be too young and inexperienced for the general electorate in November. He does not seem to have a strong following among African Americans, a key constituency of the Democratic Party. Iowa is a very “white” state, not representative of the country as a whole.
Sanders, 78, is a self-declared democratic socialist, who admires and seeks to adopt many of the policies of European social democrats such as universal health care and free public college tuition paid for by higher taxes. He constantly rails against the “1%” of Americans representing billionaires and millionaires and wants them to pay much more in taxes than they do.
Sanders has an energetic following among young people but it is unclear if the country is ready to elect a socialist president. Trump has called him “crazy Bernie” and applied the socialist label on the party as a whole.
The Democrats’ “establishment” candidate, former US Vice-President Joe Biden, came in fourth in Iowa, a lacklustre performance. His main drawing card is that he has enormous government experience, is well-known and appeals to people yearning for a “normal” president.
Biden has a substantial following nationwide among older Americans who like his centre-left politics as well as African Americans because of his support for civil rights and his loyal service under US President Barack Obama. However, Biden does not generate the enthusiastic crowds of Sanders or Buttigieg.
Many Democrats fear that if Sanders or Buttigieg wins the Democratic nomination, Trump could ride to victory. James Carville, a top aide to former President Bill Clinton and a Democratic strategist, stated on television on February 4 that, if Sanders were the Democrats’ nominee, the result would be a replication of the poor showing of the current, left-wing British Labour Party. In other words, he was warning that, if the party nominates a socialist, it would not beat Trump.
It is possible for Biden to recover after Iowa, as upcoming Democratic primaries after New Hampshire include states with substantial minority populations, such as South Carolina and Nevada, where he is expected to do well but only time will tell.
Although Trump is basking in his improved poll numbers (now at 49% approval compared with 44% for most of his presidency), a relatively strong economy and “vindication” from the Senate trial, he has many liabilities.
Many Americans, not just Democrats, see him as an undignified schoolyard bully, throwing insults at his opponents and dividing Americans based on race and ethnicity.
They see him as being too cosy with dictators, too critical of NATO and flouting American laws and norms. What could hurt Trump the most in key industrial states that he narrowly won in 2016 is that his promise of returning thousands of manufacturing jobs to the United States has not transpired.
On Middle East issues, all Democratic candidates are critical of Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his annexation plans for the West Bank and belligerency towards Iran.
Sanders, ironically, shares Trump’s inclination to pull US troops out of the Middle East (though Trump has backtracked on these pledges) while Biden has said that the United States needs to keep special forces in some Arab states to help countries fight terrorists.
The Democratic candidates have all said they would not pursue “foreign policy by tweet” as Trump did on Syria.
The Democrats can recover from a bad week and it is a long way to November but they must avoid major stumbles and choose someone who can appeal to centrists in addition to solidifying the party’s base.
They are also counting on Trump reverting to form as a narcissist and continue to alienate many Americans. However, if the economy continues to grow — albeit at a slow rate — and Trump desists from his rants, he could conceivably win a second term.