Who could be the potential Trump challengers in 2020?

Trying to predict the next swing of the pendulum

United States

These tempestuous times have sunk many theories of politics. But one, the pendulum theory of presidential elections, remains afloat. David Axelrod, a strategist for Barack Obama, describes pendulums swinging in search of a “remedy”, as voters seek qualities that the current president lacks. The theory explains Donald Trump, showman opposite of his aloof, professorial predecessor. Mr Obama was in turn a reaction to instinct-driven George W. Bush, whose faith-infused conservatism broke with Bill Clinton’s moral incontinence. 

For Trump opponents the theory offers promise and pain. In 2018 the Democratic presidential field will grow fast. The promise is of an oscillation in 2020, delivering the White House to the candidate most unlike Mr Trump. The pain comes from the theory’s imprecision: it does not predict which qualities voters will want remedied.

One group of candidates will offer an ideological swing, casting Mr Trump as a phoney populist—a corrupt tycoon who made promises to working-class fans then handed government to bankers and lobbyists. Though he will turn 79 in 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont thrills many who see the pendulum moving leftwards. Whether the snowy-haired firebrand runs or not, he will set litmus tests for Democrats with national ambitions, pushing them to endorse such high-risk proposals as government-funded health care for all. Some see an opening for a true rust-belt populist, such as Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Mr Brown is charming, rumpled and authentic, but lacks charisma and faces a tough re-election fight for his Senate seat in 2018.

Others scorn not just Mr Trump’s broken promises but his values, seeing him as a sexist, race-baiting bigot. They spy a complete anti-Trump package in Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. She is a master of detail, and powered by sincere indignation at bullying banks, businesses and bosses. A Harvard professor turned consumer champion, she is mocked by Mr Trump as “Pocahontas”: a jeering allegation that she used unproven claims to native-American ancestry to advance as an academic. Her real life story is more inspiring, involving many hard knocks. Centrist Democrats fear she would be a one-note liability, easily caricatured as a scolding Massachusetts liberal.

Joe Biden, vice-president to Mr Obama, most clearly offers Americans the chance to express buyers’ remorse for their votes in 2016, notably among rust-belt white Democrats who switched to Mr Trump. Mr Biden is visibly tempted, but will turn 78 in 2020.

Some suspect that voters remain unhappy with professional politicians but will tire of Mr Trump’s divisive incompetence. They see a path for an effective outsider, in the style of Michael Bloomberg, the wonkish billionaire who achieved much as mayor of New York. That could tempt Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney. In normal times, Republicans love to attack West Coast elites with “Hollywood values”. These are not normal times. Howard Schultz, the boss of Starbucks, has been giving speeches calling for more compassionate politics, and for leaders to better heed Americans who feel “left behind”. Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder with an interest in education and immigration reforms, denies speculation that he is running. A Zuckerberg campaign would risk becoming a referendum on the power of tech and social media. 

Others pondering Mr Trump’s flaws see a 1980s dinosaur, who won by peddling toxic nostalgia. That suggests a swing to candidates representing America’s diverse, urban future. Senator Kamala Harris of California, a former prosecutor whose mother was Indian and father is Jamaican, impresses centrists. But there is something technocratic about her—a touch of Bloomberg in heels. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey is a black, vegan former mayor of Newark with an eloquent pitch about compassion and unity. But the left distrusts him, while Middle America may see only a north-eastern liberal. Julian Castro, an ex-mayor of San Antonio, has long been on lists of Hispanic rising stars. But his intelligence is tempered by caution to a fault, and he has never held a post higher than housing secretary in the Obama administration.

Pmurt for president

If the pendulum swings back towards governing experience, on paper Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado ticks many boxes. He is running his swing state well. In person he lacks the fire of a national candidate. A former governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, is well liked by veterans of Team Obama, but seems ambivalent about politics now. Other centrists burn with more ambition. Governor Steve Bullock of Montana has his fans. There is no doubting the self-belief of Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, but the country may not be ready for another New Yorker. That does not deter some from hoping New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, steps in. 

Might the pendulum swing towards dullness? Be sceptical. Celebrity seems ever-more powerful. The day after Mr Trump’s inauguration, a Washington protest march saw hand-drawn “Oprah Winfrey for 2020” banners.

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