President Trump taunted a group of Senate Democrats last week by declaring that “Pocahontas is now the face of your party,” an obnoxious reference to his chief nemeses, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whose claim to Cherokee heritage once became a bone of contention.
The former Harvard professor and consumer protection champion with impeccable progressive credentials relentlessly attacked Trump during the 2016 campaign and then led the charge against Trump’s nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to become to become attorney general. Her stock within the Democratic party soared after she was formally silenced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on the Senate floor last week for allegedly violating Senate rules by impugning a fellow senator’s reputation.
At age 67, Warren can hardly be considered a fresh face within her beleaguered party – one that is still struggling to make sense of its devastating losses to Trump and the Republicans. She and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 75, are among a handful of aging progressive leaders who clearly better understood the mood of the electorate – and the importance of shifting left on economic and trade issues—than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton ever did.
But whether Warren is the new “face” of the party – or more likely just one facet of a blurry, emerging composite picture of the Democrats reconstituted party leadership – remains to be seen.
Even before the rank and file Democrats began to grasp the enormity of their loss to Trump and the GOP, veteran Democrats in the House and Senate solidified their hold on the congressional party for at least another two years. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, 66, succeeded retiring Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada as Minority Leader, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, 76, put down a minor rebellion to claim the leadership of her party for at least another two years.
While Schumer and Pelosi are both highly accomplished veteran politicians – and now are showing some spunk in demanding an independent probe of the burgeoning national security scandal in the Trump White House -- both appeared to be caught flat-footed by last November’s election when the Republicans swept to victory again in the House and Senate and took the White House.
Moreover, Schumer was recently put on notice by progressive Democrats – who actually demonstrated outside of his apartment in Brooklyn -- that he would be making a big mistake if he supported any Trump nominees and that he should scrap his post-election pledge to seek common ground with the new president.
Meanwhile, the race to chair the beleaguered Democratic National Committee after months of upheaval within that organization appears to be coming down to two candidates – neither of whom is a household name. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and the first Muslim to serve in Congress, has drawn strong support from Sanders, the AFL-CIO and other progressive groups seeking a shift in party policy much further to the left. Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez is considered more of a moderate and “big tent Democrat” who has picked up an endorsement from former Vice President Joe Biden.
While the outcome of the DNC election later this month no doubt will have an important impact on the future direction of the party, the race has been relatively low key and obscure and certainly has done little to fire the imagination of Democrats throughout the country.
“Empirically, Democrats are down,” said Nathan Gonzales, a national political analyst. “They have the fewest number of governors in at least a generation – just 16 out of 50. They have the minority of the House, the minority of the Senate, there are just fewer Democrats in leadership positions. The bench is less full, and that filters down into the state legislatures.”
“Not only is the party dealing with fewer members, but there is no clear leader,” he added in an interview. “And you have a battle going on [within the DNC] for the best path out of the wilderness, with at least two different factions arguing what that path looks like.”
And their party’s prospects for making a comeback anytime soon seems dim at best. Indeed, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former Democratic White House chief of staff and Democratic congressional party organizer, recently advised the Democrats to take “a chill pill” and realize party rebuilding could take years to achieve. With Democrats facing uphill battles in the Senate and House in 2018, some experts had already all but ruled the chances of the Democrats winning back either of the chambers.
University of Virginia political scientists Larry J. Sabato notes that, in the wake of Trump’s chaotic and highly controversial first three weeks in office, the Democrats “have got more public support now than they had before the election, and you have to make hay while the sun shines.”
“But certainly, the line-up in the Senate for 2018 is horrible for Democrats,” he added, as the Democrats will have to defend 25 seats, including many in states that Trump carried, to only eight Republican seats that will be on the line. The Republicans currently hold a 52 to 48 seat majority in the Senate. “The Democrats will be very lucky to lose, net, only a couple of Senate seats,” Sabato said in an email.
But when it comes to the next presidential contest, Democratic voters seemingly have much stronger views. Just as conservative Republicans and independents flocked to Trump in search of an outsider who would challenge the establishment and upend conventional wisdom, recent polling suggests that Democrats and independents want a completely fresh start in 2020.
“I think it will be somebody who is not even on the radar today,” Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist, said in an interview. Not unlike former President Barack Obama’s rise from relative obscurity as a senator to the pinnacle of national power, Baker said, “I think it will be somebody who is not a recognized, revered leader.”
“The quest for novelty is not unique to Republicans,” he said. “I think the Democrats are looking for something different as well.”
Some 66 percent of Democrats and independents picked “someone entirely new” when given the choice of a list of potential 2020 presidential candidates, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll in late December. Only nine percent of those Democrats surveyed believe a newcomer should stay out of the race.
There was practically no interest in seeing Clinton run for a third time for president with 62 percent of the registered Democrats surveyed saying she should definitely not seek the nomination again. Sixty-one percent said they would love for former first lady Michelle Obama to run, although she has pretty much slammed the door on that possibility.
Around 44 percent said they might be in favor of seeing Sanders or even Biden seek the nomination to challenge Trump, assuming he runs for a second term. But just 34 percent said they would like to see Warren run, while 27 percent hope she doesn’t run – which hardly makes her the face of the Democratic party.
The fact of the matter is, there is no telling how the next two years will play out in Washington – and who among the Democrats in politics, business or some other endeavor may rise to the surface and lead the party.
For now, at least, here are six Democrats who offer a relatively fresh look who may emerge as important players in the coming years:
Sen. Christopher Murphy -- The first-term Connecticut senator arrived in Washington shortly after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in his state in December 2012, and he swiftly rose to become one of the most outspoken advocates for gun control – a highly important but invariably frustrating issue to pursue in the face of the powerful gun lobby. The 43-year-old former House member and state legislator is a champion of health care reform and was a strong advocate of a “single-payer” national health care system similar to one sought by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
Sen. Cory Booker – The 47-year-old former Newark, N.J., mayor and prominent black politician insists he’s not interested in the presidency. And he finds ways to anger both liberals and conservatives, as Politico recently noted. But his high-profile speech at the 20016 Democratic National Convention and his sharp critique of President Trump and his cabinet picks suggest Booker will be very much in the national eye as the 2020 race begins to take shape.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar – The former Minnesota county prosecutor is a rising star among progressives and brings the much-admired qualities of mid-western common sense and practicality and a firm grasp of domestic and foreign policy issues. Klobuchar, the daughter of a legendary Minneapolis newspaper columnist and one-time legal adviser to former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, is a natural in dealing with the media. And speculation that Hillary Clinton had closely considered her as a running mate in 2016 will probably add to her luster as a potential presidential candidate in 2020.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema – The 37-year old two-term House member from Arizona brings a distinctive perspective to Washington. The former state legislator and social worker grew up homeless for a time and is the first openly bisexual member of Congress. >She is one of the more dazzling Democrats from a red state. “I was homeless when I was a kid,” she said once at a Phoenix job fair. “But I got my shot at college, I got a job, and I stand before you today.”
Mark Cuban – President Trump recently tweeted that Cuban is “not smart enough to run for president!” But those who have dealt with the Dallas Mavericks owner and “Shark Tank” star think he is plenty smart – and probably better equipped than Trump to do the kind of policy and economic analysis required of a president. Trump may have been reacting to a New York Post story mentioning Cuban as a possible challenger for Trump in 2020. Cuban, 58, responded by tweeting “Isn’t it better for all of us that he is tweeting rather than trying to govern?”
Sen. Kamala Harris – The charismatic Democrat from California has a number of claims to fame: She was the first woman ever elected attorney general in California and the second black woman and the first Indian American elected to serve in the U.S. Senate. Harris, 52, once said that she sought a career in law enforcement because she wanted to be “at the table where decisions are made.”