Last week the Washington Post’s James Hohmann had a smart insight into the early jockeying for the 2020 Democratic nomination. He noted that many of the early entrants into the race — as well some potential candidates — were spending a lot of time apologizing. We are not even a full month into 2019, and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and former Vice President Joe Biden have already publicly atoned for positions, policies or activities that are no longer considered appropriate for the more left-leaning Democratic primary electorate.
Not long after she announced her candidacy on Steven Colbert’s show, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand showed up on set with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow where she was asked about her conservative voting record on guns and immigration when she represented upstate New York in the mid-aughts.
"Well I don’t think it was driven from my heart," she told Maddow about her past positions. "I was callous to the suffering of families who want to be with their loved ones…So looking back, I really regretted that I did not look beyond my district and talk about why this is an important part of the United States story."
At a recent Martin Luther King celebration, Vice President Biden expressed regret for his support of the 1990s era criminal justice legislation that punished crack cocaine users (who were mostly black) more harshly than those busted on powder cocaine (who were mostly white). “I haven’t always been right. I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried…. It was a big mistake when it was made we were told by the experts: "crack you never go back" it’s not different, but it’s trapped an entire generation.
This isn’t the first time (nor the last, if he ends up running), that Biden has apologized for actions he took in the 1990s. In 2017, Biden apologized for his role as Judiciary Committee Chairman at the 1991 Clarence Thomas- Anita Hill hearings. “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology,”
Sen. Bernie Sanders held a press conference in early January to address accusations of sexual harassment on his 2016 campaign: "It appears that as part of our campaign there were some women who were harassed or mistreated and I thank them for speaking out. What they experienced was unacceptable and not what a progressive or any campaign should be about. When we talk about ending sexism and all forms of discrimination those beliefs cannot just be words. They must be based in day to day reality and in the work we do. And that was not the case in the 2016 campaign." Pre-#metoo it’s unlikely that a presidential candidate would see the need to make such a public apology.
Days before Sen. Kamala Harris announced her candidacy, Lara Bazelon, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco, penned an op-ed in which she argued that the California senator and former state Attorney General and district attorney was “not a progressive prosecutor.” Bazelon writes: “if Kamala Harris wants people who care about dismantling mass incarceration and correcting miscarriages of justice to vote for her, she needs to radically break with her past. A good first step would be to apologize to the wrongfully convicted people she has fought to keep in prison and to do what she can to make sure they get justice.” When asked about this issue this week during her first press conference as a 2020 candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris was not exactly repentant, a recognition, perhaps, that her law-and-order background is more of an asset than a liability. "The bottom line is the buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for what my office did,” she said. “There are cases ... where there were folks that made a decision in my office and they had not consulted me and I wish they had."
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been the most contrite of the bunch. In a homemade video, the Hawaii Rep. apologizes for her past opposition to gay marriage and gay rights: "In my past I said and believed things that were wrong, and worse, they were very hurtful to people in the LGBTQ community and to their loved ones."
Not all potential candidates are expressing regret for policies that are unpopular with the left. Former Republican and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg continues to defend his 'stop and frisk' program (which many Democrats see as racist), called attempts to legalize marijuana "perhaps the stupidest thing anybody has ever done," and while most in the party are distancing themselves from corporate donors and Wall Street, the billionaire is not interested in atoning for his wealth.
Now, there’s nothing particularly new or novel about candidates trying to inoculate themselves against attacks on their shortcomings. And, there have been plenty of candidates who won their primaries despite taking votes or positions that were out of step with the base: Think Mitt Romney and "Romney-care," John McCain and immigration, or John Kerry and the Iraq war.
But, what’s remarkable about where we are today is how many candidates — even those whose time on the political stage has been relatively short — are on the "wrong side" of the Democratic party’s base. Part of the reason for this is that the base has shifted dramatically left in just the last ten years.
In 2006, when Gillibrand first ran for Congress, a Pew Research poll found that only 49 percent of Democrats agreed with the statement that immigrants strengthen the country. By 2017, that percentage had jumped to 84 percent. In 2011, just 37 percent of Democrats agreed with the statement that "racial discrimination is the main reason why blacks can’t get ahead." By 2017, more than two-thirds of Democrats (64 percent) agreed with this statement.
The most important question, of course, is how voters will respond to these apostasies. Do they punish those who strayed and reward the candidate who has been the most consistent in his or her policy positions? If so, someone like Sen. Elizabeth Warren certainly stands out. Her greatest strength in the primary (which many fear may be her biggest weakness in the general) is her unwavering and uncompromising positions on liberal economic policy.
But, there’s also plenty of evidence that policy and/or ideological consistency aren’t central to primary voters choice for the nomination. In 2016, then-candidate Trump broke all the rules. Not only was he all over the map on some of the most central tenants of the GOP (abortion, trade, tariffs, etc.), but he also didn’t apologize for them. In fact, in looking back through the exit poll data from the earliest days of the GOP primary process, voters prized a candidate who could "bring change" and "tells it like it is" more than they cared about "electability" or that the candidate "shares my values."
In 2018, many on the left argued that progressive candidates would rout more moderate or ‘less woke' Democrats in primaries. That didn’t happen.
I asked a bunch of smart Democratic strategists what they thought of these early attempts at atonement. Most agreed it was unusual to see this many candidates, this early in the process, trying to make amends for their past behavior. Some attribute it to lessons learned from 2016 when Hillary Clinton stumbled and bumbled her way through the email server apology. Or in 2004, when John Kerry flip and flopped on the Iraq war question. But, most agreed that a candidate’s past apostasies may be less important to voters than they are to inside-the-Beltway types. “I think the apologies are for opinion elites and the media,” said one strategist, “and have nothing to do with voter concerns.” Another noted, that “there will be a fight over purity on the left, but it’s going to sound silly to most Democrats.”
Rodell Mollineau, the former head of Democratic super PAC American Bridge and now a partner in the strategic communications firm ROKK Solutions, agrees that voters are more forgiving on policy inconsistencies than we give them credit. "A media consultant told me something that I’ve always remembered," Mollineau told me. "Americans don’t care if you flip as long as you flip in their direction." What’s most important says Mollineau, is that a candidate looks and feels authentic in that apology. Another Democratic strategist agreed, saying that issues themselves aren’t what matter most to voters. Instead, it’s a candidate’s character and core convictions that are most critical. Telling voters that you are sorry for a vote you cast in the past bad only if it’s clear that: 1) you aren’t really sorry; 2) you are only doing it for political reasons.
A number of strategists, including Mollineau, argued that the current crop of apostasies (immigration, gay marriage, criminal justice reform...) are nowhere near as problematic for Democrats in the 2020 primary as the vote in support for the Iraq war was for Hillary Clinton in her run against Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary.
The 2018 election results also suggest that a proven ability to beat Donald Trump will be more of a top tier concern to Democrats than ideological purity. However, one party insider notes, that electability “means different things to different people..Everyone thinks their favorite candidate is the most electable.”
With so many candidates rushing to get on the right side (or more accurately, the left side) of the Democratic primary, there’s a risk that Democrats nominate a candidate who alienates swing voters. Republicans and the Trump campaign are counting on this very scenario. “Republicans are already painting the opposition as completely out of touch with most Americans,” write the Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson and Dave Weigel, “and too liberal to win back the White House from a president who in 2016 demonstrated appeal in culturally conservative states that usually voted with Democrats.”
Or maybe, we are just really overthinking all of this. Voters are smart. And, patient. And, don’t have the time to build elaborate spreadsheets that track candidate voting records and changes in policy positions. They mostly go with their gut. And, their heart. If we want to know what will really matter to Democratic voters in 2020, writes Buzzfeed’s Katherine Miller, we should look to 1976, "a year most likely to be like our own: a huge, divided field of liberal candidates ran for president after a period of nightmare politics." She concluded her piece with this bit of advice: "If 1976 offers any insight into 2020, it’s that more nebulous concepts — e.g., clarity and purpose — are what voters end up looking for."