Steve Stegelin

The 2020 presidential election has triggered a wholesale freakout in Democratic circles. Just about every liberal and moderate philosophy represented in debates and gatherings across the four early states, all with eyes on defeating President Donald Trump in November. Unlike in past years when minor differences hinged on leadership or foreign policy, there are basic, big-picture questions before Democratic voters in 2020. Call it an identity crisis or a hostile takeover akin to the tea party’s (ultimately successful) bid to upend the GOP in 2009, Democratic factions are in the midst of a war of ideas that likely won’t be settled until the summer when Democratic National Committee insiders huddle for the party convention in Milwaukee. That got us wondering. With South Carolina being the center of the political campaign universe until 7 p.m. Saturday, what would the perfect Democratic candidate look like for Palmetto State voters?

Why is South Carolina voting now?

The South Carolina Democratic presidential primary has existed in its current form since 1992, but the party has only held down the spot as the “First in the South” contest since 2004. The party’s move away from caucuses corresponded with S.C. Democrats’ fading electoral support in state government and Congress in the 1980s. Seeing the rise of S.C. Republicans’ successful early primary beginning in 1980, Democrats set out to do the same a decade later.

Today, the S.C. primaries are held up as an early test of candidates’ viability against a different standard than other early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. In their new book, First in the South, College of Charleston professors Gibbs Knotts and Jordan Ragusa say that S.C. Republican voters are more representative of the national party’s white, evangelical Christian base, making the state a GOP bellwether — S.C. Republicans have selected the eventual nominee four of the past six contests. Meanwhile, Knotts and Ragusa say, African-American voters, who form the majority of the S.C. Democratic base, are virtually unpolled in Iowa and New Hampshire, making S.C. a valuable position as a counterweight to earlier white electorates. South Carolina Democrats, however, have a less-predictive track record of selecting the eventual nominee, partially because of native bias in contests involving candidates from close by: John Edwards in 2004 and Jesse Jackson in 1988.


In trying to conceptualize the perfect candidate this year, it’s interesting to note the 2020 primary represents the first primary since 1992 with an all-white slate of candidates, none of whom hail from the Carolinas. (S.C. Democrats did not have a primary in 2000.)

OK yea, but Trump

Of course, the unfortunate, foul-smelling elephant we have to acknowledge as we approach this exercise is Donald Trump. More so than in a normal year, no aspect of this primary sits unaffected by the incumbent president, who will stalk into town Friday for a rally to heckle Democrats and pump up Republicans. Conservative commentators have even wondered if Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the Democratic corollary to Trump: a polarizing ideologue with little previous mainstream political experience. Indeed, recent rebukes from establishment Democrats like Hillary Clinton and James Carville echo similar sentiments of mainline Republicans before Trump’s eventual nomination and general election victory in 2016.

With that in mind, South Carolina’s hypothetical candidate is a hybrid who can’t be considered in a vacuum. As we’ve seen very clearly in recent weeks, the traditional path to the presidency is closed until further notice. Whoever the Democrats nominate in 2020 must be able to beat Donald Trump. So, what does the perfect 2020 candidate in S.C. look like?

The Perfect Democratic Candidate

The diversity of recent presidential fields — not just 2020 Democrats — tells us more about the sexist and racist forces at work from town hall to Capitol Hill than it does about the true diversity of ideas and backgrounds that have created this nation. South Carolina is the first contest in a state with a racially diverse population, yet following a few candidate withdrawals, voters will choose from a slate of all white candidates, only three of whom are women.

Good Government

The perfect Democratic candidate would have Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s experience harnessing government to do public good. A legal academic and public advocate for most of her career, Warren was asked by Barack Obama in 2009 to build the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), created in response to runaway deregulation of the big banks that eventually led to the financial crisis.

Since being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2013, Warren has continued to use her platform to demand fairness. Asked by MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell to draw a distinction between herself and Sanders on Thurs. Feb. 20, Warren said, “I get real stuff done.”

Even as Trump has taken industry-friendly moves to defang the CFPB, Warren’s accomplishments as a creative public watchdog stand alone in the Democratic field.

“I don’t want to be president just to yell at people, I want to be president to change things,” she said.

Foreign Policy and Institutional Experience

The perfect Democratic candidate would have the experience, especially on foreign policy, of Joe Biden. With such a large Rolodex and a miles-long record from 40 years in the Senate, Biden says he even fielded requests from other world leaders to run for president.

Mileposts in Biden’s foriegn policy experience range from voting as a newly elected senator to unwind American involvement in Vietnam in 1973 to being a key White House asset as vice president to Barack Obama’s attempted de-escalation in the Middle East. Of course, Biden has also taken a more interventionist stance at times, including voting to invade Iraq in 2002.

However, the breadth of experience that advanced his rise to becoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would be a stark change from what many consider the right-wing, conspiracy-fueled improvised foreign policy of the Trump administration.

“At the moment that the world is looking to the United States to be the leader of the free world, President Trump looks like he is working for the other team,” Biden policy aide Antony Blinken told The Washington Post in 2019.

Committing to Equality

The perfect Democratic candidate also would have the lifelong focus on equality of Bernie Sanders. Scoff at the senator’s democratic socialist label all you want, but a fundamental belief in universal, equal access to opportunity is at the root of Sanders’ tenure in public life, and that’s hardly worth discounting.

Sanders has attracted legions of followers with his no-nonsense, anti-establishment style — “I’m not good at pleasantries,” he told the Times — but it’s his laser focus on issues of fairness that make him an attractive candidate.

“Jobs, health care, criminal justice and education are linked, and progress will not be made unless we address the economic systems that oppress Americans at their root,” Sanders wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last year.

Sense of Duty

Pete Buttigieg’s sense of duty frames another quality vital to the perfect Democratic presidential candidate. The former mayor and Navy officer’s intelligence, paired with his understanding of government administration and public service, sets him apart from his counterparts.

Buttigieg, along with Warren and businessman Tom Steyer, have released ambitious plans to increase civic engagement with national service.

“In the great unwinding of American civic society underway, and at a time when Americans are experiencing record-low trust in fellow citizens and American institutions, few — if any — single policy solutions carry the promise of democratic renewal more than national service,” Buttigieg’s plan reads.

Lamenting the the decline of American social institutions is nothing new, but it’s rarely a topic that gets serious discussion, and it gets lost even more in today’s disorienting political landscape.

Plainspoken Pragmatism

The perfect Democratic candidate would have the plainspoken pragmatism of Amy Klobuchar. As a senator from Minnesota, Klobuchar was often floated as having potential for the White House. Klobuchar lacks the rhetorical abilities of many, but discussion of real issues that landed somewhere between poll-tested platitudes and immature bluster would indeed be a change.

Steyer and fellow billionaire businessman Mike Bloomberg have also been able to focus their self-funded campaign machines to articulate the fight Democrats face against Trump in the coming months.

Valuable Voices Lost

As the 2020 election shifts into a new phase, we will begin to lose some of these voices for good. The race has already suffered without Cory Booker’s restorative approach to public policy with an eye on righting wrongs of the past. No math whiz needed to know that universal basic income never would have gotten airtime without Andrew Yang. You probably didn’t hear much about him, but the race lost a quiet policy powerhouse when Michael Bennet bowed out.

South Carolina voters could help propel one Democrat into Super Tuesday contests with the momentum needed to revive their campaign. Whoever the candidate is, they’ll need to sustain that energy and support if they want to also emerge victorious in November.

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