Washington Week

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How are Democrats navigating the party's political winter?

By Robert Costa

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I’ve known Jonathan Allen for years, going back to when I first started covering Capitol Hill. He’s a sharp reporter who has a deep understanding of national Democratic politics and the jungle that is “Clintonland.” And Shattered, his most recent book co-written with Amie Parnes, was a #1 New York Times bestseller.

I recently spoke with Allen to get a better sense of how Democrats and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton are navigating the party’s political winter. I also wanted to get his outlook on the 2020 presidential race. I know, I know — it’s early. But how Democrats handle the first year of President Trump could say a lot about how that contest unfolds.

ROBERT COSTA: What’s the state of the Democratic Party? What are its challenges and perhaps its glimmers of hope amid Republican control of Congress and the White House?

JONATHAN ALLEN: The challenge is that they are fractured and a little bit lost about where they need to go after a surprising defeat. They don't have any one leader or even what you would consider a super strong, small set of people who are moving in that direction. There are, what, 20 or more people that you could name as potential Democratic presidential nominees in 2020? Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll lose next time. We saw a Republican field of 17 candidates in 2016. A winner could emerge from that group. But right now, they're having a lot of trouble figuring out who their leader is.

In the meantime, they turn to the natural places. Nancy Pelosi in the House has been the leader of the Democratic Party there for a long, long time. But I don't think anybody is expecting her to show the way for a Democratic resurgence. You've got a left wing that is convinced that the party failed because it didn't drive out the base enough. You've got a moderate wing that feels like there was too much attention to the base and not enough to swing voters, even swing voters in traditionally Democratic states.

One of the important lessons from last year is that Hillary Clinton was particularly bad at both driving out the base and persuading people who were impressionable or could be swung to vote for a Republican or a Democrat. They'll have to find a candidate who's able to unite the wings of the party and reach out.

COSTA: Secretary Clinton is coming out with her own book this fall. Do you think her shadow continues to hover over the future of the Democratic Party?

ALLEN: Her network is active and trying to continue to have a say in the future of the Democratic Party and that's at the operative level and it's at the ally level and certainly Hillary Clinton herself has shown that she's interested continuing to try to not only shape the debate but be part of the political leadership class. She's setting up to raise money for candidates. She's commenting publicly on major issues of the day. There are a lot of Democrats who think that that's not good for their party, but I don't expect her to go away anytime soon.

The remnants of Clinton world are continuing to be active. Some of them have moved on to other people who may run for president in 2020. Some of them may themselves run for president either in 2020 or beyond. Look at Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel would run for president someday. Obviously, he's having a lot of trouble right now at home, but that's something that he's always wanted to do. There are people who are Clinton world forces that are going to continue to be active in Democratic Party politics.

COSTA: Is there any chance she runs again in 2020?

ALLEN:  I think there is a very, very, very small chance that she runs in 2020. On election night, she told her aides, as we reported in "Shattered," that this was her last campaign. The only reason that I say that there's a nonzero chance is that she continues to do these political things like raising money to give to candidates and does the things that somebody would do if they were leaving the door open. But I don't see it. I don't see a path for her to win the Democratic nomination and if you look at polling, as unpopular as the president is, there's no indication that people want to go back.

COSTA: Will that progressive side of the Democratic Party, led by Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, be more influential in the run-up to the 2020 primary?

ALLEN: One of the reasons we have President Trump is that President Trump figured out a way to tap into the rising populist sentiment in the country. It's hard to predict where people are going to be in four years and what their feelings are going to be about major institutions and about the difficulty of getting ahead. Some of that has to do with the economy. But for Democrats to be in a good position to win, the economy would have to not be a lot better than it is today for average folks. In that event, I imagine that the strain of populism will still be there and the desire for reimagining some of our institutions and redistributing some of our resources will continue to be there, particularly on the Democratic side. I think that that's still powerful stuff.

By the way, I think up until Bill Clinton and even during some of Bill Clinton's presidency and during some of Obama's presidency, the Democrats have had a pretty strong populist bent. There was a sort of a tension between their desire to raise money from business and their desire to reach out to people who support business and the reflexive liberal desire to see money and resources more evenly distributed.

COSTA: Last thing, Jon. I know we don't want to get too far ahead and it's only 2017. But as think through your next book project on the 2020 campaign and you evaluate the potential field, are there one or two prospects who particularly intrigue you at this point or who have jumped ahead of others?

ALLEN: The short answer is no. I don't see anybody who's head and shoulders above the rest. The longer answer is, I think there are a few candidates who are potentially interesting for various reasons. I am fascinated by the set of candidates who get talked about who are from red states. Some of them have won high office and some of them have lost high office and some of them hold smaller offices. You can talk about a Jason Kander, who lost to Missouri Senate race in 2016, or Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans and former lieutenant governor of Louisiana. Just a quick disclosure here: My wife worked for his sister, Mary Landrieu in the Senate. Those types of candidates. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend is part of that mix, too. It’s an interesting class of people who often don't get looked at because they are not senators or governors. Democrats in red states.

I'm also a little interested to see how California senator Kamala Harris evolves as a political figure over the next couple of years. She’s got some interesting political skills and has a biography that's in some ways reminiscent of the Democrats who were successful in 2006 in those elections, in terms of being a former prosecutor.