Capitalism? Reparations? Tough on crime? 2020 Democrats struggle with once-settled questions

Key Points
  • Democratic primary contenders struggle to answer basic questions as traditional guideposts fall to wayside.
  • When a television interviewer invited centrist candidate John Hickenlooper to embrace capitalism, he didn't know what to say.
  • He's not the only Democrat trying to find their footing in a changing landscape. 
Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper meets with supporters at a rally to kick off his presidential campaign outside the Colorado Capital on March 7, 2019 in Denver, Colorado.
Michael Ciaglo | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Here's how uncertain the 2020 Democratic campaign has become: when a television interviewer invited centrist candidate John Hickenlooper to embrace capitalism, he didn't know what to say.

That Hickenlooper's life and career plainly embrace capitalism – as a small-business owner and Colorado's governor – isn't the point. By stammering at what was a no-brainer question in recent presidential history, he showed traditional guideposts for the Democratic race as outdated as paper maps.

Basic questions no longer have obvious answers. Start with the party's relationship to the broader electorate.

Former Vice President Joe Biden began seeking the presidency during the late 1980s when Democrats worried if they could ever pick the "Republican lock" on the White House. That elevated the importance of moderation and reassurance, hallmarks of the "Uncle Joe" persona his supporters tout today.

But candidates newer to the national stage have grown accustomed to Democrats as the presumptive majority, popular vote winners in six of the last seven presidential contests. That confidence encourages more combative candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to fight rather than soothe.

Diversity propels competition

America's increasing diversity has propelled Democratic competitiveness. The presence of five women, two blacks, one Latino and a gay man in the field of candidates only begins to describe the changes that has introduced.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California endorsed the concept of reparations to compensate African-Americans for the historic injustice of slavery. Are reparations – shunned by President Barack Obama and other Democratic veterans taught by experience to fear white backlash – now politically sustainable?

Harris herself faces questions about the justice of her prior career as a prosecutor from younger Democrats disdainful of "mass incarceration." Biden's support for get-tough legislation in response to crime fears of the 1980s and 1990s represents an even greater potential liability because he is a white man.

Or does it?

A recent Monmouth University poll showed 56 percent of Democrats prefer a candidate who would run strongest against President Trump over one who shares their views on issues. Electability represents Biden's central argument.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, however, found something different. In that survey, 56 percent of Democrats preferred the candidate whose views come closest to their own.

It also found that 55 percent want a candidate seeking larger, costlier changes over smaller steps easier to move through Congress. That augurs well for Warren, who backs a new wealth tax, a breakup of giant technology firms, and "Medicare for All," or longshot Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who has centered his campaign around action to slow climate change.

Biden, 76 years old, and Sanders, 77, lead Democratic polls. But nobody knows whether their standing reflects a floor or a ceiling. In the NBC/WSJ poll, six in 10 Americans expressed unease about a candidate older than 75.

Worse for Sanders, seven in 10 balked at the idea of a socialist candidate. Yet the younger universe of self-described Democratic primary voters split evenly on that idea. Americans overall advocated more help from government, not less.

Shifting terrain

The electoral terrain has also shifted. California moved its primary from June to early March, seeking more clout for its large, diverse Democratic electorate.

In theory, that benefits California's Harris as well as Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. Julian Castro of Texas. In practice, past calendar shifts have magnified the clout of Iowa, the overwhelmingly white kickoff state where fellow Midwesterners Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Pete Buttigieg of Indiana hope to break out.

The potential field includes three current or former governors: Inslee, Hickenlooper and Steve Bullock of Montana. That credential once held strong value, as governors won seven of eight presidential contests from 1976 through 2004.

Does the bipartisan appeal of executive experience endure in an era of heightened polarization? Before hesitating on capitalism with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, Hickenlooper cast doubt by vowing to achieve compromise through persuasive visits to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's office.

"Sounds silly, right?" he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "But this works."

Evidence from 21st century governance suggests the reverse – sounds like it works, but it's silly. Among other questions, the Democratic race will test whether voters still buy Hickenlooper's formulation.