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Democrats are facing a big generational divide about the party’s future

Democrats are facing a big generational divide about the party’s future
Democratic campaign buttonPhoto: Busy Beaver Button Museum

The field of Democratic presidential candidates may not end up being quite as large as predicted, but it’s still plenty big. But even at this early stage, the field is sorting itself into two groups, signaling a debate about the party’s future.

On one side, you have the seasoned veterans, in some cases, very well seasoned. Potential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden will be aged 79 and 78 on Election Day 2020. Elizabeth Warren will  be 71. At a time when many people their age are looking to move into retirement communities, this group is looking to move into the White House.

On the other side, you have a bunch of new faces. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand all began their political careers in this millennium and will be in their fifties when voters choose the next president. Julián Castro is in his forties, and Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is only in his thirties.

One thing that separates the groups is diversity. Democrats have become the party of embracing diverse identity politics, appealing to women, LGBTQ people and an increasingly racially diverse citizenry. With the exception of Warren, the older group represents the white male wing of the party. By contrast, the younger group has representation from all of the key constituencies that Democrats are relying on.

But it’s not just diversity. It’s energy—not the energy of the candidates, but the energy the candidates generate among supporters. The biggest example of this was highlighted by the rapturous response to Harris’s announcement that she is running.

The crowd’s turnout, the positive media coverage, the immediate consensus that she’s a front runner—contrast these with Elizabeth Warren’s struggles with the controversy about her claims of Native American ancestry that have dogged her (fairly or not) since even before she made her official announcement.

Related: Your complete list of Democratic 2020 presidential candidates & their history on LGBTQ issues

Like Biden, Warren was one of the candidates who flirted with a run in 2016. Only Sanders took the leap, of course. But all three of them have been known quantities for quite some time. Warren’s first brush with national attention was as a regular guest on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show during the Great Recession. Sanders didn’t really attract my attention until he challenged Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination in 2016, but Biden has been in the national eye since the Watergate era.

What’s becoming clear as the campaign takes shape is that the Trump presidency is a dividing line for Democrats. The Obama era seems decades ago, and politicians associated with that period (or even earlier) seem to have parachuted in from a different time altogether.

That change in tenor between Democrats’ pre- and post-Trump approach is reflected not just in the candidates but in their policy discussions. Instead of the incremental approach offered by Obamacare, Democratic candidates are talking about Medicare-for-all, a much more expansive and government-centric effort. After years of courting Wall Street, Democrats are now debating the merits of a 70 percent top tax rate for the rich. 

Sanders in particular has been pushing these kind of ideas for years. But throughout most of that time, Sanders was outside the mainstream. (He’s not even a Democrat.) Now, as he toys with running for president again, Sanders is finding that he’s no longer on the leading edge. Without that advantage, why wouldn’t voters be interested in a fresh face?

Ultimately, polls show that what Democratic voters want most is someone who is going to beat Trump. But whoever they choose is going to set the tone for the party, just as Trump has transformed the GOP. The questions facing Democrats is whether their past is something that they want to build upon or put behind them.

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