William Lloyd

Democrats would do their party and the country a favor by focusing on the achievable rather than the inspirational.

When the Democratic presidential candidates meet for their first head-to-head debate later this month, many activists will be asking which candidate is the most committed to Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and the Green New Deal.

Unfortunately, that question will be largely irrelevant because none of those policies has a realistic chance to become law in the foreseeable future. A more practical question would be which candidate can win states such as Pennsylvania.

In 2016, only 46 percent of the voters chose Donald Trump while 54 percent chose Hillary Clinton or a third-party candidate. According to a Fox News poll in mid-May, only 38 percent of registered voters favor the president’s re-election while 54 percent want someone else.

That means Trump has not gained materially with those who voted against him and is in trouble with a significant number of his 2016 supporters.

In the Fox poll, Trump trailed three of the top five Democratic contenders, was tied with the fourth Democrat, and was unable to attract more than 41 percent support against any of them. The disappointment for Trump is that his poll numbers are mediocre even though the unemployment rate is near a 50-year low, first quarter economic growth exceeded expectations, and consumer confidence is high. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate the president.

First, Trump has about 17 months to regain his 2016 support.

Second, it may be difficult for Democrats to select a nominee who can appeal to independents and disaffected Republicans without prompting a liberal challenge by a credible third-party candidate.

Third, the 2020 election will not be a straight up-or-down vote on the president but rather will be a choice between Trump and a Democrat with flaws of his or her own. In 2016, Trump and Clinton were the two most unpopular general election candidates in the history of presidential polling. Trump won because he was less unpopular than Clinton. The president could benefit from a similar contrast with his 2020 opponent.

Fourth, Trump won a decisive victory in the Electoral College in 2016 despite getting almost three million fewer popular votes than Clinton and about eleven million fewer popular votes than all of his opponents combined. The key was his narrow upsets in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The surest path to victory in 2020 for Democrats would be to field a candidate who can hold the states Clinton won and recapture Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. The swing voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are unlikely to favor a Democrat perceived as captive to the loudest liberal voices in Congress and on cable television.

Some Democratic strategists reject the notion that winning in 2020 will require a candidate who can appeal to centrist voters. These experts advocate nominating someone from the party’s left wing whose liberal policies might increase the turnout of young and minority voters enough to carry Trump states like Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Texas. Although such a strategy might work, it is too risky.

If he is re-elected, Trump could shred the system of checks and balances. He could also tilt the U.S. Supreme Court further to the right with the potential retirement and replacement of the two oldest justices (both Democrats).

Furthermore, a Republican victory in state legislative races in 2020 would likely guarantee another 10 years of Congressional districts gerrymandered to favor the GOP.

Even if the Democrats were able to elect an unabashed liberal as president and to retain the House of Representatives, the most optimistic prediction for the Senate is a slim majority in favor of the Democrats.

Under that scenario, Republicans would still hold more than enough seats to block Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and the Green New Deal through successful filibusters. Therefore, to select a presidential nominee on the basis of who is most liberal on those issues would be to promise voters more than could possibly be delivered.

Instead of trying to cure all of the country’s problems with one election, Democrats should concentrate on picking a candidate who can defeat Trump. That means a candidate who is willing to compromise with mainstream Congressional Republicans on controlling health care costs; making college more affordable; promoting renewable energy; balancing tough border security with a humane approach to immigration; and upgrading the nation’s infrastructure.

Four years of incrementalism might not be glamorous or inspiring, but it would be better than four more years of Trump.

William Lloyd of Somerset represented Somerset County in the state House of Representatives (1981-1998) and served as the state’s Small Business Advocate (November 2003-October 2011). He writes a monthly column for The Tribune-Democrat.