Opinion: Race for the White House runs through Michigan

David Shribman
Supporters of  President Donald Trump cheer before rally March 28 in Grand Rapids.


Three months before the 2016 election the political landscape of Michigan, then as in 2020 a critical battleground for the White House, was clear.

Donald J. Trump’s campaign was sinking fast. Two-thirds of female voters in the state considered him unqualified for the presidency. Hillary Rodham Clinton was ahead in the state’s Republican strongholds of west and southwest Michigan. The smart money was on a historic defeat for Trump in this state, and across the country.

The world knows what happened. Trump prevailed by fewer than 11,000 votes here —about a quarter of a percentage point. He won the presidency in an upset — and then his presidency upset all the assumptions and norms of American presidents. And in that political environment he is seeking a second term and his rivals — 20 of them, now that Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. jumped into the ring in recent days — are seeking to unseat him.

The result is an unsettled political scene, dominated by outsiders. Only six of the Democratic candidates — Biden, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington — can be considered insiders, and one is black and two are women.

But listen to Trump, speaking at the commencement exercises of Liberty University in Virginia. Those remarks, delivered almost exactly two years ago, set forth the guiding principles for him — and for the fully 70 percent of the Democratic presidential candidates who are outsiders.

‘’Being an outsider is fine, embrace the label, because it’s the outsiders who change the world and who make a real and lasting difference. The more that a broken system tells you that you’re wrong, the more certain you should be that you must keep pushing ahead, you must keep pushing forward. And always have the courage to be yourself.’’

Trump is nothing if not himself, which is to say (among many other things) an outsider. But it has been an ‘’in’’ to be an outsider for some time now. All but two of the last eight American presidents have been outsiders; the exceptions are George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, though the younger Bush’s experience was limited to the governorship of Texas, arguably with less influence than the state’s lieutenant governor and House speaker.

All this is why one of the prevailing themes of the 2020 election is to run for the office as an outsider. Even Biden, with 36 years in the Senate and eight in the vice presidency, will portray himself as part of the striving classes, which in the era of the wealth gap allows him to make the stretch from insider to outsider. His modest beginnings are a theme he almost surely will emphasize in his campaign announcement tour that will include a stop in a Pittsburgh Teamsters hall in the vital swing state of Pennsylvania, which Trump took by 44,292 votes — about three-quarters of a point.

Biden will have a harder time in another aspect of the profile of an outsider, which is to abandon party orthodoxies. In six terms in the Senate, Biden was the personification of the party orthodoxy, so much so that from the start he will be on the defensive about stands he took, and votes he cast, that reflect a party orthodoxy that has been abandoned if not fully repudiated in the past year.

But Biden should not be counted out. He did push President Barack Obama, a reluctant warrior in the fight for gay rights, to embrace same-sex marriage, and that history, played deftly — in the primaries at least — could soften Biden’s establishment profile. And if he decides to embrace an unorthodox running mate, perhaps former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Adams early in the campaign, or even a Republican such as former Gov. John Kasich of Ohio late in the campaign, he could put a new sheen on his weathered, even wizened look.

The president’s 2016 example provides few hints for the Democrats beyond taking the outside lane.

Neither during the campaign nor in the White House has Trump cut his political wardrobe to fit the fashions of the Republican Party whose nomination propelled him to the presidency. The Democratic candidate may have to, in part because of the potential effectiveness of the anti-socialism riposte Trump already is test-driving. The last thing the Democratic candidate can afford to do is to run as an extremist, even if the target of the 2020 campaign is an extremist himself.

Finding the sweet spot between being new and being an extremist is the challenge of the age for the Democrats.

Several of them have the capacity and profile to do it. Both Moulton and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio were rebels against Nancy Pelosi for speaker but have issue positions more in line with Democratic orthodoxy. The female candidates — especially Sen. Kamala Harris of California, whose early primary gives her special opportunities — are well-positioned for this difficult political pas de deux. So, too, is former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, whose viewpoints are conventional but who is gay. The challenge for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is to remain an outsider without being cast as the sensation of the last campaign but as the tired man of this one.

‘’There are great dangers for the Democrats,’’ said former GOP Sen. Bob Kasten of Wisconsin, along with Michigan a vital swing state. ‘’In this presidential race they have a complicated way forward.’’.

So, too, did Trump. But the Democrats’ way forward many be even more complicated.

Biden is 76 years old, Sanders is 77. That blunts any age issue they can employ against Trump, who at 72 is seven years younger than Pelosi. This is all the more reason that the Democrats’ ideas have to be young. Young — but not off-putting to the suburban female voters who held the balance of power in the 2018 midterm congressional elections and are poised to play that same role in the 2020 election. They’re not radical and they may recoil from the Green New Deal. Thus the Democrats’ opening — and their challenge in the flight for Michigan, and for the White House.

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette