WASHINGTON — As they consider their options in the 2020 presidential primary, some Democrats are calling for expansive proposals to improve health care, fight climate change, and control college costs.
But many say their top priority is something simpler: normalcy.
“'Mentally rational human being with empathy’ would be a good start,” Jean Morrow, 73, said in State College, Pa., this week as she waited for a campaign appearance by Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke. “Somebody who feels good enough about him or herself that he or she is prepared to really care about what happens to the country.”
Ally Towery, a 20-year-old Pennsylvania State University junior at the same event, said: “At this point, I just want someone who’s going to be a nice person.”
Similar comments come up routinely in conversations at Democratic campaign events, where party loyalists say they can’t imagine another four years of President Donald Trump’s rage-fueled Twitter stream, attacks on enemies and democratic institutions, and routine disregard for facts.
“I’m just looking for somebody that has dignity and morals and values. Somebody that will not be an embarrassment to us on the world stage,” said Evelyn Ripley, a 65-year-old retiree from DuBois, Pa., who also saw O’Rourke at Penn State.
So while factions of the party argue over whether they should push bold liberal proposals or try more centrist approaches, the president may be a unifying factor. Numerous polls show that the majority of Democrats see beating Trump as more important than any specific policies.
“I want someone that can win," Ripley said.
One day later, concerns about Trump’s behavior and tone flared again as the president used an official speech to degrade the late Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war who died less than seven months ago and was widely hailed as a national hero.
“I wasn’t a fan of John McCain,” Trump said Wednesday during a visit to a tank factory in Lima, Ohio, on a trip intended to promote jobs and the economy. He said McCain “didn’t get the job done for our great vets.”
Trump also spent time this week attacking George Conway, husband of one of his closest advisers, Kellyanne Conway, after George Conway questioned Trump’s mental health. “A total loser!” the president tweeted.
A CNN poll released this week found that 60 percent of adults were “not proud” to have Trump as president. Eleven percent said personal attributes would be the most important issue to them in the 2020 race. Only immigration and the economy were cited more often as respondents’ top concerns. Among the key traits cited were honesty; integrity; and being a uniter, not a divider.
Those issues come up regularly with Democrats.
Mike Tickal, a Mason City, Iowa, comic book and hobby-store owner, said it was “refreshing” when he heard from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, one of the Democrats’ many presidential candidates, during a meet-and-greet there in early February.
Why? “To stand here and hear a speech of educated intelligence rather than the reactive ignorance we’ve been listening to,” said Tickal.
Some Democrats raise concern that Trump has emboldened racists.
“When President Obama was our president, there were racists that kept it under cover,” said Beverly Diane Frierson, an executive committee member of South Carolina’s Richland County Democratic Party. “When Trump became president, it became almost en vogue to allow it to come to the surface.”
Democratic candidates have responded with promises to return civility and grace to public life. “We have to have presidents that are about healing and bringing people together,” Booker said at one South Carolina campaign stop.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) has pledged to “always speak with decency and moral clarity and treat all people with dignity and respect.”
But Democrats also made character a central issue in 2016 — and still couldn’t beat Trump.
Even as some Republicans have cringed at Trump’s words, most have stuck with him as he has delivered tax cuts, presided over a thriving economy, and put a conservative imprint on the judicial system. Some see Trump as a welcome break from scripted politicians. Others dislike his attitude but cheer his results.
“I’ll take Donald Trump’s pro-freedom, pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda over what Democrats are dishing out every day,” said Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, arguing that Trump’s tweets are less worrying than a “socialist” agenda and that even his most controversial comments send a positive signal to supporters.
“Every time Trump shows himself to be a fighter, and says something even impolitic, they’re going to cling to him,” he said, because they see a president standing up for them.
Indeed, the CNN poll found that 84 percent of Republicans are proud to have Trump as president, and among all adults, 71 percent had a positive view of the economy. The president, meanwhile, has branded Democrats as the radical party as major candidates embrace ideas such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
After losing in 2016, some Democrats argued they can’t focus solely on the president’s behavior — they have to offer policies that appeal to some voters who swung to Trump.
“People do want to see decency in politics, and when they see something as abhorrent as the attacks on John McCain, I think that turns off a lot of people," said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. But, he added, "the person who’s working two jobs and trying to raise kids on too little money, they want to hear about how you’re going to make their life better.”
Elections often produce a backlash to the personality in the Oval Office, said John Lapp, a Democratic media strategist. Trump came after the measured Barack Obama. Democrats can now offer their own contrast, he said, but “if you exclusively focus on what a horrible person Donald Trump is, that’s not enough.”
He said the argument should be: “There is a horrible person in the White House, and he’s not fighting for you.”