What kind of candidate should Democrats run against President Donald Trump in 2020? A battle-scarred but familiar face from the party’s past? A charismatic but unseasoned magnet for the Democrats’ core constituencies? Yet another businessman with money to burn who thinks that the presidency is an entry-level job?
Still doubtful? So how about this one: the smart and sensible good neighbor you can trust with a tough problem – or simply to show up and do whatever is needed.
“Who is that?” you may be asking. For the millions of Americans who have no clue, Steve Bullock is the progressive governor of Montana, a forthright and appealing guy who comfortably won re-election while Trump was carrying his state by 20 points.
There’s a reason for that. Actually, several.
Unlike Trump, Bullock came up the way many people do – as the son of a single mom who worked his way through college, took out loans to finish law school, then worked to pay them off. For those who still think experience in office counts for something, he’s a one-term attorney general and two-term governor.
To get there, he campaigned hard across his state to reach voters where they live. Then, as now, he ran on issues of practical concern to people across the political spectrum: creating jobs, keeping big money out of Montana politics, pay equity for women, investing in education from preschool to college and preserving the state’s public lands.
Once elected, Bullock governed as he campaigned. Despite a legislature that was two-thirds Republican, he enacted a bill to disclose campaign contributions, increased the budget for education at all levels and advanced equal pay for women. He expanded Medicaid to cover 100,000 more Montanans and protected public lands from exploitation by private interests. Six years later, Bullock is one of America’s most popular chief executives.
Experienced political handicappers have noticed. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told Politico for a recent profile: “He’s proven you can do these solid things and get re-elected in a state that went solidly for Donald Trump.”
“He’s the real deal,” added former DNC chair Donna Brazile. “He has the right pedigree and right personality to give 2020 a real consideration.”
The problem is that, as of now, few Democratic primary voters know Steve Bullock.
That may change.
“Anybody who won ... in a state Trump won by 20 has something to say that Democrats need to be listening to,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress.
On that score, Bullock’s advice is typically practical and pithy: Show up. Listen as much as you talk. Emphasize pocketbook issues. Winning is not about litmus tests or micro-targeting: If you write off everyone who disagrees with you, you lose the capacity to govern. Turning out the base and persuading the unconvinced are not mutually exclusive. Every issue Democrats care about relates to people’s lives – campaigns are about expressing them so that this gets through.
He sees the Russia investigation as page six in the minds of average voters.
That’s the way he comes across on the stump and in an interview – a congenial, plain-spoken guy with a comfortable and effective way of getting his point across. In 2018, he told me the Democrats’ message should be personalized and localized, getting to the heart of what people in a state or district most care about.
However much it should concern us, he sees the Russia investigation as page six in the minds of average voters – they want to know how Democrats can improve their lives in the day-to-day. It’s not nearly enough, Bullock said, for candidates to rail against Trump. Americans look to politics for relief, and for hope.
So what should a candidate emphasize in 2020?
Democrats, Bullock told me, must run on issues that cut across our social divisions. Central to this is our economy. 50 years ago, 90 percent of kids in a family could expect to do better than their parents. Now only half of young people will – or believe that they will. Throughout America, too many people are working hard without making gains.
Given that, Bullock insists that Democrats must stress improving the lives of Americans in all regions of the country. If they only talk to people on the coasts, they won’t win – or, if they do, won’t be able to deliver a better life to those who need one.
To win and govern, Democrats must emphasize their common values and goals. Here Bullock cites health care. Democrats agree that health care must be affordable, accessible and comprehensive. But internecine warfare pitting one rigid formula against the other may defeat the party’s ability to give Americans the quality health care they deserve.
Tone, Bullock insists, is also critical. Democrats should talk in a way that bridges our differences, and that our young people can admire. Where Trump has exploited our divisions for political gain, Democrats should embrace the humanity and aspirations Americans share in common ― whatever their ethnicity and wherever they live.
For Bullock, a persistent opponent of big money in politics, that means making our broken political system work for Americans writ large. In his view, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) gave the game away by admitting that the Republican tax bill was passed to please the party’s donors. Laws should serve the common good, not the privileged few.
“It’s not about identity politics, “Bullock said.” It’s about lifting everybody up.”
Still, among Democrats and in the country as a whole, there’s no escaping the divide over race and culture. So where does Bullock stand?
In Montana, which hardly lacks for hate groups, Bullock has been a forthright champion of Native-American sovereignty and gay and lesbian rights. He’s strongly pro-choice. Asked about Trump’s hot-button surrogate for racial division ― black football players taking a knee during the national anthem ― Bullock said that he meets some veterans who take offense and others who accept that they fought for the right to protest. Bullock himself hopes that he never feels so alienated as to not observe the anthem, but says that Americans need to address the racial injustices that animate the protesters.
Bullock’s position on guns combines his roots in Montana’s hunting culture with bitter personal experience. When he was in law school, his 11-year-old nephew was shot and killed on a playground by a 10-year-old targeting another kid. At the time, he was the youngest school shooting victim in America. No more, Bullock added ― since then there have been too many others, and he is sick of lowering the flag for Montanans killed in mass shootings.
Recently, on CNN, he said that he favored an assault weapons ban. But his preferred mode is reasoning with the many Americans who own guns for self-defense, and don’t feel law enforcement can protect them. These gun owners, Bullock believes, are open to common sense measures like universal background checks, crackdowns on straw purchasers, restricting concealed weapons to law enforcement officers, protecting victims of domestic violence and allowing courts to temporarily remove guns from those who may pose a danger to themselves and others. “Thoughts and prayers,” Bullock said pointedly, “are not solutions. They are excuses.”
While his emphasis on rebuilding a broad-based national party is crucial to the social fabric, his stands on issues are, by design, common to many Democrats. So what, I inquired, does he offer that other prospective candidates may not?
His experience as a governor, he responds crisply, equips him to get things done. He’s had to work across the aisle to enact progressive measures. Because he comes from the West, he knows how to talk to voters Democrats too often miss, in language that cuts through differences to address their core concerns. In a country so polarized, this is no mean asset.
Still, Bullock has to introduce himself to all the Americans who don’t know him. He has started a PAC to cover his travels, while not accepting other PAC money. He’s beginning to build out the kernel of a campaign infrastructure and to study issues, like national security and foreign policy, outside the wheelhouse of a governor. He still has things to learn, he acknowledged – a sensible, but attractive, contrast to a president with a disdain for acquiring knowledge, or even knowing what he doesn’t know.
Bullock’s started showing up where he should – Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin and even Arkansas. Smart people are watching. “If the party is unable to find someone like a Bullock,” Donna Brazile said, “the Democratic Party will have a hard time picking up the votes it needs for 2020 and beyond.”
To Bullock, his party and so many others, the stakes are seismic. Four years of Trump, Bullock said, are damaging enough. The question is whether he can help his party change our future for the better.
Richard North Patterson is the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council On Foreign Relations.