The theme of the night for the Democratic Wing Ding Dinner in Clear Lake, Iowa on Friday night was “Rising Stars,” meant for keynote speakers Jason Kander and Congressman Eric Swalwell, both 36, but also for the many young candidates for Iowa office. About half the Democratic candidates there running for governor, secretary of state and Congress were under the age of 40.
The dynamic highlighted a growing trend in the party that finds itself out of power: without older, longtime incumbents holding the reins of power in Iowa or nationally anymore, a younger generation has found room to step up and let their voices be heard. And the message coming from the national up-and-comers from that group is that the party needs to be bolder in defining what it stands for.
“You can’t win an argument you don’t make,” Kander, the former Missouri Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate in 2016, told the crowd.
Kander, who rose to national fame with a forceful TV ad on background checks in a red state, explained that voters will respect and vote for candidates who honestly say what they believe, even if those ideas don’t poll so well at the moment. He recalled his narrow loss to Republican Senator Roy Blunt, a race in which Kander over-performed Hillary Clinton by nearly 16 points.
“I didn’t do that by pretending to be a conservative Democrat,” he said. “Everyone in my state knew I was a progressive, but they also knew I was saying what I believe.”
Swalwell, the night’s other main speaker, represents a San Francisco-area district, much more to the left of Kander’s Missouri. But he was born in Western Iowa, still has family friends in the state, and talked about the life his parents tried to create for him.
“We’re fighting for a fifth freedom – the freedom to dream,” Swalwell said. “The dream my parents dreamed for me in that Algona driveway, the same dream you dream for yourself and your families. Because when children are free to learn, they are free to dream. When families are free to breath clean air and drink clean water, they are free to dream.”
Notably, both Swalwell and Kander endorsed Medicare-for-all plans to fix the country’s healthcare problems.
“I believe as a former prosecutor who saw defense attorneys tell their clients that you have a right in this country to a lawyer, I believe you have a right in this country to a doctor,” Swalwell said to cheers. “It’s time for Medicare-for-all!”
Kander talked about the success that the protests and calls to congressional offices had during the Obamacare repeal fight, adding that Democrats also needed to push for their own ideas.
“This is an opportunity to continue to make that argument and honestly say what we mean, which is this: we believe healthcare should be a right in this country, and in my opinion, that means single payer,” he said.
Kander went on in length to explain how Democrats could frame that messaging as part of a broader American ideal that could appeal to voters.
“Here’s how that argument goes: You pay your property taxes because you believe there is a public good in having public schools,” he said. “Even if you send your kid to a private school, you believe that it makes sense that public education is available to your friends and neighbors … It is a public good, the idea that you should not die in this country over lack of health insurance. It is no different than public education or social security, it is a public good and that is why we have to take steps to make healthcare a right in this country.”
The two’s embrace of Medicare-for-all, a policy that’s quickly growing in popularity among the base, but not necessarily among national party leadership, could prove very important.
An underreported aspect of the Democratic Party’s struggle to find its voice in the aftermath of the 2016 election is the emergence of this new group of leaders under the age of 40. While much of the media’s focus is on the lingering divide between activists that supported Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, younger progressives who have no strong lasting loyalties to those two factions are becoming increasingly influential.
And while they might not be former Sanders supporters (Swalwell himself backed Martin O’Malley), many of the policies they promote come much more from the party’s left than from the older establishment.
There might be an audience for that line of thinking in Iowa. While the caucus results were a stark two-sided affair between Clinton and Sanders, the first post-2016 IDP chair election was won by a 30-something political consultant against candidates backed by the Sanders and Clinton groups, finding support from people on both sides and in-between. The second IDP chair race last race didn’t feature a Sanders/Clinton divide, and chose another 30-something operative to lead the party.
And people like Swalwell are looking at boosting younger Democrats’ leadership in the party. Swalwell heads up Future Forum, a group of young Democratic members of Congress, and has been working on the party’s outreach to millennial voters. He endorsed Abby Finkenauer in the 1st District primary and campaigned with her in Cedar Rapids on Saturday.
Kander closed out his speech on Friday night describing how Republicans’ pitch to voters is that change in America is scary and that their party can somehow protect people from it and reverse it.
“That is dead wrong about what America is,” Kander said. “Americans are not meant to fear the future. Americans are meant to shape the future.”
If people like Kander and Swalwell are successful, they may also have a big role in shaping the future of the Democratic Party, one that could look much more progressive and forthright in its goals and policies than past versions.
by Pat Rynard