2020 presidential election

Single-Issue Presidential Candidates Like Jay Inslee Are Rare — and Rarely Successful

Washington governor Jay Inslee wants your vote on the basis of his exclusive focus on climate change. Photo: Ted S Warren/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Washington governor Jay Inslee has found one very definite way to stand out in the potentially huge 2020 Democratic presidential field (you know, other than years in the national spotlight or a prior candidacy). It’s to identify himself with a single compelling issue, as Edward-Isaac Devore recently explained:

What if a meteor were hurtling toward the Earth, about to kill millions and reshape life on the planet as we know it?

And what if the president, instead of doing anything to help, made it worse in just about every way, and called it a hoax (and any solutions a scam) instead of the very real, very clear disaster taking shape?

And what if all the Democrats running to beat him in the next election went on and on about how concerned they were and how it’s our most pressing problem—but none had ever done much more than talk about the problem, and for the most part only started doing that in just the past few years?

That’s where Jay Inslee thinks America is when it comes to climate change. And that’s why he’s going to run for president.

Inslee will not, obviously enough, be the only Democratic candidate talking about climate change, or promising to take major measures to fight it. But he clearly intends to make it the singular focus of his campaign:

If there is a new Democratic president come 2021, he or she will get pulled in all sorts of policy directions. Inslee says he has one priority: global warming. It’s not theoretical, or a cause just for tree huggers anymore. Putting off dealing with it for a year or two or kicking it to some new bipartisan commission won’t work, he says. He plans to focus on the threat that climate change poses to the environment and national security—the mega-storms and fires causing millions in damages, the weather changes that will cause mass migrations, the droughts that will devastate farmers in America and around the world.

So unlike other candidates, Inslee won’t mention climate change second or third or last or occasionally: it’s the entire reason he’s running. How that positions him against, say, Michael Bloomberg, who appears likely to run, if he runs at all, on a dual promise to deal with climate change and gun control, is unclear.

It’s difficult to think of a major-party presidential candidate in recent years who has been a true single-issue candidate. Many have “signature” issues, like Trump’s border wall or Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All (or “economic inequality,” itself a multi-issue issue) in 2016. But they almost invariably have a broader range of concerns that appeal to a broader coalition of voters. The enormous Republican presidential field last time around produced no real single-issue candidacy, even though it could have been useful to multiple would-be presidents trying to distinguish themselves from their rivals.

Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig began a 2016 Democratic presidential candidacy focused exclusively on campaign-finance reform and closely associated “money in politics” issues. He even promised to resign from office once he achieved landmark legislation in this area. But this single-issue commitment faded even before Lessig quit the race after being excluded from candidate debates, as HuffPost reported:

Lessig said on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” Friday night that, if elected president, he will no longer resign after passing a law that would expand voting access, end partisan gerrymandering and reform the country’s campaign finance system.

“You said that you were running on this one issue and that when you got elected and fixed it, you would quit,” Maher said.

“Yeah, that’s stupid,” Lessig replied, looking downward. “That was totally stupid.”

“I withdraw that promise,” he said. “I am not going to resign. I am running for president with the commitment to pass legislation that gets our democracy back.”

You could say generally that single-issue presidential candidacies are regarded as kinda stupid. After all, a president, for all her or his power, doesn’t get to dictate the national agenda and exclude anything that falls outside some personal monomania.

The other problem for Inslee is that no one in the 2020 field is going to do much of anything other than nod along as he describes the peril involved in the continuing resistance of Republicans to any sort of decisive action on climate change. Occasionally single-issue candidates get attention by opposing their party’s orthodoxy. A classic example was Ellen McCormack, an anti-abortion Democratic candidate, who, in 1976, was on the ballot in 18 primaries after qualifying for federal matching funds. She also spoke at the Democratic National Convention, to no great effect.

Going back four years before that, California Republican congressman Pete McCloskey ran against Richard Nixon’s renomination, winning 20 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary and then dropping out. If McCloskey ran on anything other than his opposition to Nixon’s Vietnam War policies, it’s been forgotten in the mists of time.

Other famous “antiwar” presidential candidates pretty clearly had broader agendas, such as Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and Howard Dean in 2004. And there have also been nomination candidacies that clearly got their oxygen from a single issue but weren’t really about that issue: e.g., Pat Buchanan’s 1992 challenge to George H.W. Bush, which fed on conservative unhappiness with Bush’s violation of a “no new taxes” pledge but encompassed the challenger’s whole Trump-before-Trump nationalist agenda.

And finally, there has been at least one fairly recent candidate — Lamar Alexander in 1996 — who campaigned on what might be described as a single gimmick, as Ron Brownstein reported back then:

Alexander, who is diligently laying the groundwork for a 1996 presidential campaign, wants to cut congressional salaries in half and send members home over the summer to work at real jobs in their districts. He has even distilled the idea into the first memorable rallying cry of the 1996 campaign: “Cut their pay and send them home.”

Unluckily for Alexander, his own Republican Party took total control of Congress for the first time in 40 years shortly after he formulated this catchy slogan, which took a lot of the steam out of it.

If you go all the way back to the 19th century you can find presidential candidates like William Jennings Bryan, whose 1896 campaign is remembered as being almost exclusively about bimetallism, and a whole series of presidential campaigns before that which were fought out over protective tariffs.

But the recent precedents aren’t great for Inslee or any other single-issue candidate. This approach will, however, make it easier for Inslee to keep his identity separate from that of the other 20 or 30 or 40 presidential aspirants.

Single-Issue Presidential Candidates Like Inslee Are Rare