It is time to separate the wheat from the chaff. Democratic activists and voters need to prioritize eliminating non-hackers who do not pack the gear to make it through the long hard slog to become the next President of the United States.
The first candidate who should be eliminated is the most obvious – Beto O’Rourke. He brings nothing to the race other than his name and public relations machine. Ultimately, the machine requires a message and O’Rourke has none. He will find different ways to say different things in different formats using different media. The only thing O’Rourke actually tells voters is which way the wind is blowing and the race does not need another weather vane.
O’Rourke will be among the first candidates to drop out of the race and the first who will try to negotiate his lack of a position to earn an empty promise of an imagined cabinet post. On the national level, no one has said so much about so little since the “blow-dried blowhard” Richard Gephardt, the Congressman and Presidential candidate from Missouri.
The second candidate who should drop out is Tulsi Gabbard. She has a number of things going for her: attractiveness, military service and gender. However, she’s very short on political experience. She holds a number of heterodox positions for a Democrat, which makes her mildly interesting, but not interesting enough.
It is time to seriously talk about Elizabeth Warren. Warren is Bernie Sanders with specifics and without the socialist baggage. Warren is an authority on the legal and financial issues that screw the middle class and has credible proposals to put the economy on a more even footing. She is a serious intellectual who would likely wipe the floor with the other candidates in a genuine and full debate. But the first meeting will be cattle call with catchy sound bites served up as filet mignon.
Warren should be proud of her record as a Harvard Law Professor. However, the country’s mood is both anti-elite and anti-education. There is probably no institution more associated with the elite than Harvard Law School. As Jeff Daniels’ character in The Newsroom said, “We used to aspire to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior.” Unfortunately, she is wise not to talk about it and smart to emphasize her Oklahoma roots.
Warren’s personality will eventually sink her. She is the first person a voter would want fighting for them in Congress but the last person a delegate would introduce to their friends. The Presidential race like all political races is, at its core, a popularity contest. Warren drank a beer on Instagram to prove she was ‘just folks.’ It was embarrassing. On paper, she’s probably the best candidate, but she’s a technocrat. The last technocrat the Democrats ran, who was also the best candidate in that year, was Michael Dukakis. He lost 40 states.
Warren will not and should not drop out anytime soon. Eventually her personality will wear thin. As polls and debates become caucuses and primaries, Warren’s appeal will fade.
If any candidate has been more impressive than Warren it is the Mayor of Indianapolis, Pete Buttigieg. At 37, his resume is as impressive as his political experience is thin. Normally, the Mayor of a college town who was running for President would garner as little attention as Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam. But Buttigieg is gay, a Rhodes scholar, Harvard graduate and Afghanistan War veteran.
He is also the most natural and gifted Democratic politician since Barack Obama. In speeches and interviews he has been insightfully articulate and bordered on visionary. This will likely translate well, if not make him a standout, in the debate. However, the hard question must be asked, “Is the county ready for President, who kisses his husband after a speech to the nation?”
The social activists in the Democratic Party have been ready for a gay President and the Democratic Party, as a whole, may be ready as well. But will the millions of black voters who stayed home in 2016 and the millions of voters who switched from Obama to Trump be ready?
Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have the highest poll numbers and the least in common. Biden has risen to his perch on name identification and little else. Sanders has introduced so many initiatives voters are beginning to lose count.
Biden is a radical moderate whose recent speeches are as hollow as O’Rourke’s rhetoric. He may be having a flashback to his 1988 Presidential run with fellow candidate Richard Gephardt, even as his fellow candidates may want to ask him 1984’s question, “where’s the beef?” Biden’s polling numbers have continued to climb while he ducks issues and dodges tough questions, but it won’t last forever.
Sanders is a lightening rod that polarizes the electorate from both ends. Progressive supporters dream of a Scandinavian-style democracy which is more forgiving of the workers discarded by the modern economy. For Birchers he represents all four horsemen of the apocalypse.
Their high polling numbers, including those in the early primary states, ensure the two have faced most of the attacks to date. These blows will become more frequent and focused in the debates.
Ultimately, these early polls may mean little to nothing. At this time in the 2016 election cycle, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush led in the polls while Donald Trump was below five percent.
If the larger macro issues follow their current trajectories a few things seem clear. As the primaries wind down and the general race takes shape the debate about socialism will rise to the fore. Trump will use socialism to paint the Democrats as dangerous and radical. The charge of socialism has been used for generations to scare the population about Democrats working on civil rights, tax fairness and health care (particularly Medicare, but also the Affordable Care Act). This charge will be deployed to attack the eventual Democratic nominee, regardless of which candidate prevails.
While this may scare some voters it will not sway the critical mass of voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida. In the last month the of the campaign Republicans will deploy the most reliable weapon they have against the Democrats since at least 1964: race.
Nearly all of the Democratic Presidential candidates have voiced support for legislation which will explore the use of reparations to atone for the sins of slavery and Jim Crow. Not interested in the nuances of such legislation, Republicans will claim the eventual nominee will raise taxes on white people to pay black people for slavery.
It will be a challenge for a Presidential candidate as flawed as Donald Trump to be re-elected. The use of this inherently divisive wedge issue, which pits the races against one another and implies higher taxes, make the race a toss-up.