Editor’s Note: this is Part II of our series breaking down the 2020 Democrats strengths and weaknesses. For Part I, please click here. Part III, meanwhile – the coveted GTFUP.org endorsement – will be out no later than Sunday.
Fair warning, it is characteristically long-winded – even mores than usual! I apologize. I am a windbag, I can’t help myself.
But if you care to know one sad soul’s thoughts on the Dem candidates, order a pizza, pour yourself a beer (keep another cool in the fridge), and buckle up – I think you for reading!
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Editorial Board released its endorsement for the Democratic Party, and made the “historic” decision to do a dual endorsement, choosing both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar as the best standard-bearers for what NYT sees as two distinct approaches to 2020.
This drew a considerable amount of criticism, but when I read the Times’ rationale, I was struck by how neatly it tracks with what I’ve grappled with in trying to assess who is “the one” to both defeat Donald Trump, and rebuild America.
There are two competing theories as to how Democrats might win in 2020.
The first (call it the “Moderation Approach”) is that, historically, moderation – tacking hard to the center in tone, even if not in reality – has been a winning strategy in national politics. The Moderation Approach recognizes that the 2016 Election was painfully close, and its proponents believe that recobbling the successful Obama coalition is possible with a candidate who checks the right boxes, speaks the right language, and works hard not to offend or enflame.
The second theory (call it the “Reconfiguration Approach”), is that Trumpism is both the natural result of an ugly, 30-year assault on our political discourse by the right, and a frightening accelerator of those dynamics. The Reconfiguration Approach favors a bold, ambitious re-structuring of the Democratic Party, one that doesn’t just try to win back the voters on the margins that we lost in 2016, but that offers those voters (and other large swaths of the electorate) a new political calculus to believe in and rally behind.
To be clear, long term, I believe overwhelmingly that Trumpism is not an aberration. It’s going to take a considerable amount of boldness and courage – and a complete re-thinking of the accepted wisdom of our politics – to repair what Trumpism has broken, and to address the fault lines in our democracy that it has exposed.
But in the very near term, when it comes to winning in 2020 – which is the essential first step – I’m not nearly so certain.
I can easily talk myself into the Moderation Approach as good, pragmatic political science – by all accounts, our success in the 2018 midterms owes a good deal to that approach. But on the other hand, everything I’ve read about right-wing nationalist movements suggests that, whenever the resistance tries to meekly make the case for a return to the status quo, it winds up getting trampled.
So while I, too, was frustrated by the NYT Ed Board’s decision to punt on this question, I appreciated their candor in doing so.
The reality is, no one knows what the “right” approach is; no one knows who the “right” or “most electable” candidate is. The world is turned upside down, and there is literally no one who can tell you, with any level of certainty, how we get it right side up again.
The only thing I know for sure is, no matter what approach Democratic voters ultimately choose, we all need to grow the fuck up, and get on board.
And that doesn’t mean that, if Joe Biden is the nominee, Berners need to surrender their ideals; or if it’s the other way around, that Biden voters need to get real cool with the revolution. It means that we all have an obligation to find the things in whatever candidate is the nominee that we can support, to get excited about those things, and to go to work fighting for those things.
I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. I find his rumpled, ornery but good-humored, “waiter, this soup is cold!” style to be quite charming, and I have tremendous respect for his singular focus – dating back to long before it was popular – on income inequality as a real and growing crisis.
In most of the ways Bernie is a radical, I am very much not. But I admire the heck out of Bernie’s steadfast commitment to his cause over the years, and I’ve valued his voice since long before he was a household name.
That said, I was firmly on the other side of the Bernie/Hillary divide in 2016. And while, in the interest of the unity I keep preaching, I can forgive what I saw as a very real failure of leadership on Bernie’s part in 2016, I can’t altogether ignore it either, in assessing how Bernie might fare in the White House.
This is a hard conversation to have, one I’ve largely avoided on this silly blog, because there are people I care about – dedicated, good faith Resisters of utmost decency and character – who were all-in for Bernie in 2016, and who have their own scar tissue from that fight.
I’ve had a few quiet conversations with those folks, and their first order of business, unpacking 2016, is one I can’t really argue with: Bernie would have won.
I think it’s a helluva lot more complicated than that: I think there’s a real question as to what happens to Bernie’s lofty favorability ratings when he faces real, live enemy fire. And I don’t think there’s any certainty – in a climate as batshit crazy as 2016 – about what might have happened if Bernie was the nominee.
But I can’t argue with the reality that Hillary did not win, that her unique “baggage” (no matter how unfair the entirety of 2016 was to her) was ultimately a crucial component of her undoing.
And if we could go back in time and try 2016 again, I agree that it’d be worth giving Bernie a shot.
But the second thing I’ve heard from too many Bernie supporters is some variation on “Democrats stole the nomination,” and that’s a point I can’t concede. That is, to be very frank, a lie, and a dangerous one (you can read a good, if raw and angry, Kurt Eichenwald piece on that lie here).
And it’s a lie that the Bernie campaign increasingly amplified the further the nomination slipped from their reach – the 2016 Dem primary was not particularly close, and Hillary had locked things up by the end of April – and that certain Berners (higher-ups in his campaign, and a small but very vocal slice of his rank-and-file) continued to amplify and weaponize right through Election Day, 2016.
Those Bernie supporters at the Democratic convention, duct tape over their mouths, shouting down speech after speech, howling angrily at the cameras? The way members of Bernie’s inner-circle exploited the Russian/Wikileaks attacks, and blew innocuous emails wildly out of proportion? The way that prominent members of Bernie’s campaign were, in late October of 2016, urging people to vote third-party?
All of that hurt Democrats in 2016. All of that played directly into Donald Trump’s hands, and helped him make the case that it was “Crooked Hillary,” and not the lifelong con-man she was running against, who simply couldn’t be trusted. And all of that – the broadside attacks on Democrats writ large – has continued to hurt our brand, and our candidates, at every level, to this day.
To be clear, I’m not saying that any of this “cost” us the 2016 Election. There were a lot of insane, unprecedented factors that led to Donald Trump’s victory, and the anti-Hillary, anti-Democrat fervor among a small subset of Berners is low on that list.
But in a razor-thin election, where the alternative was an incredibly dangerous demagogue, Bernie prioritized advancing his own personal agenda – allowing his “revolution” to foment and boil into something quite negative – over the good of the country.
That Never Hillary crowd among Bernie’s supporters was not shy, they were loud, and hostile, and dishonest;
the Wikileaks disinformation campaign was an obvious, active Russian measure to harm our nominee, and damage our country;
those inner-circle Berners were undercutting the Clinton campaign through Election Day on national television;
and yet Bernie declined to use his position, as the leader of his movement, to rein any of that in.
I can forgive decisions that were made in the fog of insanity that was 2016. And it appears that Bernie has, at least to date, grown in his capacity to be a team player this time around, even if there remain some unhealthy elements within his campaign, and some fringe elements of his base.
But Bernie was a lifelong political gadfly – an honorable, important role in any political system – who suddenly found himself with immense power in 2016. And he used that power – the first time he’d ever had that kind of power – in a way that was self-serving, narrow-minded, and ultimately counter-productive. When assessing his candidacy for President, I can’t overlook that reality.
I believe Bernie would be a stronger nominee than the folks I’ve ranked below him on this list, and I believe he has the potential to be a strong, and consequential, President. And if he’s nominated, those are the things – along with the honest-to-God excitement of the Bernie supporters I know and love – that I’ll rally around.
But I to paraphrase Bernie’s own lukewarm tag line about Hillary in the buildup to November, 2016: on his very worst day, Bernie will be an infinitely better president than Donald Trump. On his best day, I think he could be great. Yet there is also no Democratic candidate whose potential presidency unsettles me more.
How Bernie Might Fare in 2020
Downside: As Bernie has risen in the polls of late, there has been a slew of op-eds warning that Americans are simply not ready to hop in bed with a socialist. And that’s a very fair question to ask.
Republicans will portray Bernie as the most dangerous candidate in history: someone who will ruin the economy, take away your health care, drive up the debt, and give away all your money to the poor.
Those arguments will be deeply dishonest (because that’s what Republicans do), and we’re kidding ourselves if Republicans won’t say the same exact shit no matter who the nominee is. But we’re also kidding ourselves if we can’t acknowledge that those attacks will likely resonate significantly more if Bernie – the guy with a whole a lot of real, tangible baggage in the “socialist” bucket – is the nominee.
Moreover, we can argue until we’re blue in the face about Moderation v. Reconfiguration as an electoral strategy, but the reality is we’re probably going to need a little bit of both – and Bernie has not yet shown that he’s got “Moderation” anywhere in his toolbox. Even those among us whose hair is on fire are not necessarily excited about the prospect of a revolution – we just want to restore order, and one risk of a Sanders candidacy is that he’s just promising a different kind of chaos (albeit a much more positive chaos that would, if successful, be good for Americans).
Also, it bears repeating that Bernie Sanders has never faced real, hostile attacks on his record or background, particularly on the scale that he would face in a 2020 general election.
That same Eichenwald piece discusses the massive, “2-feet thick” opposition research packet Republicans have on Bernie. A lot of it demands context, and is surely unfair, but we know that Republicans will not give any shits about fairness. We shouldn’t let that cow us – there is oppo research against every candidate – but we also shouldn’t ignore the fact that, compared to the other more seasoned candidates in this race, Bernie has faced an extraordinarily low level of scrutiny to date.
Upside: While we should be cognizant that Republicans will have material to aggressively attack Bernie in 2020, it’s also important to recognize that Bernie Sanders is, and has been, the most popular, well-liked, candidate in this race from the outset. Hell, I’ve got real, existential reservations about the guy, but I still started this analysis with “I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders!”
There is no question, whatsoever, that Bernie has a passionate base that would crawl through cut glass for him, and as we’ve seen with Donald Trump, that kind of passion within your base can be a force multiplier. To that end, I’m not a big fan of the grievance politics that has taken hold in America these past few years, but Bernie is an expert at harnessing that anger. And if I can hold my nose and applaud Bloomerg’s bank account, I can do the same with Bernie’s campaign style.
Moreover, while the 2020 primary has, to a degree, revealed the limits of Bernie’s base, he has concurrently made real inroads with certain of the demographics – people of color, older voters, lifelong Democrats – that cost him the nomination in 2016. Meanwhile the demographic where the potential for growth in voter participation is greatest – young people – continues to “feel the Bern” in a major way, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Finally, if you’re a firm believer in the Reconfiguration Approach – if you believe that a new, bold message is essential to counteract the insidious, dishonest radicalism of Trumpism – Bernie is your guy.
We’ve been obsessed for the past three years with figuring out the “white working class” – I think that’s a little myopic and shortsighted, but Bernie undeniably has a message that is custom built for targeting those voters. And if it’s successful, and Bernie’s revolution can reach those voters, and cause them to rethink their conventional wisdoms about “politics,” that could be huge for the general election, and for the future of liberal/ progressive politics in those communities.
What “President Sanders” Might Look Like
I understand that many of Bernie’s staunchest supporters admire him for his ideological rigidity, the fact that on many of his core issues, he has never wavered. But for me, the ideal president has a flexible and open mind, a willingness to reshuffle priorities to match his or her times, and I’m truly not sure if Bernie has that capacity.
I fear that Bernie will prioritize purity and dogma over progress; that he’ll quixotically chase Medicare-for-All to the ends of the earth, while ignoring the nitty gritty structural reforms, administrative reconstruction, and dutiful rebuilding that this country so badly needs. In the two areas where I am significantly more liberal – social justice and democracy reform – Bernie is well to the right of me (as well as much of the rest of the primary field), and I worry about what might get lost in the shuffle while Bernie is singularly focused on his issues.
And one of my biggest fears is that rebuilding the liberal world order will not be a priority for President Sanders, that he will be content to accept America’s diminished place in the world and ignore the many fires (literally and figuratively) that the Trump era has created.
Meanwhile, Bernie’s answer, when asked how he’ll deliver on his lofty promises when confronted with this Republican Party, is typically a variation on “the revolution will take hold, and they’ll have no choice but to join us.” To be fair, I’m not sure any Dem has a “good” answer for that, but Bernie’s take is somehow even more fanciful than Joe Biden’s “the fever will break any day now,” and that’s a concern, not least of all because Bernie Sanders, for all his strengths, has never been a consensus-builder.
There’s a good book called “How Democracies Die” that talks about the importance of dueling parties not falling into a dynamic of zero sum, winner-take-all bloodsport. Republicans have shattered our democracy by corrupting every institution, cheating, lying and stealing, all to seize power undemocratically, and to push a radical right-wing agenda.
The next President will need to do yeoman’s work to reverse the damage done, but for our democracy to work long term, he or she must also be cognizant of the danger of creating a downward spiraling, zero-sum cycle. It’s a lot to ask any President to perfectly strike that balance (see Biden, Joe below), but I worry Bernie’s no-compromise attitude could perpetuate our political madness in the long run.
All of that said, I believe Bernie Sanders is a smart, decent man, who has big, bold ideas for how to make life better for the people of the United States, and the potential upside of a Sanders presidency is considerable.
For all the possible downside of Bernie’s no-compromise approach, I could see it yielding real results on policy matters. Indeed, I’ve read whispers in recent weeks that Sanders is intentionally staking out hard-left positions, with the understanding that the further left he plants his flag, the further left the “center” will wind up being. Democrats have been too shy about that approach for too long, and I’d be excited to see a Sanders Administration give it a shot.
Moreover, while my policy priorities are a little different from Bernie’s, I can absolutely dig a universe where the President of the United States takes a big, hearty swing at income inequality and universal health care as his top priorities.
The fact that Bernie has become a leader on climate change – and the way he has linked that issue to his main issues – is just gravy.
Finally, I may disagree by a matter of degrees with a lot of Bernie’s philosophical underpinnings, but his end goals are very much goals that I share. I worry, for example, about his practical approach to world affairs, but his fundamental anti-war beliefs are something I can absolutely get behind.
So while I think there are inherent risks with a Sanders presidency, I think that the potential upside of having a new kind of thinker in the White House – someone who will challenge decades-old conventional wisdom at every turn – is not necessarily a bad thing. My understanding is that that is why so many of my contemporaries are so smitten with Bernie, and if he wins the nomination, despite all my very real reservations, I can work with that.
3. Joe Biden
I think that one significant reason Democrats find themselves so fearful about 2020 – aside from the enormous stakes – is that Joe Biden has been, and remains, the frontrunner, and as much as we might like the guy, we’re just not quite sure he’s up for the task.
I will cop to a level of “ageism” when it comes to the three old men in this race – Bloomberg, Bernie and Biden, all in their late-70s – to a gut-level concern about their basic capacity to do the job which may or may not be fair.
But with Biden, that concern is more specific: we’ve watched this guy for decades, and it is impossible to ignore the reality that the Joe we see today seems a beat or two slower than the force of nature who unbraided Paul Ryan – and may well have saved the 2012 election – eight years ago.
And time and again this primary season, Joe Biden has reminded us that he is a relic of an old type of politics – struggling to navigate our increasingly “woke” culture, clinging to illusions that you can “work across the aisle” with this new, utterly corrupt brand of Republicans – that just doesn’t exist anymore.
Meanwhile, Biden’s past is constantly coming back to haunt him. The man has been in the public eye since the late-1960’s, he rose to national prominence in the 1980’s, and obviously the most recent job on his resume was pretty high profile in its own right.
The problem with this deep, long resume is that the earth has moved now, 6-8 times, under Joe’s feet over the past four decades, leaving him with a record that is pockmarked with votes and positions that – through the picture perfect hindsight of 2020 – look less than great.
This is a challenge every major leader in American history faces: it takes a level of compromise – a level of courage and conviction mixed with calculated, strategic concessions – to govern a big ass unwieldy country like this.
It’s a challenge that defined the race in 2016: Hillary Clinton had been an influential, national leader at the center of national consensus-building for 25 years, and this forced her to be out in front of some policies that made a ton of sense in the 1990s, but not so much in 2016. Bernie, meanwhile, never held any real leadership post or power (prior to late-2016), and this is why he’s been able to stay so “pure” over the years.
My guess is Joe Biden will be able to skate, far more than Hillary, on some of his in-hindsight mistakes (let’s hear it for the Patriarchy, folks!). But the reality is that the breadth of Joe’s experience, the time he spent as a leader in national politics dating back to the 1980’s, will be a problem for him in the primaries, and even more so in the general.
And yet its Joe’s experience – his ability to shift and change and grow when the earth moves under his feat – that’s got him so high on my list. Yes, he’s out of touch, yes, at times he seems to not fully grasp what we’re up against – but he’s hardly alone in that regard.
He is alone in that he’s the only candidate who has been a leader for 40 years, who has seen the ebb and flow of American politics from the highest possible plateau, and who has repeatedly adjusted his priorities and outlook to reflect his best understanding of the American people.
America is in crisis, and even if we defeat Trumpism in 2020, we will find ourselves in a period of extraordinary tumult and change. I don’t believe that Joe Biden has all of the answers, but I believe, deep in my gut, that he’s going to try his damnedest to do the right thing, and that his decades of experience ultimately won’t hurt in that regard.
I think we can do better than Joe Biden, and the final two candidates on my list reflect that. But if you believe the polling, and believe the choice may well come down to the two strong frontrunners (Joe and Bernie), Joe is my choice.
How Joe Might Fare in 2020
Downside: I outlined some of the key problems with a Joe Biden candidacy above: he is quite old, he seems to have slowed down; he can seem hopelessly out of touch with the world, circa 2020.
I do think that the “record” will be Joe’s biggest liability – almost 50 years of public service, plenty of wins and things to be proud of, but plenty of things that don’t look so great with 30 years of hindsight. I think that’s wildly unfair, but, to borrow a Bidenism, “the fact of the matter is folks” that Republicans will exploit Biden’s long and complicated record in ways we can’t imagine.
Joe’s strength in the polls is drawn in large part from Black voters – the backbone of the Democratic Party – and we should not ignore that fact. But the Trumpists will be inundating Facebook with fraudulent news stories about Biden’s “troubled past” with African American voters.
Meanwhile, like virtually every other “moderate” lane candidate in the race, Joe Biden, as our nominee, would have to find ways to reach disaffected hard-left voters. His profile – setting aside the benefits of the Patriarchy – is very similar to Hillary Clinton’s, and that is going to be a difficult pill for a lot of voters on the left to swallow, especially if Joe emerges from a hard primary fight with Bernie as his primary competition.
And while I do think that Joe Biden can more than stand toe to toe with Donald Trump, his propensity for putting his foot in his mouth could be a problem. In a media climate where the smallest Dem controversy gets elevated to equal footing with the Trump’s latest Fifth Avenue shooting, Biden’s lack of discipline could be a real concern.
Finally, Joe Biden is old. Most 77-year-old men would, I suspect, fully acknowledge that they have slowed down considerably, that it’s time to settle into retirement and enjoy the golden years. I don’t question Joe’s passion, his patriotism, or his belief that he can do this job. But with any of the older guard – and especially the three old men – we need to be cognizant that health is an issue, and that a major health scare (or worse) could upend even the best campaign.
Upside: All of that said, the contrast between Joe Biden – honest-to-God man of the people, lifetime civil servant – and Donald Trump is one that I believe we can sell.
I’ve written a lot lately about themes, about a candidate’s raison d’être, and I think Joe Biden has a winning one: he’s in this race because there is a moral crisis in America, and by golly, he’ll fight to his dying breath to fix it.
For those of us following the political news closely, we tend to get bogged down in minute policy arguments, and petty squabbles. But elections are won not with minutia; they’re won with broad, sweeping brushstrokes that speak plainly to the American public at large. The very person of Joe Biden, juxtaposed with Donald Trump, is a broad, sweeping brushstroke for American decency.
Joe has been seen as the “moderate” in this race – the Democrat who would be acceptable to huge swaths of dissatisfied independents and Republicans – since the very start. He will be able to push a decidedly liberal policy agenda (he will be running far to the “left” of Obama on most every issue), and to present it as perfectly reasonable. He will also be able to emphasize and draw distinctions regarding leadership on the world stage – a massive issue that we should not shy away from – in a way that no other Dem candidate can.
Indeed, while I don’t think we should put too much credence in general election polling at this juncture, that polling does consistently show Biden polling well ahead of other Dems in head to heads against Trump.
Finally, we should not ignore the reality that, by a country mile, Joe Biden is the candidate who has best reconstructed the Obama coalition to date. This is almost certainly a result of the top line on Joe’s resume, but again, America broadly isn’t interested in nuance – for many American’s, Obama’s jovial Veep might be just what they’re looking for.
As for disaffected voters in other lanes of the Democratic primary, my hope is that Joe Biden’s charisma, coupled with a demonstrated commitment (via appointments, policy announcements, his VP pick, etc.) to fighting for progressive causes, will go a long way towards uniting the party. Many times over the past few months, I’ve seen folks criticize Joe Biden for some wholly out of touch thing he did 30 years ago, but preface it with “look, I can’t help but like Joe Biden, I know he’s a good guy, but…”
In race against Donald Trump, “I know he’s a good guy, but” could go be a powerful message indeed.
What “President Biden” Might Look Like
My biggest concern with regards to a Biden presidency is that he has repeatedly said things that suggest he does not quite understand what we’re up against.
His repeated assertions that he will be able to wave a magic wand and make Republicans sane again – that there is a fever that just needs to be broken – would ring a little more true if Pres. Obama hadn’t said the same things for years, only to see the GOP madness get worse. I suspect there is a level of politicking involved here – this kind of thing sells, even if it is fanciful b.s. – but it also seems to be Joe’s fall-back position, and that’s worrisome.
To that end, I worry that Joe Biden’s inclination towards moderation – while valuable in some cases – could leave critical work undone in others. We need the next President to move swiftly and aggressively to reclaim the ground that Republicans have shamelessly stolen, and to repair institutions to ensure a fairer, better democracy moving forward.
In that sense, the concern I mentioned above regarding Bernie Sanders is a different side of the same coin with Joe: I fear that Joe will work so hard to avoid a zero sum democracy death spiral, that he’ll lose sight of the need to aggressively – and forcefully if necessary – repair the damage done.
With regards to “policy”, I understand the concerns that Joe is too moderate, and for issues like climate policy and health care, I share them to a degree. But Joe Biden is a decidedly political animal – he understands that, if he’s elected, it will have been the activated progressive base that buttered his bread. My hope – and it is a reasonable hope, given how he’s campaigned to date – is that he will put the right people in charge of pushing for meaningful progress.
President Biden would not deliver everything every one of us is hoping for, but no other potential president would either. What I like about Joe is that I don’t believe he’s the type to allow his own ego, or some ideological orthodoxy, to get in the way of progress, even if that progress is a little less dramatic than some might like. What’s more, I believe that Joe Biden would be a one-term president, I believe that reality would be liberating for him, and I believe that he would want to make the very most of that time.
More than anything though, the reason I would be proud to support Joe Biden, and excited for his presidency, is that I believe we are dramatically underestimating the work that needs to be done on the world stage to repair what Trumpism has wrought. President Biden would be an immediately reassuring and recognizable face for our once-allies (and I, for one, would be cool with him appointing an even more reassuring face – his old boss – as Secretary of State to rebuild our diplomatic corps).
And while other candidates – including my favorite candidate – have been a little squishy about their thoughts on America’s use of power in the world, I expect that Joe Biden has a deep appreciation for the liberal world order, and would do everything he can to preserve it.
The discussion of foreign policy at the Democratic debates has pretty much boiled down to 6-23 candidates saying “no more endless wars!”
I agree, but the “fact of the matter is folks,” is that we are facing an absurd amount of major global crises – the rise of right-wing nationalist fascism, the refugee crisis, the escalation of nuclear proliferation, and oh yeah, climate change, just to name a few – all of which are going to require global solutions.
Joe Biden is the candidate in this race who instinctively believes that American power can make a positive difference in the world, and I value that.
I understand that words like that are scary, given the debacles we’ve seen recently in Iraq. But I promise you that if America doesn’t play an active role in addressing these crises, they are only going to get worse, and they are eventually going to burn us all. I think most of the other candidates in this race – if elected – would come to recognize that reality eventually, but I like that for Joe, that recognition is already baked in.
I believe that a lot of our apprehension regarding our candidates stem from Joe Biden’s status as front runner.
I do not share that fear.
Joe Biden is an immensely experienced public servant, with strong political chops and a personality that people just like. And he would be a very good President.
2. Amy Klobuchar
One of my great frustrations with this primary process has been the way the battle lines have been drawn entirely around the ambitious fiscal policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Because the reality is that there are lot of different ways to chart the where these candidates fall on the political spectrum, and the issue of “centrist v. leftist” is far more complicated and nuanced than the pundits would have us believe.
Personally, I am at my most centrist when it comes to America’s place in the world – this is why Joe Biden, despite his foibles, is near the top of my list. I’m a bit further left when it comes to social justice issues, and an outright radical when it comes to democracy reform.
Yet when it comes to the only spectrum anyone seems to care about – questions of big, nationwide social programs and how we pay for them – I fall somewhere in between the centrists and the leftists, and the candidate who, I suspect, most closely mirrors my thinking, is Amy Klobuchar.
In any campaign, voters tend to impute their own personal opinions upon candidates, and when it comes to “economic policy,” that’s what I’ve done with Amy Klobuchar: I believe – and ergo I tell myself that Amy believes – that big, bold public policy solutions must be the long-term goal, but that a level of incrementalism is essential to making sure those bold ideas are given time to take root, and are built to last the next swing in the political pendulum.
It’s been frustrating to me that Klobuchar has spent so much of this campaign elbowing for space in the “moderate” box – she has always been a staunchly liberal U.S. Senator, and if she performs well enough in early states to stay in the race, I hope she’ll make a real play for the “Democratic middle” mantle.
Because to my mind, Klobuchar really is a sort of Goldilocks candidate, “just right” in terms of a set of center-left beliefs that match the actual “center” of this nation.
One of the things I’ve always loved about her is that all of the most tired, pandering cliches of American politics – “I’m someone who gets things done!”; “I’m just a humble civil servant from the heartland!”; “I know how to work across the aisle” – actually apply to Amy Klobuchar.
She is incredibly smart, driven and ambitious, tough as nails, and while she is not my top choice, I have no doubt, whatsoever, that Amy Klobuchar is up for the job ahead. That’s something I can’t say about any candidate other than my top choice, and that’s why Amy comes in at number 2 on my list.
How Amy Might Fare in 2020
Downside: To my mind, the biggest question mark regarding Amy Klobuchar’s candidacy is: what the hell has gone wrong to date?
There are indications that she may be making a move in Iowa, but it remains to be seen whether that materializes. Up until now though, Klobuchar has struggled to make inroads in public polling, even as she racks up endorsements, even as moderates in the media have tried many times to make an “Amy Moment” happen.
Amy Klobuchar has an unimpeachable record of electoral success in the state of Minnesota, but her struggles to make a discernible dent in the primary race should be a red flag for her appeal outside of the Land O’ 10,000 Lakes. But the good news there is, if Amy does emerge as the nominee, she will have largely answered that concern.
Otherwise, the Klobuchar campaign has struggled, like many others, to connect with voters of color, and Amy will have the same problems as the other “moderates” when it comes to courting the active, hard left. That said, I could see, if she does emerge from a primary, Amy becoming a sort of compromise candidate.
To that end, I have been frustrated by Klobuchar’s fixation on the “moderate” label. I believe there is a lane in the primary somewhere between Bernie and Biden, and I don’t understand why Amy (not to mention a number of other candidates) have not found a way to carve out their own lane around a message of smart, aggressive, positive change.
To my mind, that is the type of comparison we want to be making with Donald Trump – do something good liberalism v. do bad things Trumpism – but too often in the primary debates, Amy has gotten bogged down in what she sees as wrong with her opponents, and lost track of what’s great and positive about her.
I also think that the Klobuchar campaign has struggled to identify a theme, and very much like with Pete, I’m not sure why Amy Klobuchar is running for President. I think Amy’s extensive history of achievement, and quiet, determined liberalism, adds up to its own sort of “brand,” but I also believe it’s going to be important to have a positive, compelling narrative in the general election.
Then there is the “woman” issue. It’s been discussed ad nauseum, and I fall squarely on the side of “you’re goddamn right a woman can win, and what’s more, I think any one of our badass female candidates (excepting Tulsi), will drive Donald Trump into utter madness.”
But Amy Klobuchar shares a lot of features with Hillary Clinton, not least of all her smarts, her ambition, and an extraordinary level of competence and professionalism (which, for whatever reason, seems to drive some folks crazy). It is fair, in times like these, to wonder whether the same structural misogyny that plagued Hillary – impossible double standards, a cultural predisposition to question her authenticity, to be suspicious of her ambitions – would be a problem for Sen. Klobuchar, or for the other badass lady still in the race.
That said, let’s be really fucking clear: women are winning up and down the ballot, and a fight between a woman of Amy Klobuchar’s caliber, and a weak, slovenly wreck of a man like Donald Trump, is a fight that I think we should all be very happy to have in 2020.
Upside: The best case one can make for Amy Klobuchar’s “electability” is that she has, bar none, the best electoral record of anyone in the race. Her victories in Minnesota – 60% or more of the vote, outpacing other Dems by double digits, winning many deep-Red districts – is not just impressive, it is exactly what we’re supposedly looking for as we try to figure out how to connect with “middle America.”
It’s been impossible not to compare Amy to Pete, both because they are vying for similar real estate in the primary, and because every single thing Pete has exaggerated outrageously about his own resume – that he’s a “heartland” candidate, a guy who “gets things done,” a guy who can “win Republicans – is 100% true of Amy Klobuchar.
If you’ve watched Amy Klobuchar unbraid someone in the Senate Judiciary Committee – a potent mix of sugary sweetness, cutting intelligence and, when necessary, a pinch of dripping disdain – you have a fairly good idea of how she’d handle Donald Trump in a debate (although let’s be clear, Donald Trump is likely to whimp out of debates, especially if his opponent is a smart, badass woman).
I do think that, from a policy perspective, Amy Klobuchar is as close to the actual middle of America – liberal on a lot of stuff, but not obnoxious about it, with some quirky conservative tics based on personal experience – as any candidate in the race. I believe that is something we can sell, and that huge swaths of America will buy.
And Amy Klobuchar can point to a history of accomplishment that is unmatched by anyone in the race not named Biden and Warren, but without the baggage and controversy that those two names, rightfully or wrongfully, often inspire. I tend to find it a little grating when a candidate goes on and on about bills they’ve passed, but in Amy’s case, it seems to work, and I think it would be especially effective against a lifelong fuck-up like Donald Trump.
Finally, along those same lines, if Amy Klobuchar were the nominee, she’d be entering the general election as an underdog who overcame some big rock star personalities; she’d be a moderate politician with a liberal background that should appeal to the left; she’d have none of the shallow resume questions that will sink Pete, or the oppo research questions that are an issue for Bernie and Biden; she would be a fresh face, but not too fresh, in American politics; she’d be, in short, a Goldilocks candidate.
It’s wishful thinking to believe their aren’t skeletons in her closet (beyond being mean to her staff), but if we really are looking for a unicorn – a candidate who checks off all the boxes – Amy Klobuchar is probably it.
How a “President Klobuchar” Might Look
The biggest hesitation I have about Amy Klobuchar – the thing that separates her from my No. 1 candidate – is that, to this day, I truly don’t know if she understands what we’re up against.
This is, again, a complaint I could lob at the vast majority of candidates, but with Bernie (myopia), Pete (inexperience) and Joe (trapped in 1973), I can sort of understand why they seem to think that the solution is as simple as “elect me President!”
With Amy – who is so smart, so sophisticated, so open-minded, who has seen the destruction of our institutions, the radicalization of Republicans, first hand, from the Senate floor – the “why” is less clear.
My best guess is that she very much has the mind of a prosecutor, fixated on achieving demonstrable results, with constant blinders up when it comes to the dangerous forrest through the trees. When you cycle through her long list of bills passed, and consider the answers she’s given at recent debates, that does seem to be a theme: Amy Klobuchar is a woman who sees one problem at a time, sets about to fix it, then moves on to the next. I’m honestly not sure if that approach, while terrific for a Senator, makes sense for a President.
Along those same lines, if you go through Klobuchar’s legislative achievements, she has passed some great stuff – targeted public policy that cuts to the heart of issues that need fixing. But there’s not a whole lot of record of her selling those policies; clearly she’s been skilled at bringing her Senate colleagues on board, but she’s never been one to make her case to the American people. And that may be why they tend to be smaller, albeit effective, bites, rather than big, sweeping public policy.
To be clear, I am a fan of small, effective bites, but as President, Amy Klobuchar will need to be able to make her case to the American people, especially when a level of radicalism – like it or not – will be required to fix what is broken here.
All of that said, when I imagine an Amy Klobuchar presidency, it is an unequivocally good dream.
Whatever her approach to attacking problems, Amy Klobuchar has proven to be a remarkably competent Senator over the years, and I am confident that she would quickly address the necessary reconstruction – rebuilding institutions, shoring up our democracy – that is so necessary.
I also believe that President Klobuchar would be a tremendous asset on the world stage, brilliant, professional, and big-hearted, and that the same positive blank slate that might make her appealing to American voters would be a boon internationally. We’re going to need new global coalitions, built on mutual trust, in order to confront our various global crises, and I think Amy Klobuchar has the mind, personality, and drive – especially in the aftermath of Trump – to build those coalitions.
On the homefront, I think the Klobuchar health plan comes up way short in the long term, but in the short term it would do a lot of good, and that is an area where Amy’s prosecutor mindset – solve problem A, then move on to B – could be a real asset.
And for all the bashing Amy did of Medicare for All, she is a lifelong liberal, and I suspect she knows that a shift towards single payer – eventually, cautiously, diplomatically – is the right play for the future. I could absolutely see her laying the groundwork for a more aggressive approach to the health care crisis, building consensus around the concept, and for my money, that is the right approach.
As for the big, existential crisis of our time, Amy is rock solid on climate change, and I would expect her signature first-term achievement to be major climate legislation.
I would also hope that her broad appeal to bi-partisan voters – assuming it carries over, in some way shape or form – to the national level, would be an influential cudgel in dealing with intransigent Republicans. This is likely, to be sure, wishful thinking, but for all the talking Joe Biden does about building bridges, Amy Klobuchar is the person in the race who has had the most success on that front in the past 10 years.
If she can make even small inroads, you’d like to think she can make progress on guns, and immigration, and tax policy – issues that Americans largely agree on, but that are bogged down in our grievance politics.
Finally, I know a woman can beat Donald Trump, and it is long since time that America had a woman president. It would be inspirational, it would send a powerful message to girls everywhere – not to mention to the battered, deranged psyche of American boys (thanks Donald!) – and it would make a dent in the lurching, destructive patriarchy that has loomed over every facet of our human existence since the beginning of time.
More than any of that though, the two remarkable women battling for this nomination are smarter, more accomplished, better leaders, more open-minded and agile in their thinking, and more equipped to handle what comes next, than any of the men they’re running against.
Spare me the horseshit about how this is “identity politics” run amok, about how I want a woman President “just because she’s a woman.”
I want a woman President because this year, the women are clearly, overwhelmingly, the best ones for the job.
Thanks for reading!
If you didn’t get a chance to read Part I of GTFUP.org’s breakdown of the 2020 Dem candidates, please check it out here.
And please circle back soon for the release of the esteemed GTFUP.org 2020 Democratic Primary Endorsement – due sometime in the next 60 hours, hopefully by Sunday…