For those of us who participate in the Hot Stove League of presidential politics or, to switch the metaphor, who await the arrival of our spring planting seed catalogues in mid-winter, it is never too early to estimate the horseflesh that will compete in the Derby (to add a third metaphor to a single opening sentence). My early judgment is that there are many capable Democrats, seasoned by executive or legislative experience, but that none of them have the added oomph of an outsized personality that Trump seems to have made the only qualification for a Presidential nomination or victory, and that may be Trump’s only contribution (if we are so lucky) to American political history. Let us review the tout sheet.
The outstanding personalities in the Democratic Party, at the moment, are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Bernie is too old to make another try at the brass ring and his support could easily go to Warren. Warren is very articulate, can hold her own in any debate, is good at making her opponents look small. But, I hate to say it, she has the inevitable deficit of any woman candidate who has been around long enough to make it up the political ladder to a point where she might be considered for President. Age makes women less attractive while that does not happen to most men, and the voters want their female candidates attractive. Commentators don’t mention that Hillary looked dumpy and fat assed in her pant suits, while Republican politicos went gaga over the fact that Sarah Palin was pre-menopausal and looked good in high heeled shoes.
The other Democratic women candidates suffer from the same deficiency as Hillary did. Patty Murray is an extremely able legislator who has negotiated large budget deals with the Republicans. She is left of center on issues, though her state, Washington State, is not in play, and so doesn’t have to be won over to the Democratic side by choosing her as the standard bearer of the party. Senator Claire Mccaskill of Missouri is sharp tongued, and an astute analyst of budgets, and knows how to throw her elbows in an election campaign, as she demonstrated when she defeated the arch-conservative Todd Akin by using ads to help him get the Republican nomination. But although both of these women are pleasant enough looking, especially, of course, to the people who know them, they are no great beauties but just women of a certain age. I am not justifying a prejudice against them, only noting that it has not yet given way, while we sometimes and to an extent look past the fact that candidates are black or gay. Maybe we can get past looking at women’s looks but we are not there yet.
Women who have served in the cabinet of Democratic Presidents don’t seem to have caught fire as personalities. That goes for Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor, and Samantha Powers, Obama’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Remember when Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s Ambassador to the UN, and Condi Rice, George W. Bush’s second Secretary of State, regularly got mentioned in a roundup of who might move up to elective office? These were more than token mentions. Elizabeth Dole, a Senator who had previously been Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Transportation, even briefly threw her hat in the ring for the Republican nomination for President in 2000, but then again, she looked like a beauty queen, if you like that type of look. But the move from appointive to elective office, never very likely, certainly doesn’t look to be in the cards next time around.
Now, for the male Democrats. Governor Andrew Cuomo would seem to have the inside track. He has adopted Bernie’s education policy for New York State, making the City and State Universities tuition free for people of middle class or lower family incomes. He is big on encouraging jobs in upstate New York, which is something Hillary also did as a United States Senator. Cuomo is adroit at manipulating a very contentious state legislature as well as putting the nose of the New York City mayor out of joint, which is what Governors of New York State always try to do, and so would seem very well qualified to be a slightly left of center Democratic candidate for President, but he is not nearly as articulate or visionary as was his father Mario, the still fabled Hamlet on the Hudson, who might have given Bill Clinton a run for his money in 1992 had he desired to take the plunge.
And who else is there? There is Senator Tim Kaine, the former Vice Presidential candidate, and Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, both sensible sounding and approachable people, for what that will get you. Sensible is not how you would characterize the policy positions or the characters of almost all of the Republicans who were up there on the stage in 2015 and 2016 for too many primary debate performances. Governor Kasich seemed to be running on the fact that he seemed to be a real human being and on that alone. And waiting in the wings of the Democratic Party for their time to come are one or the other of the two Castro brothers, both of whom sound like serious people. But, then again, I thought the same of Harold Ford, Jr., who is now doing duty as part of the panel on “Morning Joe”, his own hopes to be a Black Senator from Tennessee having flamed out, and so moving to New York City to be an investment banker. That will show them. It takes a lot to go from the category of “promising” to the category of “star”. Only Barack Obama made the transition from one to the other seem easy. Corey Booker is also biding his time, perhaps because it is too early for another Black candidate for President. So the Democrats can be proud of the fact that they have so many good public servants to field, but it is unclear that any of them can catch fire. But, as I say, it is very early.