The conventional wisdom is that political parties try to correct the mistakes they have made the last time or two around. So the Democrats didn’t want to nominate another clearly Liberal and Northern candidate after Mondale and Dukakis were defeated and so turned to Bill Clinton, a Southern Centrist who might pick up some of the states that had gone to Jimmy Carter, who was from Georgia. And so the Republicans, in 2020, will alter their primary structure so as not to let the nomination go to a crazy, by then having been saved by Robert Mueller from having to renominate Trump. Democrats, for their part, are going to look for a candidate with a little more personal oomph than they got from Hillary Clinton, who they blame for having lost the race, though we still do not know whether that was the result of of Comey or Russian interference. Remember that her margin over Trump went up after each of the three presidential debates. Those who tuned in knew who was and who wasn’t Presidential.
But the conventional wisdom is wrong if you are up against cultural forces that are almost intractable, few candidates knowing how to counter them. That is the case with campaign rhetoric which has remained remarkably constant in tieing down candidates from the moment they enter the race because they do not know how to escape it ever since the modern age of television campaigning began with, let us say, Richard Nixon in 1968, before which it was alright to give stiff and labored speeches of the sort that most statesmen, such as Eisenhower and Johnson, did. The exceptions have been Jack Kennedy who exuded charm and class, Obama, who did the same, and Donald Trump, who broke the mold by being just as tasteless as he really was and so struck the public as being the real goods, even if he wasn’t-- and he only won by a fluke. Candidates usually get caught up in the platitudes of campaigning and don’t know how to make themselves sound fresh. Think of Huntsman in 2016 as an object lesson. He could have disagreed with all the other Republican candidates on the platform they shared at one of the primary debates and said that he would trade some spending for a lot of tax cuts, which is what any sensible business man out for a deal would do, but instead he went along with every other candidate in opposing spending raises of any amount. He later said he had muffed the opportunity but I think he did more than that. He had given up a dramatic chance at showing how he was different from run of the mill politicians as well as such not run of the mill politicians as Donald Trump and so ruined his chance of creating a distinctive candidacy. Why does that happen?
I am reminded of this by the early appearances of candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination on Sunday talk shows. That is the place they first get a chance to identify themselves even if they have had previous public careers because now they are being evaluated in a new light and press coverage is so precious that they have to very quickly identify their brand, what they are like as people and what policies they favor, just as any new product being advertised has to say immediately what makes it different from its competitors, what makes it “best”. There is considerable pressure on all the candidates as soon as each of them decide to break out of the gate. Their free television time will be seriously limited. They will all be given courtesy interviews at the time of their announcement, and after that they will have to earn on-air time by saying something noteworthy, all subsequent appearances already compromised by the fact that they are known seekers after the nomination, and so everything they say is to be treated with caution. How do you break through the shroud of distrust?
Kirsten Gillibrand appeared on “This Week” two Sundays ago and trotted out a cliche as her campaign motto: “I will fight for children the way I will fight for my children”. An emptier motto I can hardly think of. It has no content. What issue concerning children particularly interests you? Gillibrand did identify with health care, which is safe enough because every Democrat on the campaign trail in the Midterms campaigned on that. Then she got on trickier ground. She said she had changed her mind on a number of issues since she became a Senator for twenty million people rather than for a rural upstate New York district. So was opportunism what she offered as her excuse for changing her mind? Malcolm X at least offered up the idea that he changed his mind on whether white people were the enemy because of the religious experience of a pilgrimage to Mecca. Big changes require big explanations. And then Gillibrand said that Al Franken had decided to resign, neglecting the fact that she and other female senators had gone to Chuck Schumer demanding that he resign rather than continue to insist on an expedited hearing before the Senate Ethics Committee. Gillibrand is just flimflam.
A candidacy with an even more remote chance of success is that of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has to live down her very strongly anti-LGBTQ past by claiming that it was the result of growing up in a very conservative family. So what else will she now or in the future have to disown? Maybe it is unfair to question people about their pasts but it is difficult to avoid doing that when, in the present, candidates will stick to the platitudes. What is Gabbard in favor of? She says she will fight for peace. That remark befits a beauty queen, not a candidate for President.
I am afraid that this same penchant for platitudes obscures the merits of even first line candidates in the Democratic primaries. Elizabeth Warren is intelligent and articulate but she doesn’t even try to get beyond the issue that brought her to fame: a populist criticism of the people who have enough money to buy influence. Whatever the merits of her lashing out at the one-percent, she never gets down to cases and explains how you can abridge the constitutional right of people to petition to relieve their grievances, which means that lobbyists are every much as constitutionally protected a category as are journalists. Baiting rich people is her thing, and she keeps repeating that. She shows no interest in foreign policy. It is the media’s fault, however, that they go back time and again to Donald Trump using “Pocahontas” as a pejorative nickname for her. Why keep repeating it? Or else, she and the media could turn the term into a honorific, just the way the Colonists did with “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. So she too is stuck with her brand, and that has to turn into straightjacket rather than as a way to reach out to achieve nation wide appeal.
Then there is Kamala Harris who is intelligent and charming and attractive. (Dare I say that? Being attractive may help a female candidate get votes, whether we think that is ‘proper” or not.) She has the brains to ask tough questions though she didn’t do much of that at the Barr confirmation hearing. But she has already wrapped herself in a cloak that will deaden her impact. She announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Day, which may be important to her but does not make her a candidate bent on reaching out to the whole nation, and she embraced as her motto as sleep inducing a motto as any: “Let’s do this together: for ourselves, for our children, for our country.” There is no substance when you lead off with the children. Does that mean gun control measures to prevent Sandy Hook are her first priority? If not, why mention children?
Corey Booker will work hard not to run as a black candidate, while Julian Castro, who is quiet, measured and appealing, can run as a Hispanic candidate, very much like Jimmy Smits in the last season of the very prophetic “West Wing”. Castro’s problem is that he is forthright on the issues and has accepted the new Progressive Democrat consensus. He is against the wall; he is in favor of Medicare for All; he wants a big increase in marginal tax rates for the rich. So how does he separate himself from other Progressive Liberals? Either a Progressive Democrat will take the nomination or else it will be a Centrist, like Bloomberg or Biden (both of them rather old). Now, I doubt whether Medicare for All should be the litmus test for a nominee, given that there are a number of other solutions for how to extend health care, such as by opening up Medicare for buy-ins by people who are 55 or more. I don’t think that health care will be the key divide between the candidates. Voters will choose who to support and then accept whatever is the candidate’s position on the issues. The key choice will be on personality, and why not, given that we don’t know what foreign policy issue the next President might face. Every one of the candidates will be out there trying to sell their charm.
My early favorite is Sherrod Brown, who seems a sensible person and whose website is straightforward on the issues in a way I like: he wants to pursue an internationalist foreign policy though, like many people who identify with the union movement, he opposes the Trans Pacific Pact and other trade deals about which Hillary went back and forth. He supports the Obama agenda, such as the Affordable Care Act and, and in this is in keeping with most Progressive Democrats, who want to build on Obama. Brown’s drawback is that he is a white male and his cloak is that of an old time Labor progressive like Walter Reuther. It will be interesting if he can revive the union man as a hero. Stay tuned.
What really successful politicians learn is that they are not selling policies; they are selling themselves. That was true of FDR, who was an aristocrat with the common touch rather than someone who spouted the New Deal which hadn’t been invented yet in his first campaign. Barack Obama sold his charm more than his experience or his programs and Trump sold his lack of charm as just the sort of thing voters might like. Enough of the voters bought that, for a time. The same people who gave Trump all that air-time because he was so outrageous, the journalists and their producers and editors, will determine who catches fire this time. They just have to play a few more stories about one rather than the others and that will determine Iowa and New Hampshire. We are off to the same old races.