In ordinary circumstances I would not force upon you any wasteful speculation about the presidential ambitions of Michael Avenatti, but in a Time magazine profile out Thursday he said something that raises a number of interesting issues about American politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular. It’s getting plenty of criticism, which is perhaps only partially fair, but what some may not realize is that this is in fact a topic of intense discussion among Democrats. Here’s the key excerpt:
A run for President would thrust Avenatti into the middle of the party’s identity crisis. The Democrats have not been this powerless since the 1920s, and their members have responded by nominating a historic number of women and people of color for office. But when it comes to the party’s presidential nominee in 2020, Avenatti thinks in different terms. “I think it better be a white male,” he says. He hastens to add that he wishes it weren’t so, but it’s undeniable that people listen to white men more than they do others; it’s why he’s been successful representing [Stormy] Daniels and immigrant mothers, he says. “When you have a white male making the arguments, they carry more weight,” he says. “Should they carry more weight? Absolutely not. But do they? Yes.”
In order to give Avenatti the benefit of the doubt — self-serving as his point might be — I’d note that there are extremely liberal people saying something to this effect in private, not about “making arguments” but about running for president. Leading up to the 2016 election, just about the only people predicting that Donald Trump would win were African Americans warning that the rest of us were underestimating the power of white nationalism, and a few feminists such as my friend Adele Stan, who argued that misogyny against Hillary Clinton was a force that would not be denied.
In the days since, I’ve heard some of the most progressive people I know say with resigned sadness that Democrats should just nominate a white guy for the next election or two until enough of the old racists and sexists die off.
The first rejoinder to that position is that Democrats are the party of a diverse America and need to embrace it. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Hillary Clinton’s voters were women, and 40 percent were nonwhite. (In contrast, only 12 percent of Trump’s voters weren’t white.) You can see the 2016 election as the last gasp of a white electorate that is fighting a losing battle against history and demography; 2018, with its extraordinary numbers of female and minority Democrats running and winning office, shows us what the future is going to be like.
The second rejoinder to that position is two words: Barack Obama. The country did in fact elect not just a black man but a black man whose middle name is Hussein. And he got elected twice with a majority of votes, something that only one other president (Ronald Reagan) in the past half-century accomplished. That’s not a complete answer to what Democrats should do in 2020, though, because Obama is one of the great political talents in American history, a figure of unusual charisma and strategic acumen.
Let’s keep Obama in the back of our heads as we think about other possible candidates and the kind of challenges they’d face. On a surface level, Avenatti is certainly right that white men in politics begin with advantages that women and people of color don’t have. They’re assumed to be sufficiently experienced and competent, regardless of whether they actually are. Think about it: Could a woman or African American (or both) who had never worked a day in politics or government, no matter how much of a celebrity she was, be considered a serious candidate for president as Trump was? Not on your life.
And of course, that candidate would have to deal with a whole bunch of hatred that Trump would undoubtedly put at the center of his campaign against her, just as he did against Clinton. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued, Trump is “the first white president” in that he was the first to make whiteness the foundation of his candidacy for the White House. Others didn’t have to, and John McCain and Mitt Romney chose not to when they ran against Obama. You could say by the same token that Trump’s run against Clinton was a male one, so much so that he was caught on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity and he still won.
We don’t know the specifics of the attacks Trump’s 2020 opponent will be subjected to, but there’s an assumption, spoken or not, that whatever they are, they’ll be worse — both harsher and more effective — if that candidate is a woman or a person of color. In any internal debate among Democrats about what course to take in policy or politics, the warning “If we do that, Republicans will attack us!” is almost always raised by someone. Being the victim of Republican attacks, and then watching as the rage they manage to inspire leads to your defeat, is part of the experience of being a Democrat.
Which is another reason Obama was so different. One of the most inspiring things about Obama was the way he never seemed afraid of how the other side would criticize him. That was particularly true coming as he did after a series of Democrats (Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry) who always seemed to be flinching away from the next Republican blow. To take just one example, when people said that Clinton smoked pot as a young man, he claimed that he did but he didn’t inhale, a justification that deserved all the mockery it received. When Obama was asked about his youthful pot-smoking, he said, “When I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently. That was the point.” In the end, the volume of sewage thrown at Obama was monumental — and he overcame it all, twice.
I thought about that as I watched the recent discussion over Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s heritage, and how many Democrats responded by saying that she committed a monumental screw-up by taking Trump’s bait and having a DNA test done to determine that she does indeed have Native American ancestry. Some have even said that her chances of becoming president are now zilch. But Obama rode through much more intense controversies — over his pastor, over his acquaintances and, of course, over his birthplace. Every candidate faces controversies; the good ones win anyway.
Though Warren has some enormous talents — probably no one in either party is better at taking on complex issues and talking about them in ways that make clear their effects on the lives of ordinary people — you can never tell what kind of presidential candidate someone will be until they get tossed in that cauldron. One thing you can say for Warren is that she doesn’t seem particularly afraid of the GOP.
And that may be one of the keys to this whole question. Yes, there are advantages a generic white male Democrat might have in a general election. But there are no generic candidates. There is a group of very specific people who are going to run for president, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. If the process works right, the most capable candidate — meaning the one who can overcome the hurdles placed in front of her and the brickbats thrown her way — will get the nomination.