While there are some Democrats who know exactly whom they’re going to support in the 2020 primaries, for most it’s a difficult decision they haven’t yet resolved, and one getting more difficult all the time as more candidates enter the race. I’d like to complicate that decision even further by suggesting that one of the most important considerations is being largely ignored.
But before we get to that, here’s the latest (probable) entry into the race:
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota signaled on Tuesday she could become the next Democrat to enter the presidential contest, teasing a major announcement on Sunday in Minneapolis.
“Come to Boom Island in Minnesota ... and you’ll find out,” she told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. “Then you’ll find out my decision.”
She didn’t offer further details about whether the event would serve as a formal campaign launch.
Presumably she wouldn’t be hyping a big announcement if the announcement is that she isn’t running. Meanwhile…
Beto O’Rourke crept to the edge of announcing a presidential bid [in New York] during an interview with Oprah Winfrey on Tuesday afternoon, saying that he was leaning toward a run and would make a final decision by the end of the month.
In a theater in Times Square — and sandwiched in a program that started with actor Michael B. Jordan and ended with actor-director Bradley Cooper — the former Texas congressman outlined the case for a Democratic candidate who could knit together a divided country and dropped hint after hint that he believes that candidate should be him.
Klobuchar and O’Rourke are two very different candidates, but you can make an electability argument for either of them. Klobuchar is from the Midwest, she has a strong resume, and even conservatives seem to like her despite her progressive record (George Will recently wrote a column extolling her virtues). O’Rourke is young and charismatic, and showed himself able to garner grassroots support when he nearly beat the reviled Ted Cruz last November.
The problem with judging candidates on electability is not just that we tend to be bad at it, but also that it means that instead of asking who you like, you’re asking who you think other people will like. Go too far down that road and you wind up with a nominee no one is too enthusiastic about. On the other hand, when parties nominate candidates who make their base excited, even if they don’t look electable at the outset, they have a better chance of winning. That’s how we got President Barack Obama. And also how we got President Trump.
But here's my real complaint: What if instead of just asking what kind of candidate each contender will be, we asked what kind of president they'd be?
The fact that I even have to suggest this shows how distorted the discussion of the campaign is. I don't mean to say that Democrats shouldn't spend time thinking about which candidate would have the best chance of beating Trump; that will always be something the opposition party is justifiably worried about. But it seems like 90 percent of our discussion of the candidates is about their campaign strengths and weaknesses, with only occasional thought given to what they would actually be like in the Oval Office.
I don’t mean to pick on O’Rourke, who seems like a perfectly fine fellow, but let’s use him as an example. Democrats loved his campaign last year for the energy, charisma and proud progressivism he showed. But take a moment to imagine him as president. What do you see? How is his presidency different from that of the other Democrats?
I’ll admit that I have trouble picturing it at all. O’Rourke was a relatively ordinary congressman before he ran for Senate. He hasn’t held an executive job such as mayor or governor that would give us hints of his governing style. I don’t know what his top priorities are or how he’d go about achieving them. That isn’t to say he wouldn’t be good at being president, just that it’s hard to tell.
I’m not arguing that what sort of president a candidate would turn out to be should be the only question a voter asks, because it’s so difficult to know for sure with any of them. Obama didn’t have any executive experience either, and whether you disagree with the decisions he made, he was extremely good at the job. In hindsight, you could point to some of the features of his personality that made that possible, but it wasn’t obvious in 2007.
And, of course, Democrats have a history of nominating experienced, competent, serious people who would have been excellent presidents but never got the chance because their campaign skills weren’t as impressive. Thinking only about how they’ll perform in office tends to get you nominees such as Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.
But if nothing else, at least it's an area we should explore. How does Kamala Harris make decisions? What sort of principles would guide Elizabeth Warren's approach to foreign policy? How aggressive does Cory Booker think the next Democratic president should be in rolling back the regulatory legacy of the Trump administration? How would Kirsten Gillibrand deal with Republican obstructionism in Congress?
You might say, “I don’t really care. All I want is to get Trump out of office.” Which isn’t unreasonable. But we have an entire year before the primaries even begin. There’s ample time to ask questions about both.