With the exception of Ronald Reagan, the modern Republican Party establishment was never as bold, failing to look past “who’s next” in line, while often reducing its presidential nomination to either coronation (“he can win”) or consolation (“he lost last time”).
The political parties have now swapped roles.
Candidate Trump showed that so-called electability is no match for electricity and a relentless focus on the electoral college. “You can’t win” — and later, “she can’t lose” — were the common refrains in 2016. Yet the unorthodox Trump candidacy produced massive crowds, ubiquitous media coverage and a center-stage spot at the first debate that the candidate retained until all 16 other Republican candidates were gone from the race. In the general election, candidate Trump’s willingness to campaign in areas that had been elusive for Republican presidential candidates, and thus written off by many of their establishment consultants, made the difference.
Seeking to become the first U.S. president to never have held either elective office or military service, he assumed the outsider’s mantel and took his case directly to the people. He owned “energy” and fresh ideas, and turned the “experience” of his opponent into a liability. Hillary Clinton was what was wrong with Washington’s definition of power; polls showed people didn’t trust her. In Trump, the outsiders finally got an insider.
Four years later, Democratic candidates, party leaders and primary voters have been seduced into the trap of focusing on electability. Multiple polls show that Democrats value “beating Donald Trump” above all else.
In a CNN poll this month, 57 percent of Democrats said it is more important to nominate a candidate who can defeat Trump than choosing one who agrees with them on the issues. Former vice president Joe Biden leads the field on electability: 45 percent say Biden has the best chance to beat Trump. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is a distant second at 24 percent. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg recently said he might spend $1 billion to “get rid of Donald Trump” and that, $200 million in, he has a “reasonable chance” of doing so. (Polling suggests otherwise.)
In fact, if Democrats were serious about electability, they’d nominate the guy who actually won primary contests and proved he can play David to Goliath in key places four short years ago. Sanders bested Clinton in 22 states in 2016, including battlegrounds such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, while earning more than 13 million votes and 1,800 delegates.
Now, with the first caucuses and primaries just weeks away, Sanders is showing strength in the polls and in fundraising, having outraised Biden last quarter, having taken the lead from Biden for the first time, and having outlasted candidates who were media darlings and more in the mold of “transformative” and “historic.”
The Democratic Party fancies itself as inclusive, unafraid to promote unconventional nominees or to tackle issues of the day. Yet the myopic question of “who can win” against the incumbent has already resulted in the withdrawal, before a single vote has been cast, of the following actual presidential candidates: two black senators, one female and one male; a female U.S. senator running on “women’s empowerment”; a Hispanic former Cabinet secretary; a two-term governor running on climate change; a two-term governor from a swing state; and a congressman in his 30s running on gun control. In the top ranks, only a bunch of white people and billionaires remain. “Woke” is broke.
“Only I can beat Donald Trump,” Biden crows off of a cue card, even as he confuses Iowa with Ohio and lies about his past positions on the Iraq War and whether to kill Osama bin Laden. Biden lacks electricity, but owns “electability.” Democratic voters are buying it, despite his shortcomings and the humiliating snub by the president he served. Barack Obama last month offered up an end-of-the-year endorsement list. It included books and movies — but not Biden.
Jill Biden, too, whistles right past policy debate and into the heart of electability while campaigning for her husband. “Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care, than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election,” she said last year. “And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘Okay, I personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.” In Iowa this month, where a poll showed Joe Biden in fourth place there Jill Biden nonetheless insisted that only her husband can beat Trump in the fall, that the other Democrat candidates are unelectable and should be appointed “secretary of whatever” instead.
The electability pitch may seem rational, but it is neither philosophical nor inspirational. It is also not provable. There is no true evidence that someone can or cannot win until they do or do not win. In one CNN poll in August 2007, Clinton trounced Obama in electability. She went on to be a two-time presidential loser; he, a two-term president.