First, nonwhite voters get to decide for themselves who they trust on issues of race; women get to judge who they trust on treatment of women in the workplace. The mind-set that two lily-white states get to crown a front-runner simply because they vote first, whether intentional or not, deprives the vast majority of nonwhite Democrats a say in the outcome. The assumption that African American voters in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday or Hispanic voters in Nevada, California and Texas are devoid of power to shape the outcome of the race is wrong. Voters need not take seriously the political chatter about the status of the race (“front-runner”) or the false certitude with which prognosticators determine the outcome of a race not yet begun in earnest. We do not know how this will turn out because the most important groups in the Democratic coalition have yet to weigh in. Period.
Second, actions count more than words. No Democratic contender peddles in racism, xenophobia, misogyny or other forms of bigotry. None tries to normalize such views. However, it is necessary to judge candidates not only on what they say now and what they plan to do in the future, but also on what they have done consistently over the course of their careers. Have they promoted inclusion and diversity, recognized systemic bias and tried to eradicate it? Candidates should be judged not simply for what they did not do (e.g. eliminate racism in our criminal justice system), but what they have affirmatively done to foster equality. A lack of a record with minority voters can be as debilitating as a checkered past.
Third, context is important. When assessing, for example, votes on the 1994 crime bill, it is important to acknowledge that its primary author, then-Sen. Joe Biden, and supporters, including then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, were on the same side as the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus. Sanders in a CNN interview last year took responsibility for his vote:
The Vermont senator running for the Democratic nomination said the bill had a ban on assault weapons and a provision that addressed violence against women, which he said he had campaigned on in 1988 and 1990. In a large bill, he said, with “many features in it, many provisions in it, you have to make a choice.”In 1994, Sanders made a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives raising concerns about the bill and mass incarceration. He said, "We are dooming today tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime and violence.”Sanders told [Jake] Tapper ... since then, “I’ve been doing my best helping to lead the effort for real criminal justice reform, so that we end the disgrace of having more people in jail than any other country.” Sanders said he has also helped lead the effort against the “terrible war on drugs.”
Do we put Sanders in the same category as lawmakers who supported the 1994 bill, refused to recognize its impact on mass incarceration and have opposed criminal justice reform? That would seem churlish. Candidates who do not recognize in hindsight that they made errors should be viewed with skepticism. We already have a president who behaves like he never made a mistake.
Fourth, more recent conduct and rhetoric counts for more than older conduct and rhetoric. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg will have to account for his conduct, rhetoric and toxic corporate culture toward women in the 1990s. (The Post published a report this week on “thousands of pages of court documents, depositions obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with witnesses,” documenting eye-popping allegations, but also found, “a number of the cases have either been settled, dismissed in Bloomberg’s favor or closed because of a failure of the plaintiff to meet filing deadlines. The cases do not involve accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct; the allegations have centered around what Bloomberg has said and about the workplace culture he fostered.”)
If Bloomberg fails to address this history, acknowledge his responsibility as an executive and apologize for his conduct, voters certainly may conclude he has not learned from the past or changed. By the same token, his record as New York mayor over three terms — his hiring and treatment of women, his policies toward women, his public rhetoric — are arguably more reflective of how he thinks now and how he would behave in office. Likewise, his record on stop-and-frisk and his self-reported conversion on the issue will be critical issues for him.
Finally, how a candidate runs his or her campaign matters. Sanders has ignored and minimized the abusive conduct of his supporters, much of it in the form of egregiously misogynistic online attacks, and continued to employ aides who behave in ways no other candidate would tolerate. That is a serious concern, reflecting his willingness to take responsibility for and manage a large operation. If he tolerates such conduct and employs these kinds of people now, voters should not expect he will behave any differently if elected. By contrast, candidates who have diverse, inclusive campaigns and foster a respectful tone should get credit. That’s a strong indication of how they would govern.
Issues of gender and race are at the center of our politics and are legitimate concerns for Democratic voters. But they should not paralyze voters nor lead them to conclude no one is an acceptable standard-bearer. They are not searching for the perfect candidate, only one capable of beating Trump. The good news is that several of the current contenders are capable of that.