Democrats are understandably eager to have the best possible champion — an “ideal” candidate — to take on President Trump in 2020. But that urge is producing an unhealthy desire to rule out some candidates before the race has even begun. Here’s a radical concept: Instead of having gatekeepers tell voters what they don’t want in 2020, perhaps we should wait and see what the voters do want after the candidates hit the trail.
Since the midterm elections, the biggest thrust has been against some of the older potential candidates: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Reporters for the Wall Street Journal said they “called all 99 Iowa Democratic county chairs” and were told “the party must nominate a 2020 candidate who is young.” (Never mind that this was, in fact, the view of only 43 of the chairs). Vanity Fair piled on, suggesting that Democrats face a “generational reckoning” in 2020. Is the Democratic Party “done” with its most visible presidential prospects?
If so, no one has bothered to tell Democratic voters that. At least one of the latest polls of the people who will actually pick the 2020 nominee shows that Biden and Sanders are overwhelmingly preferred by millennials, jointly taking a larger share of these younger voters (53 percent) than of the electorate as a whole (45 percent). Other polls have found similar results.
But that hasn’t stopped the critics. Most recently, the New York Times’s Frank Bruni argued that while Biden is “impeccably qualified,” such a candidacy did not “work out” for Hillary Clinton and should not be tried again. Beyond the obvious fact that Biden and Clinton are not the same person, this argument is flawed in three respects.
First, Clinton won more votes than Trump and nearly won the electoral college (even with Russian interference and James B. Comey’s infamous letter); while no Democrat should repeat her 2016 campaign, her path to nearly 66 million votes should not be fully discarded, either. Second, there’s no reason to believe that Clinton’s experience cost her votes in 2016 — and, indeed, there’s ample evidence that it helped her get as many votes as she did. And most important, even if voters did undervalue governing skill in 2016 (taking it for granted after eight years of President Barack Obama), experienced leadership could be precisely what voters are looking for after four years of Trumpian chaos.
The attacks on Warren are similarly absurd. Her hometown paper, the Boston Globe, called on her to stay out of the presidential race because she is “divisive” — a bizarre position from a paper that ran a report describing her as “popular at home and beyond” six months ago and urged her to run for president in the last campaign. Even the Trump-loving Rasmussen poll shows that Warren would beat Trump head-to-head.
The idea that Biden, Sanders and Warren lack appeal to younger voters is ridiculous. Biden — my former boss and personal favorite for 2020 — has devoted his career to actually fighting for the struggling young workers for whom Trump offers only hate-filled appeals. (Disclosure: I have been a longtime adviser and ally to Biden, and have provided informal advice to other potential Democratic 2020 candidates.) Sanders inspires and rallies younger voters with idealism and reform — qualities I saw quite clearly when I was on the other side in the 2016 primaries. And there is perhaps no one who has developed as many impressive ideas to tackle millennials’ worries about corporate power and corruption as Warren.
The idea that Democrats must find a certain type of candidate — young and charismatic, more potential than experience — in order to run “the next Obama” ignores the reality of the 2008 campaign. For while Obama’s youth and oratorical skill were critical early, he won that race in the wake of the financial collapse of late September 2008: when John McCain seemed unsteady and political in responding to the crash, and Obama was stable, somber and sagacious. Thus, it was ultimately Obama’s preternatural calm-in-a-crisis and wisdom beyond his years that were his key qualities by Election Day. And it was Democrats’ willingness to defy conventional wisdom and nominate a self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” because he was the best candidate for the job — that made the 2008 campaign so inspiring.
To be clear: The fact that critics are wrong to try to preempt Biden, Sanders or Warren from getting in the race does not mean the nomination should go to one of them. “New face” candidates have something important to bring to the contest, and one of them may ultimately emerge as victorious — perhaps one might even be the best candidate. But that should be for the voters, not the pundits, to decide via the “hero’s quest” that is the presidential primary process: a difficult journey of advances and setbacks to see who is “most worthy.” The man or woman who can triumph in that ordeal — not one who fits some set of preselected qualities — should be the Democrats’ champion in the battle that will be the 2020 general election.