It seems that this year’s candidates, having gone to great oratorical lengths to outdo one another when it comes to being the most woke in the bunch, have concluded that their own party — a party whose chairman, by the way, is Latino, and whose last successful nominee was African American — is itself the instrument of racial oppression.
That’s one way to look at it. Another is that, in their zeal to root out racial injustice, Democrats are actually mistaking progress for prejudice.
I’ll be the first to stipulate that the party’s criteria for allowing candidates to debate are boneheaded and not terribly democratic (small “d”) in spirit. If you’re going to choose your field based on polling and fundraising data, turning presidential politics into a fantasy football league, then you should create a third metric to recognize service in statewide or federal office.
It’s insane to create a process where voters get the chance to hear from billionaire Tom Steyer, who talks like an audible encyclopedia of every political cliche from the past 20 years, but not from the likes of Patrick or Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), who’ve actually won multiple elections and governed. Especially when you hold yourself out as the party that values public service.
But shallow and arbitrary as that process may be, it’s hard to see how it’s been any shallower or more arbitrary for candidates of color than for anyone else. It certainly wasn’t any kinder to John Hickenlooper or Beto O’Rourke (you remember: tall guy, big teeth, breaks into Spanish for no reason) than it was to Booker or Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
No, the whiteness of the debate field isn’t telling us that the process is somehow stacked against other candidates. What it’s telling us is that simply being nonwhite isn’t enough to propel your candidacy anymore.
When Barack Obama ran in 2008 on a theme of “hope and change,” identity was the thing that made him possible. Obama’s governing philosophy was as squishy then as it remained for most of his presidency; what mattered to his supporters was that he embodied a turning of the page, racially and generationally.
So naturally a bunch of this year’s candidates seemed to think they could re-create that magic by putting identity front and center.
Harris made race the theme of the first debate, jumping at the chance to lecture Joe Biden on busing. Except it turned out that Harris didn’t really have anything new to say on the issue — or any issue, really — and she squandered huge crowds and fawning coverage in about two weeks.
Former housing secretary Julián Castro talked endlessly about growing up Latino in Texas, but his actual plan on immigration was too extreme to be taken seriously. Booker has long been an inspiring figure in his party, but his campaign left you wondering what it was he’d inspire anyone to do.
On the contrary, I could offer you a one-sentence argument for every candidate who made the debate stage in Iowa this week. I might not agree with them, but at least I know what they’re about.
I’m not saying candidates such as Harris, Castro and Booker didn’t have the experience or the intellectual heft to advance a more thoughtful idea for how to govern. They just didn’t seem to think it mattered very much.
And after Obama, just showing up and offering to break barriers are not enough. Voters now tend to see nonwhite candidates as candidates, period. That’s a step forward.
In fact, the most damaging thing about this posturing over debates is that the candidates who complained have advanced an oddly retro idea of social justice. They’ve argued that fairness is defined not by equality of opportunity, but by equality of outcomes — something the last two Democratic nominees explicitly rejected.
They’re saying that there ought to be a place onstage for a candidate who diversifies the field, whether that candidate has been disadvantaged in any way or not.
That’s not the way most American voters — white, black or otherwise — think about racial equity. And if you want to lose another election, it’s not a bad place to start.
Correction: An earlier version of this column failed to include Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) among the nonwhite candidates still in the 2020 Democratic presidential race. This version has been updated.