Thoughts on 2020

President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence. Which one will be president in 2020?

It is 2019, and  a blogger’s thoughts — especially a progressive blogger’s — turn to 2020 and the prospect of unseating President Donald Trump. Aside from the obvious fact that it is too early to know anything with any certainty, there is one great imponderable in prognosticating: Who will be the Republican nominee? There is, after all, an excellent chance Trump will not be in the White House a year from now. Running against the ever-bland Mike Pence would demand a different strategy and present a different set of questions than a campaign against the narcissist-in-chief. And, even if Trump survives, he may be so damaged in the coming months that a challenge from within the Republican Party might succeed. Not likely, but who thought Trump would be president in the first place? Not even he thought so.

The Democratic field is, well, potentially enormous, with no obvious frontrunner now. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is already an announced candidate, and several other women are likely to vie for the presidency. Democrats have begun to debate whether there is a risk in nominating a woman, given Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump in 2016. On the other hand, the 2018 mid-term elections demonstrated the power and enthusiasm of women as candidates, volunteer campaign workers, and voters.

Clinton’s defeat haunts Democrats. Many women — and men, for that matter — believe there is a double standard in assessing a woman as a candidate for president. Women are viewed differently when considering the characteristics of likability and toughness, and voters seem more reluctant, though there is no hard evidence of this, to elect women as executives than as legislators. All of this is a nice way of saying a subtle — but still real — sexism is at play in the voting booth when it comes to a woman as president. “There’s a real tension,” says Neera Tanden, a former Clinton adviser. “On the one hand, women are leading the resistance and deserve representation. But on the other side, there’s a fear that if misogyny beat Clinton, it can beat other women.” 

Hillary Clinton campaigning for president

Analyzing why Clinton lost complicates any discussion of sexism in presidential politics. For one thing, Clinton won the popular vote by a substantial margin, which should count for something. In addition, every candidate and every election is unique, and Clinton had many liabilities, some having to do with her as a candidate, some beyond her control, and many of which are irrelevant for 2020. Many voters felt left behind by the economy, even though most indices were good in 2016 and President Barack Obama had presided over a recovery from the financial crash. Ennui stemming from eight years of Democratic control of the presidency may have been a problem for Clinton. Connections to Wall Street, speeches paid by Goldman Sachs, and the family charity all undermined public trust in her. The email scandal fueled speculation that the Clintons believe they are above the law. Her lack of a coherent message, other than that she was uniquely qualified to be president, did not inspire. And, her campaign was poorly run and executed, typified by an unwillingness to campaign late in the race in crucial states in which evidence indicated a surge for Trump.

All of the above is true, and all of it leaves unanswered the key question: Did Clinton lose because of problems unique to her, or did Clinton lose because she is a woman? The coward’s way out is to say, probably a bit of both, which is where I come down. As for Clinton: She was a lousy candidate but she would have made a good president.

Beto O’Rourke campaigning in Texas for the Senate in 2018

The buzz surrounding former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke — who energized Democrats nationwide in a losing bid for a Senate seat from Texas — may be an instance of sexism. After all, few are mentioning Stacey Abrams as a presidential candidate, even though she had a much narrower loss for governor of Georgia. Is there also a bit of timidity about another African American candidate for president? As for O’Rourke as a candidate, two points: First, he is not all that progressive — he took money from the oil industry, after all — though he might move to the left when his canvas is national rather than state; and, second, losing a Senate bid is not disqualifying. Abraham Lincoln lost an election for the Senate from Illinois in 1858; two years later, he was elected president. 

Former Vice-President Joe Biden and Vermont Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders

A personal note on age and the presidency: Joe Biden and I are the same age. Now, I like Joe. He is a great guy, who exudes sincerity and empathy in his speeches (though he is capable of serious instances of foot-in-mouth utterances). But, Biden would be 78 if inaugurated as president in 2021. I am sure his health is good. Still, running for president, not to mention being president, is arduous, and a soon-to-be 80-year-old is just too old to be president. The same goes for Bernie Sanders, who would be 79 if inaugurated as president in 2021, though the Vermont senator also has the liability of not confronting accusations of sexism during his 2016 presidential campaign, a disqualifying oversight in a progressive candidate. 

It is impossible to know which, if any, of the many potential candidates (and there are so many more than I have mentioned) will catch fire and emerge from the pack. But, two things are certain. First, Democrats had the energy in the 2018 elections, an energy stoked by candidates who often were female, African American or Hispanic, and young. Second, millions more people vote in presidential elections than in midterms. Many of those are likely to be minorities and the young, raising the prospects of a Democratic victory in 2020. Nominating an old white man is not a recipe for appealing to this diverse electorate.

Sorry Joe and Bernie!

Posted January 8, 2019

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