Scanning the Democratic field

It’s still really early. There will be more candidates, more rumors and more drama, not to mention moments of panic among Democratic voters. And we’re barely into 2019.

How does the field, however large, get sorted out? I have some preferred candidates though, sadly, my views won’t determine the outcome. My intent is to focus on those among the contestants I like, try to avoid saying negative things about the others and, at the end of the day, support whoever is the Democratic nominee. I suspect–and hope–that most Democrats will take a similar approach because defeating Donald Trump should be the paramount consideration in 2020.

This last observation may be more profound than it sounds. We are witnessing breathless reporting about the struggle within the Democratic Party between moderates and liberals. They may disagree now about Medicare for all, the Green New Deal and raising the minimum wage, but, hopefully, the differences will fade once the choice is between any Democratic and the sitting president. There will be plenty of energy and enthusiasm to override ideological quarrels.

Let me also try to dispel one bit of anxiety. Will Democrats be sunk in the 2020 election by the fact that some members of the party describe themselves as “Democratic Socialists”? Republicans will certainly try to terrify voters with the bogeymen of Karl Marx, Fidel Castro and Joseph Stalin, but, in fact, they already try to terrify voters in every election. Most Americans have only the dimmest idea of what socialism is, which Republicans will try to exploit by focusing on just the label.

The challenge for Democrats, a totally achievable one, is to emphasize  the specific programs they favor—health care, for example, looks more and more like a winning issue—and resist being dragged into a battle about labels. The dramatically growing inequity in wealth and income, exacerbated by the Republican tax cut, looks like a potent winning issue as well.

My own perspective starts with the reality that I don’t know a lot about many of the candidates.  But neither do most Democratic voters.  I am wary of those with very limited experience. We are experiencing at this moment a vivid demonstration that the presidency is no place for amateurs. Even those in the Democratic field with short tenures in national office leave me doubtful.

At the other end of that spectrum, I am disinclined to support candidates who have already had their chance. My concern is not just about age, although that is a factor. As an aside, it seems to me that the most skillful politician around today is Nancy Pelosi but I would not support her for president. There are several Democrats who have been national figures for years, have even run for the nomination before, but, in my opinion, bring more baggage than viability to the race.

I say that knowing that Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren all have enthusiastic followings. The occasional reports that Hillary Clinton is contemplating another try seem more about staying in the public eye than about a serious candidacy.

Right now, I am most impressed with two of the candidates in the Democratic field. That opinion is based, first, on my assessment that in a General Election a moderate will hold onto most Democratic voters while having the best chance to win over independents and even a few disgruntled Republicans.

The two Democrats who have my attention right now are both from the Mid West, another factor that is likely to be critical in 2020. Trump’s upset wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2016 turned the election. Knowing a bit about the Keystone State, I’m pretty confident Trump can’t win there again.  Having a nominee from that section of the country could recreate the “Blue Wall” that would be key to a winning Electoral College strategy for the Democratic candidate .

Sherrod Brown, Democratic Senator from Ohio, is well positioned to run strongly throughout the region. He was re-elected in 2018 even as Republicans won all the other key races in his state. He is not regarded as a dynamic speaker, but he is a clear and strong advocate for core Democratic values. He seems to have the potential to bridge the gaps among Democratic voters.

For now, I’m going to still include my second choice, Amy Klobuchar, even though she is encountering highly negative press about her treatment of staff. A major story in the New York Times last week went well beyond earlier accounts and ensures that the controversy won’t go away quickly. However, if her campaign is not derailed by those stories, she brings the same sort of Mid West moderate appeal as Brown.  

The former Governor from Colorado, John Hickenlooper, and the current one from Montana, Steve Bullock, brings some of the same strengths as my first two choices.  While neither is well-known nationally, they each possess the significant attribute of having been a successful chief executive.

In including Klobuchar, I’m explicitly betting that a woman could win notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. I’m also not ready to conclude that a person of color can’t win despite the upsurge in open racism that we have seen recently. We are likely to get a better read on both these questions as the election season unfolds.

It’s too early to predict that any of the four I have mentioned will win the Democratic nomination and then go on to capture the presidency in 2020. There are too many obstacles still to be overcome for any candidate and too many unforseeable events to make such a prediction now.

Still, if one of these candidates or one with similar characteristics is the Democratic candidate in 2020, there is a very good chance that Donald Trump will be a one-term President. Then we can begin repairing the damage he has done.



The worst thing about Donald Trump

It might seem a futile exercise to try and pick among the many and never-ending horrible things that Donald Trump has done since he was elected president. There are new candidates every day, every hour, every tweet.

The narrative about Trump is one of constant shock. We have learned not to say that things can’t get worse because they always do. The phrase “constitutional crisis” has become a part of everyday conversation. Trump routinely violates norms of civilized behavior as well as long-standing perceptions of acceptable political boundaries.

Trump has repeatedly called the free press “the enemy of the people.” He regularly engages in racist, sexist and xenophobic language. The declaration last week of a “national emergency” as justification to build a wall along the border with Mexico is a direct challenge to the constitutional system of separation of powers.

And, as any reader of these words knows, the list of Trump outrages is much longer and raises fundamental concerns about the viability of our democratic system.

On the bright side, there is clear evidence of fighting back, of resistance, to Trump and the threat he poses. Sixteen states have already filed suit to challenge his executive order. Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives in 2018 largely as a backlash to Trump’s presidency. The press has shined a bright light on the transgressions of his administration. And, of course, we are all waiting for Robert Mueller’s Report.

Even if Trump is eventually forced from office or defeated for re-election in 2020, however, the damage he has done will remain. Although some actions will be reversed, the damage to the environment and the influx of conservative judges in the federal court system will live on. The biggest challenge I see is that so much of the destruction left in Trump’s wake was neither calculated nor deliberate but the byproduct of mindless destructive behavior.

Let me illustrate my contention with two examples. Much of the fury of his presidency has focused on his efforts to get a symbolic wall built. While it has been essential to counter those efforts, I don’t think he really cares at all about the wall. Building it was a promise made to appeal to the emotions of supporters during the 2016 campaign. At this point, he would rather run in 2020 on his continued fight for the wall than on having gotten it built.

When opponents cite statistics about the decline in illegal border crossings or the lower rate of crimes committed by immigrants, Trump and his supporters couldn’t care less. He is a pathological liar and a raging narcissist, but he is also coldly calculating. Trump will do and say anything that keeps his political arguments alive and viral. Our mistake is thinking that he actually cares about the outcomes.

That characteristic is, in my opinion, the worst thing about him and the greatest threat to our political system. He will heedlessly do anything to advance his personal political fortunes without any regard for the broader damage that it may cause.

Take the emergency declaration. Republicans are terrified that the next Democratic President will claim the right to restrict gun ownership or impose strict environmental rules under a similar rationale. While Trump can be seen as taking an “apres moi, le deluge” view of the world, he really doesn’t care if he wins or loses on his emergency claim. He cares more about continuing the fight and the chaos it generates.

Did he misspeak at his emergency announcement when he said he didn’t really need to do it this way? Maybe, or maybe he is indifferent to the legal outcome of the fight. From his vantage point, he wins either way.

The same indifference can be seen in Trump’s tariff wars. Lots of observers have pointed to the economic damage being done to voters in his base, another “fact” that he casually brushes aside. Trump is not offering solutions; he is instead the “courageous warrior” fighting valiantly for “principles” that are only vaguely understood by his supporters and not really of any concern to him.

What Trump ultimately represents is the utter and total triumph of cynicism over any real policy goals or principles. As a result, he is unmoved by the broader or longterm implications of his actions. Has he undercut the constitutional system of checks and balances? Has he given license to racists to act out their prejudices? Has he undermined the international system that provided relative stability in the post World War II era?

The answer to all three of those questions and many more is that he didn’t even consider the consequences. It is that mindlessness that may well be the most enduring legacy of the Trump presidency. And the most dangerous and destructive.

Virginia on my mind

The three highest ranking elected officials in Virginia, all Democrats, are each in deep political trouble for acts they committed well before they took office. That’s the simple part of the story.

All three are resisting calls to resign. Not only have their political futures become interlinked, despite real differences in the accusations against them, but the Virginia saga has raised a number of broader issues nationally.   What actions should cause a public official to resign? Are there circumstances which should allow people to be forgiven for past acts?  And perhaps most difficult of all, are we able to make distinctions between different kinds of offenses?

To say there is no national consensus on how to answer those questions is a dramatic understatement.  In truth, we have not even started a serious conversation about the issues.  Instead, until the Virginia debacle, every transgression was addressed largely in isolation.  Moreover, the discussions are, for the most part, being carried on by Democrats while Republicans maintain an eerie silence.   More on that point shortly.

How far have we as a society come on race relations?  Whatever your personal answer to that question, we do have a broad albeit far from universal consensus that certain behaviors are unacceptable.   I’m not referring to violations of the law, but rather to actions that show overt bias or disrespect.   Whatever the extent of racial prejudice that still exists in the general population, we have the right to expect our elected officials to adhere scrupulously to the notion of racial equality.

That Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney  General Mark Herring believed in the 1980s that appearing in blackface was acceptable is stunning.  That Northam wasn’t sure which person he might have been in a racist photo in his medical school yearbook defies common sense.  Those of us who lived through the latter part of the 20th century are dumbfounded that they didn’t know better.

Do their actions then disqualify them forever from holding public office?  If you hold that view, and I certainly take it as a legitimate response, where should the line be drawn?  In what circumstances are apologies enough?  Is redemption possible?

Another current example demonstrates the complexity of these questions.  Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar, one of two recently elected Muslim Members of Congress, was hit with a firestorm of criticism after two tweets that were widely seen as anti-Semitic.   The good news is that she quickly apologized.  The bad news is that she could straight-facedly deny in 2019 that she was engaging in anti-Semitism.  At the same time, can we distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of the government of Israel and some of its  American supporters?

We are, moreover, living in a time when some national leaders seem to be giving permission to others to act out racial prejudices.  That President Trump could declare that there were “good people on both sides” at the racist march in Charlottesville needs to be factored into our discussions about contemporary race relations.

Whether we forgive Northam or insist he resign should not be determined by Donald Trump’s racism or by the lilly-white complexion of the Republican Party.  On the other hand, trying to make thoughtful distinctions between different acts is worth the hard work it will take.  The payoff will be a clearer consensus about race relations in this country.

The charges against Lt. Gov. Jordan Fairfax are of quite a different nature.  He has been accused by two different women of sexual assault.  Coming to a determination about the validity of the accusations has to be the first step, but the category is, if proven, a criminal act.  That Fairfax, bookended by offenses by two white office holders, is African Americans certainly impacts people’s reactions.

Rape and other forms of physical assault on women should be seen as at one extreme of the MeToo movement.   That’s not to argue that other forms of harassment and insensitive behavior are not worthy of condemnation.  The question that has not really been adequately discussed, however, is whether distinctions can and should be made among various forms and levels of offensive behavior.

Donald Trump again can be seen as creating part of the context for this discussion.  Republicans are unwilling to criticize his many examples of demeaning and offensive behavior toward women, from the Access Hollywood tapes to accusations of paying off women to remain silent about affairs to incredibly sexist language in everyday conversations.  The “Republican standard” is no standard, but it does complicate the political dimensions of the issue.

Democrats, with a rapidly growing number of women in their elected ranks, have been active in calling out sexism.  What’s not yet clear, however, is whether there can be distinctions between different sorts of acts and whether some behavior can be forgiven.

The very hard political case for many Democrats remains that of Al Franken.   There are understandable differences of opinion on how serious his transgressions were and on the motives of people like Kirsten Gillibrand  in pushing hard for his resignation.

There is real value in a serious public debate about the ethical standards we should expect our elected officials to meet.  If the outcome is to be constructive, however, we need to work much harder at thinking through the standards rather than just jumping to conclusions about individual cases.