Friday, January 25, 2019

Democrats 2020: The Swinging Septuagenarians

by Neil H. Buchanan

Even though the next U.S. presidential election will be held more than 21 months from now, it is understandable to want to talk and write about the candidates, even as one laments that the U.S. does not have snap elections that force shorter campaign seasons.  It is actually a pleasure of sorts to think about the prospect of replacing the worst and most dangerous president ever.  With no news about the shutdown, it is even more tempting to focus on the Democratic contenders.  What else is there to worry about, after all -- other than everything?

With that non-apology on the table, I hereby pick up where my last column left off,  There, I asked which types of political apostasy in a candidate's past should count as "unforgivable."  Much to my chagrin, the candidate who failed my nascent forgiveness test is Senator Kamala Harris, who had been my personal favorite possible candidate for the past few months.  I will summarize my reasoning for that conclusion below in the course of assessing a few other candidates.

Although I am not planning to turn this into a series, I suspect that one will unavoidably emerge.  In any event, today I am asking whether the three oldest candidates -- Bernie Sanders (current age: 77), Joe Biden (76), and Elizabeth Warren (turning 70 on June 22)-- can or should be forgiven for actions or positions in their pasts that are currently anathema to most Democratic voters today.

I started thinking about these issues because I saw a theme emerging in the mainstream newspapers recently, with a slew of analyses by various political journalists pushing the idea that Democratic voters have moved left fairly recently, leaving candidates who once deemed it politically wise to take centrist or even openly conservative policy views now scrambling to catch up.

To be sure, those analyses are being written largely by the same political reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times who so badly f*cked up in 2016 and who continue to be almost comically (or perhaps criminally, given the stakes) obtuse.  This means that the "Can the candidates catch up with the Democratic base?" analyses serve the essential self-satisfying purpose of reinforcing the media's favorite narrative, which is that Democrats have moved very far to the left and that this mirrors Republicans' extremism.

This in turn allows these writers to claim to be neutral and balanced, even though the Democrats' aggregate move to the left actually represents an emerging consensus on issues (war, immigration, minimum wages, health care) that is not at all extreme.  Think of a numerical continuum on which Republicans used to range between, say, -15 and 2 (with negative numbers representing more conservative views) while Democrats ranged between -5 and 8.  Now, the Democrats have converged on 8 (making them "more liberal," on average), while Republicans are at -100 and keeping their collective foot on the accelerator to oblivion.

There is, therefore, more than a bit of ridiculousness in these analyses.  But there is also an important underlying question about political viability and opportunism.  Think of this as an update to Hillary Clinton's politically fatal decision to support the Iraq War in 2003, which is almost certainly why she lost the 2008 nomination to Barack Obama.  Many people are now asking whether certain candidates will simply not gain traction with Democratic voters next year because of similarly too-clever-by-half moves earlier in their careers, or simply because of having once sincerely believed things that now look pretty horrible.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's ignorant comments opposing same-sex marriage are an obvious current example.  If Barack Obama "evolved" on that issue, are others allowed to do the same?  In my Tuesday column, I concluded that Gabbard (whatever else one might say about her on other issues, about which I expressed no opinion but which include some red flags) seems forgivable.  So long as the circumstances suggest that the person genuinely saw the light, there are a lot of plenty progressive people who were not originally where they are now on that important civil rights issue.

By contrast, Harris's record includes a troubling pattern as a prosecutor and attorney general that included repeated efforts to put innocent people in prison and keep them there.  This is not an issue on which attitudes were moving quickly, and I would have hoped that anyone who now wants to label herself a "progressive prosecutor" would have been easily able to draw the line -- even while building a career in law enforcement -- at so shamefully abusing the state's power over the weak and the innocent.  And Harris did this not for a few years out of law school but throughout her career and into her middle age.

That is the kind of judgment issue that I think should truly be repulsive to a liberal voter.  To emphasize a threshold point that I made in my Tuesday column, however, even something as bad as this is nothing compared to Donald Trump or any of the Republicans who might ever try to succeed him.  As Professor Dorf noted recently, the Democrats must nominate the person who is most likely to win in 2020, full stop.

This is not, then, a litmus test.  If Harris ultimately emerges as the nominee, it will be easy to support her in the general election.  I simply hope that there will be someone else who catches on with the voters who does not have anything as troubling as Harris's record on a major issue.

What, then, about the Swinging Septuagenarians?  Starting with Bernie Sanders is an easy call, because he is the least fraught of the three on the forgivability front.  He is currently going to some length to apologize for what was apparently some pretty bad sexism on his 2016 campaign, and he also has a history of less-than-enlightened views about guns and some other policy matters.  I am not going into detail on those issues, because nothing that I have heard about Sanders rises to the level of being unforgivable.

This does not mean that I am saying that Sanders should be nominated (or even that he should run).  I was skeptical of him in 2016, and I am still skeptical today.  My only point here is that, if he does decide to run now, there does not seem to be anything that -- a la my assessment of Kamala Harris -- should make a person say: "Well, he was going to be my favorite, but there is this pretty unforgivable thing in his past."  Sanders will rise or fall on purely political/policy issues, I suspect, with nothing from his past that should make otherwise supportive people reassess.

Joe Biden has been around forever, and he was never an in-context liberal even during periods when the party was a lot less liberal than it is today.  He is now making public statements disavowing/regretting his enthusiastic participation in the mass incarceration craze in the 1980's and 90's.  He has also been having a difficult time explaining his gross mishandling of the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court in 1992, when he was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and allowed the process to get completely out of control as the committee heard testimony from Anita Hill and Thomas.

Especially because the country is finally making some limited but important progress against sexism -- and because women are so important to the party's electoral success -- Biden seems like a terrible choice to be the Democrats' nominee next year.  An old white guy with a history of uninspiring policy positions and the Hill-Thomas fiasco on his record seems like a pretty bad choice for this moment.  He is closer to Harris territory than is Sanders, but it does seem that Biden now "gets it" in ways that suggest his ability to grow and genuinely evolve.

Finally, what about Elizabeth Warren?  She is currently thought to be one of the most lefty people in the party, and Wall Street hates her.  I have written positively about her views on financial regulation, and I will surely write many more agreeable things about her in the future.  But what to make of the fact that she was voting Republican as recently as 1995?

Her explanation, from an interview in 2011, is simply absurd: "I was a Republican because I thought that those were the people who best supported markets. I think that is not true anymore.  I was a Republican at a time when I felt like there was a problem that the markets were under a lot more strain. It worried me whether or not the government played too activist a role."  She also all but confirmed that she had voted for Ronald Reagan by saying: "I’m not going to talk about who I voted for."

Political awakenings can happen at any time, I suppose, but she was 31 when Reagan won the 1980 election.  The Republicans were going full bore on their racist Southern Strategy, and although Reagan is now thought of as a relatively not-so-bad president, it was obvious at the time that he was a disaster.  Or at least it was obvious to almost all of the people who were alive at the time who now think of themselves as progressives.

In 1995, at age 46, she was still voting Republican, even with an all-but-Republican triangulator in the White House?  The Clinton Administration was hardly known for being "too activist" when dealing with markets, yet Warren thought that the Republicans were better guardians of the economy.

This comes closest to Kamala Harris, but because it is a more diffuse failing -- not bothering to understand the full-scale damage of the post-1980 Republican approach to governance -- it is both better and worse.  Warren never spent her days trying to keep innocent people in prison, but she did support people who did that and much worse.

On the other hand, Warren's transformation has been ongoing for more than two decades, and she does not seem to be taking liberal positions merely out of political ambition or opportunism.  I take her past as a puzzling example of political blindness even by very smart people, but she shows no sign of hanging onto her previously mealy-mouthed (and worse) views.

To be very, very, very clear (and repetitive): None of these candidates is unacceptable.  Some, however, have more explaining to do than others.

11 comments:

Joe said...

"But what to make of the fact that she was voting Republican as recently as 1995?"

24 years ago. Biden and Beto got in trouble recently for supporting Republicans in some fashion recently. This is the first I heard of Warren's problems in that regard.

"Warren never spent her days trying to keep innocent people in prison."

I gather Kamala Harris didn't actually think they were innocent. Anyway, I'm wary of septuagenarians being in power generally. If Harris is a problem, I would support Kirsten Gillibrand, who people can find problems with too as noted in a previous post noted. On the "can be elected" level, Harris' mixed record as a prosecutor to me should not taint in the general. If anything, though the left might not like it, it might help her that she was not some big liberal as a state prosecutor.

David Ricardo said...

But she is a big liberal now, effectively alienating both left with her DA history and moderates with her anti-death penalty, big spending, big taxes policies.

For Bernie the problem is policies that depart from reality, (free health care, free college, free cookies and milk after school etc) not his past issues. Yes he was probably insufficiently attentive to harassment issues in his campaign, but in his defense Bernie is not really a hands-on detailed oriented person. Pie-in-the-sky people rarely are.

For Elizabeth Warren her past economic ignorance and blinders is not unexpected. A perusal of her writing shows she is woefully ignorant of basic economics and finance. Her wealth tax proposal demonstrates that she has no idea that most high net worth individuals have holdings that are private equity and non-publically traded debt and impossible to objectively value for tax purposes. But she is smart, committed, passionate and her earlier transgression are not disqualifying.

As for Joe Biden, the recent revelation that he is giving $200k speeches and endorsing Republicans is far more damning than his decades old problems. One of the major problems with Hillary was her giving those types of speeches after she left government, completely undermining her persona as someone fighting for ordinary people. What is it about these people that they think they can do this stuff.

Assuming Democrats do not want the twice elected mayor of South Bend as their nominee, that they want someone maybe a little more experienced, Sen. Bennet stands as an outstanding candidate. Assuming nothing in his past is disqualifying, isn't the person who made that great speech in the Senate on Thursday the personification of a great Democratic candidate!! We don't need Bernie or Biden.

Shag from Brookline said...

As an octogenarian who may become a nonagenarian by the time of the 2020 election, I will not be knocking - or praising - septuagenarians. I'm apprehensive about the 2020 Democrats contending for the nomination based upon having suffered through the 2016 Republican candidates in which Trump prevailed over the GOP "Sweet Sixteen" considered at the time to be the "cream of the crop." I don't as yet have a favorite among the Democrats contending formally or otherwise. I do not plan in joining the handicapping if this turns into a series of posts on that subject. One Democrat I have been admiring for several years is Senator Chris Von Hollen. I first became aware of him from watching C-SPAN, noticing his abilities in floor debated when he served in the House. I have minimum cable and have not had the benefit of watching his on C-SPAN2, although I catch him occasionally on PBS Newshour. I am not aware of his ambitions, other than perhaps long range. He comes from a small state and may not be well known. I like his manners. He took on tough assignments in the House. If the Democrats' 2020 process gets circus like in the manner of the GOP 2015 campaigns, just maybe party leaders may reach out to him. I don't know if he has any flaws. He can be of value in the Senate but the country may need him.

In any event, since we know the ages of the Democrat candidates to date, it might be of interest to know the ages of the poster and the commenters that may be handicapping so early in the process. By the way, is it possible that with so many Democrat candidates, there might be a latent Trump type celebrity? And keep in mind Independent and other parties that may join the campaign, with resulting vote splitting that could benefit a Trump re-election bid. Why we may have candidates who don't want to actually win but wish to enhance their brands.

Shag from Brookline said...

With credit to HuffPost for planting the idea, here's what happened today:


WHO’S YOUR MOMMY, DONALD?

Where’s Wall Dough?
Not in the Continuing Resolution,
Nor coming from Mexico.
Just in Trump’s imagination

Shag from Brookline said...

Speaker Pelosi is a septuagenarian who may be an octogenarian by the time of the 2020 election. She is not mot aa candidate for the presidency in 2020 but should she be? Probably not, because of her effectiveness as Speaker in exposing Trump as a "Nancy" (although the NY Daily News identifies Trump as "CAVE MAN").

Shag from Brookline said...

Roger Stone has Nixon on his back. Will Trump be there as well? Does Stone have the "stones" to remain "unturned"?

[Have there been any more candidate announcements that were shut out in this past week's news cycle? The NYTimes is writing about potential GOP challengers to Trump for 2020. And Mr. Starbucks is reportedly planning to jump in as an Independent.]

Joe said...

I see in the NYT a piece on how Sen. Marco Rubio is "Through sheer force of will and a concerted effort [attempting] to engage and educate President Trump" etc. regarding Venezuela. Is there a chance for a primary challenge in 2020?

I think there is a strong demand for a woman (if not a person of color) as the nominee in 2020, which will give the multiple female candidates an advantage. Some might find this misguided (see also how some wanted Sanders or Biden in 2016, which clashed with what actual voters wanted and/or their own choices) but so it goes.

Bennett is an interesting guy though looking at his Wiki page including family members connected to environmental causes and the NYT. His outburst apparently was out of character since he usually is a low key sort of guy who doesn't make such partisan waves (at least on the floor). This makes sense for someone from a purple-ish state like Colorado. I also like Klobuchar, btw, both because of her overall abilities but since she comes from a swing area that needs to be sought out.

I won't say my age though will say that have seen multiple people around the age of Sanders et. al. also saying "no way to the over 70 set." Clinton herself was borderline there but as with many other things, the alternatives (in both parties) were no better by a longshot.

David Ricardo said...

Per the above comment, 2004 will be noted as the last time the Democratic ticket was made up of two white males. The only uncertainty in this area is will 2020 be the first Dem ticket with no white male?

If Mr. Coffee does run as an independent the next step should be for every American to boycott Starbucks. And yes, the over 70 crowd has had its day. Do any of us know any 70+ year old they would want as Prez?

Shag from Brookline said...

Wikipedia nas an interesting post on ages of presidents in tabular form at:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_presidents_of_the_United_States_by_age

The stats might suggest that septuagenarians have an uphill battle.

Joe said...

smh at Ginni Thomas btw

Shag from Brookline said...

I'm trying to imagine the pillow talk. No, not the Trumps, the Thomases.