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 have recently become anathema to most Democratic voters.

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.