Democrats, Don’t Eat Your Candidates — Groom Them

A vigorous primary makes for a more durable candidate. .

Let's not be asses this time around.

There’s so much politics to write about that it often feels easy to be overwhelmed. It’s also my preference to avoid Monday morning quarterbacking. That is, of course, not to say that I don’t have thoughts on the current dumpster fire(s) of this presidency, including the various criminal investigations of the president. Yet whatever comes of all these fires, Donald Trump will be the 2020 Republican nominee for president. What does that mean for the Democratic field?

Trump’s presence is surely the reason for the long, dizzying list of Democratic primary candidates. This bloated field is filled with the expected (Sanders, Warren, Booker, Gillibrand), the surprising (Beto, Buttigieg, Delaney, Hickenlooper) and the long-shots (Yang, Gravel, Gabbard, Ryan), while a few deeper cuts (Castro, Harris, Klobuchar) might have the right mix of qualifications and appeal. Then there are the still-undeclared players who may yet stir the pot, most notably former Vice President Joe Biden. Other would-be’s include Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, NYC’s Bill de Blasio, and Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe.

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Many Democratic voters are dismayed by the (still-growing) size of this field, and who can blame them? In 2016, the Democratic Party deeply, decidedly ate their young and turned against each other, resulting in Trump “serving,” pardon the phrase, as our 45th president.

A lot of things went wrong in 2016 and the party is as much to blame as the voters. I won’t belabor this much, as I’ve written extensively about it before for the CFR, as have many of our esteemed contributors. However, it is hard to deny that one of the biggest roadblocks to Secretary Clinton’s success was the lack of enthusiastic support from Sen. Sanders and, in turn, his army of “Bernie bros” and other progressives who aligned with his vision for the country. I will admit that I voted for Sanders in the primary, mostly as a protest vote — a signal to the party that I wanted the Democrats to move left. The minute our nominee was picked, I was most unabashedly “with her.” You can see the effect of the Sanders campaign in that most of the “serious” 2020 candidates have absorbed many of his — and Sen. Warren’s — policy platforms. It looks increasingly likely that, regardless of whomever the nominee ends up being, many of these ideals are now definitive aspects of the Democratic Party’s platform. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I think that every single Democrat in America needs to be deadly serious about defeating this president in 2020. Certainly, we need to have a set of policies in place that amount to more than chanting “We’re not Donald Trump!” We will need to have a clear outline of what we would do differently if in power, as we will now be running against a sitting president who will certainly run on his record (or his bizarre interpretation of it). We shouldn’t be afraid to call out the many, many damaging, cruel and bigoted policies that he will tout as successes, and we shouldn’t be afraid to use these policies as the basis for our argument that the time for this man as president must come to an end. Enough is enough.

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There are many, myself amongst them, who consider a vigorous primary good for the eventual nominee. President Obama stated several times that running against Clinton made him a better candidate and accounted for his stunning victories in 2008 and 2012. The wheat will soon find themselves politely removed from the chaff and we will begin to see front-runners emerge. Sanders, though I consider him a fatally flawed candidate at this juncture, certainly can’t be ignored. Biden is wisely biding his time but will certainly enter the race well ahead in funding and institutional support. “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg has sprung forth as a surprisingly pleasant, appealing candidate: articulate, charismatic, experienced for his age, welcomingly upbeat. Being high in executive and/or judicial and/or cabinet experience raises the profiles of Castro and Harris. I’m not endorsing any personal favorites, though I might offer that a Harris/Castro ticket (or vice versa) would offer prosecutorial, legislative, executive and Cabinet experience, would put the votes of people of color front and center, and might even put Texas squarely in play. Turning Texas blue would mean the whole election, folks. Just saying.

There is also no doubt that every single one of these candidates comes better credentialed to serve as Commander-in-Chief than the current occupant. We need to focus on these credentials, and not get sucked into our own cult of personality (ahem, Beto). I recommend to my fellow progressives that we paraphrase the lesson popularized by President Reagan: thou shalt not speak ill of any other Democrat. To this I would add: every single candidate needs to commit, fully and vigorously, to supporting the eventual nominee. Even Sanders kick-started his campaign with this assurance. Now we need to pressure every candidate to commit to doing the same, not just with their votes but also with their donations and their physical presence and their door-knocking capabilities. All Democrats must coalesce around the eventual nominee. This does not mean one shouldn’t enthusiastically endorse and support their candidate of choice until then. In fact, running against each other will help solidify each candidate’s message before one of them runs against Trump.

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As Obama told us, primaries make candidates tougher and better prepared for the general election. It helps to shape the narrative and to make the tent as big as possible. I’m OK with nominees drifting further left but a damning variable that can’t be ignored is how easily a candidate can be vilified by the president. If Trump has any expertise, it’s in picking out the worst damnable lies and rumors and using them to paint his opponent with those colors alone. He’s quite the artist when it comes to painting others as villains. It’s easy for him to portray a Biden nomination or a Sanders nomination as “crazy old men,” despite both of them being around the president’s age, and both of considerably sounder mind. Trump will use his favorite taunts: “Pocahontas,” say, for a Warren campaign. There are numerous durable candidates in the Democratic field currently who can easily hand the president his ass in a forensics or policy battle. That’s where these candidates should try to trap Trump, even if they feel they can get a few digs in of their own.

As voters, we deserve the upcoming battle that will be the Democratic primary, as we also deserve the best warrior to emerge and rally us during the general. However, such a battle doesn’t mean we should tolerate a devolution into a mudslinging concept. After all, if these candidates can’t handle each other in a respectful primary, how can we expect them to face the most toxic candidate ever to disgrace the American stage? Let’s toughen up. Let’s use each other’s strengths to do so. Decency, qualifications and compassion can beat this president. Let’s get to work.