According to polls, the Democrats really, really want to win the presidency in 2020. That ought to go without saying, of course. But the intensity with which they are focused on winning is unusual. Democrats are happy with nearly all their options, giving nearly all the best-known high ratios of favorability to unfavorability. But a substantially higher percentage than in past primary contests tell pollsters they would prefer a candidate who can win to one they personally agree with.
This sounds like a positive development, an openness to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. But I don't think it is. If it were, why would so many announced candidates be falling over each other to cater to the party's various constituencies?
Rather than a sign of willingness to compromise, their focus on electability might be a sign that Democrats are more focused on marketing than they are on substance. They're not looking for a leader; they're looking for a product they can market — and that they believe other people will buy.
Perhaps that explains the Beto phenomenon. I'm not sure what else does.
Beto O'Rourke, who just announced his campaign with a glossy spread in Vanity Fair, clearly sees his candidacy in pretty much those terms. He's long since demonstrated mastery of social media, producing viral videos that brought in an avalanche of cash for his 2018 Senate campaign, and amassing a Twitter following that rivals the acknowledged master of the medium. A cover story like his would be precisely the kind of move that would give a YouTube sensation credibility in jumping to her first television series or Hollywood film.
Those are not negligible factors in weighing a candidate. And O'Rourke's vote total in his race against Ted Cruz, and the lift that his coattails gave to down ballot Democratic candidates, should not be minimized, even though he fell short of victory. But those are signs of talent, not of political leadership. And the Democrats need more than a product. They need a leader.
O'Rourke's deficiencies aren't just a thin résumé and lack of policy specifics. Leadership can be demonstrated in ways other than by extensive governmental experience, and campaigns are generally won on broad themes rather than white papers. But O'Rourke has not articulated any such themes beyond generic uplift, and he has not demonstrated leadership in any other sphere.
Of course, Obama could be criticized in very similar terms — for being an inexperienced candidate of personality and uplift, a vessel into which voters with very different preferences could pour their hopes. O'Rourke has been compared to Obama, and attracted the attention of a number of Obama operatives and supporters, for just those reasons.
But Obama distinguished himself in one crucial way: by opposing the Iraq War from the beginning. He was able to use that fact to argue not only that he would be less-hawkish but that he would have better — and more independent — judgment not only than Hillary Clinton but than John Edwards, the good-looking Southern white male candidate of that cycle.
More important, though, the comparison suggests that at best an O'Rourke presidency would demonstrate some of the weaknesses of the Obama presidency — and those weaknesses were significant. Because his primary contest was largely non-ideological, Obama had not established the popularity of a particular agenda with the party rank and file. As a consequence, he wound up largely deferring to Congress in his first two years, as well as deferring to experienced party hands in responding to the financial crisis.
Similarly, while Obama's instincts were considerably less hawkish than Clinton's, he wound up deferring to his generals in many aspects of foreign policy, approving a massive troop surge in Afghanistan that prolonged American exposure to that conflict without changing the long-term outlook. Finally, Obama mistook his personal popularity for political power. Many voters who bought what he was selling in 2008 had no idea how much maintenance his political position would require to remain functional. They learned the hard way in 2010.
The Democrats have an opportunity for a real contest this year — a contest over ideas and priorities as well as over theories of power. Warren, Sanders, Booker, Biden (if he runs), even Yang and Inslee — a large number of candidates, both highly credible ones and distinct long shots — are putting forth broad and substantive arguments about what the party's priorities ought to be, about where and how they intend to lead. They don't agree with each other about everything, even if they all agree on the importance of defeating Trump. Hashing out those disagreements is part of why you have a primary contest in the first place.
Will O'Rourke join that debate when he joins the race? His positioning to date suggests not. Rather, he looks like he will run as if Democrats already agree on where they want to go and how to get there, and just need the best spokesman for that consensus. Which is basically what Jonathan Chait argued in his defense of O'Rourke's candidacy:
Politics is a team sport, and enacting political change requires effort from a wide array of actors: policy advisers, legislators, bureaucrats, and activists. The president of the United States is only one of those actors, albeit the most important by far, and his or her most important role is serving as a messenger for the party. Being an effective, telegenic communicator is a crucial job qualification and a vital asset. [New York]
Perhaps this has become the most important function of the presidency, but if so America needs a different constitution. If the president is primarily a spokesman for his party, then he should be elected by the party in charge of the legislature and subject to replacement at that party's discretion — the way things work in parliamentary systems. And even in such a system, the party needs a leader who will set the agenda. Without leadership, the permanent bureaucracy and private interests will quickly fill the gap — or, as was the case in the Bush administration, key advisers become the true locus of unaccountable power.
Meanwhile, I know it's hard to remember this in the context of the Trump presidency, but if the president is supposed to be the spokesman for anyone, it is not his political party but the American people.
Chait notes repeatedly that O'Rourke will have a chance, during the campaign, to demonstrate whether he can master the details of policy. But even if O'Rourke demonstrates a talent for picking and delivering winning talking points, that's no substitute for picking and winning battles. And if the point is that O'Rourke is so appealing that he could win the primary without engaging in hand-to-hand combat, I have to wonder whose interests are thereby served.
As for winning: The American people know that the presidency has a lot of power. They're clearly willing to put that power in the hands of people with little experience — even with little aptitude. But they've also clearly been willing to put it in the hands of people who are deeply unlikeable — when they trust them more about where and how they intend to lead. If they want to know if Beto's really a winner, Democratic primary voters should demand that he earn their trust the same way.