A moderate's 2020 lament
Why are all the Democratic candidates so unappealing?
Can this really be all there is?
No, I'm not lamenting the pointlessness of existence. I'm expressing despair over the state of the race to decide on a Democrat to face President Trump in November.
Over the past year, more than two dozen people have taken a shot at becoming the Democratic nominee. Today, with Super Tuesday just over a week away, six serious candidates remain. That's still a lot of options.
So why do all of them seem so unappealing? So incapable of defeating our corrupt, incompetent, and immoral president? So unworthy of being given a chance to try?
It's possible that I'm the problem. I define myself more as an anti-Republican than a committed Democrat. I'm a centrist whose centrism doesn't quite map onto the policies typically embraced and espoused by the party's moderates. I'm an old-school liberal (less neoliberal than I used to be) on economics; somewhat more conservative on social and cultural issues (I really would like abortion to be safe, legal, and rare); and a critic of American foreign policy, especially since 9/11.
On the other hand, I'm not normally an idealist who expects perfection from politics. I pride myself on my willingness to settle for the best possible option under present circumstances, for accepting that muddling through is often the best we can hope for.
But then why do I catch myself shaking my head in dismay at the Democratic field? How is it that I've allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good — or the meh?
The truth is, I just don't know. But there's no denying it's happened.
Wednesday night's debate in Las Vegas provided numerous examples. It was certainly entertaining. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren did a fabulous job of going after billionaire Michael Bloomberg with a meat cleaver. That was satisfying — because I can't stand Bloomberg. For one thing, he's a long-time liberal (Rockefeller) Republican, and, as I said, I'm an anti-Republican. For another, he's much more like Trump than one might think. For yet another, he's using his fortune to take advantage of the weakness of the institutional Democratic Party — by attempting to buy both the party and the presidency. I don't care how well he might do against Trump. (I'm skeptical he would do well at all.) His successful commandeering of the party would only contribute to the further degradation of the American political system. No one who cares about its well-being should support the effort.
How about Warren herself? She's the smartest of the bunch, and as she proved Wednesday night, she's also the toughest, most merciless fighter. But her anti-corruption and pro-working-class message, which I favor, continually ends up neutralized and overwhelmed by appeals to highly educated urban professionals instead. How else to explain her eager embrace of every “woke” item on the agenda of left-wing culture warriors? Or her support for a ban on fracking — the kind of policy that will win votes in super-liberal (and super-wealthy) Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Warren lives, but ensure she loses rust-belt states, like Pennsylvania, that any Democrat will need to carry in 2020?
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is better in some respects. For one thing he soft-pedals and doesn't appear to care very much about social and cultural crusades. As the old-left democratic socialist he is, Sanders is monomaniacally focused on economic injustice, which he perceives all around him. That's fine up to a point, but like just about everyone who studies or merely observes American politics and history for a living, I have a hard time imagining such a man — someone who's spent a lifetime describing himself as a socialist — winning the White House.
But what if he did? If I'm honest, I have to admit that I fear a Sanders victory — not because I think he would succeed in passing his roughly $97-trillion-worth of plans for new spending, but because he almost certainly wouldn't. Think Bernie Bros are bad now? Wait until their hero's agenda gets stopped dead in its tracks by a recalcitrant Senate. It is possible to outflank a democratic socialist on his left, and that could well be what happens after the already stratospherically high hopes of Sanders' most fervent supporters are dashed on the rocks of political reality. That's when calls for a real (not just rhetorical) political revolution might begin to be heard.
What about the moderates, then?
A candidate occupying former vice president Joe Biden's place on the ideological spectrum — promising a continuation of the Obama administration's economic policies a couple of clicks to the left, cautious about picking cultural fights that drive the white working class deeper into the arms of the Republican Party, chastened by the many foreign policy failures of the past two decades — should be a good match for me. The trouble is that the actual candidate staking out that place is clearly in cognitive decline and doesn't seem up to the task of besting Trump or successfully governing for the next four years.
That leaves 38-year-old former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. I liked Buttigieg a lot when he first emerged a year ago. He gave a series of interviews that made him seem smart, serious, and sensible. But ever since he began making a hard play for the center last fall and started rising in the polls, he's sounded like a machine designed to spout vacuous platitudes. On Wednesday evening, the bromides mixed with a nasty streak, as he picked a series of fights with Klobuchar that had no basis in policy disagreement. He just wanted to get under her skin — presumably for the sole purpose of tripping her up and sowing doubts about her ability to serve as a viable moderate option to go toe-to-toe with Trump.
And it worked. For the past few weeks, I'd been drifting closer to Klobuchar, relieved that her polling had finally attained liftoff after decent showings in the first two contests, and after a strong debate performance just before the New Hampshire primary. But now I just don't know — or rather, I don't know if Klobuchar has much of a future, or if it makes sense for me to stick with her. What I do know is that Mayor Pete's display of cold-blooded nastiness toward a candidate I liked much better, combined with the earnest banalities and meager resume, has turned me solidly against him.
Where does that leave me? I suppose hoping Klobuchar lives to fight another day, pondering whether any actually existing Democrat could have done more to excite me, suspecting that the answer might be no — and wondering how many other voters feel the same way.