The Search for Sanity, Part 1
A Partial Guide to the 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates
Yes, I know the 2020 presidential election is a long way away. But it is probably less than a year before the Democratic Party will choose its nominee, and since Democrats have to winnow that down from a current total of 18 or more candidates—the New York Times is keeping a running tally—we'd probably better start getting a handle on who they are right now.
Why so many candidates? Didn't they learn from the debacle of the last Republican primary, when many good candidates got lost in the crowd and victory went to the guy with the most pop culture name recognition? Well, it's happening because Democrats are facing the same conditions as Republicans four years ago.
Then, there was a weak and unappealing "inevitable" Democratic candidate, leading a lot of people to think that whoever could win the Republican nomination had a good chance of winning the general election. Today, there is a weak and unappealing Republican incumbent who is not likely to face any significant challenge within his own party. (The Republican establishment is working hard to make sure of it.) So this time, Democrats are the ones who think they have a likely win set up for them in 2020.
Four years ago, there was no Republican who was "inevitable"--no incumbent or clear successor with a built-in lead for the nomination. With Hillary Clinton out, the same is true for Democrats today. So anyone with an once of political ambition will decide that this just might be his year. There is one more factor that is new because of the 2016 cycle: Trump's victory created a sense that the normal rules of politics have been thrown out the window and anything is possible, which is one of the reasons you're seeing some really improbable candidates.
Because the Democratic field is so large, I don't intend to be comprehensive. Many of these candidates have no real chance and are running purely out of vanity, which is never in short supply in politics, or to push an agenda item or sell a book or build a mailing list. You have never heard of some of them and probably never will, so there's no need to look at them unless they start to catch on.
Why does it matter, anyway, particularly since this newsletter has an audience that is not exactly eager to vote for a modern Democrat? Yet many of you, like me, are not happy with Donald Trump—his failure to stand for the free markets and more worryingly his militant anti-intellectualism—so you may be hoping that maybe, just maybe, Democrats will do the smart thing and nominate a sane moderate that we could consider voting for as an alternative. That's a real long shot, for reasons we are about to see, so we also have to consider the fact that Donald Trump is not in a particularly strong position to win re-election. Having 45% of the voters on your side can get you elected against a dispiriting and uncharismatic opponent, if the Electoral College breaks your way. It is not a strategy you want to try every time you go to the polls. So the Democratic nominee will have a good chance of winning in 2020, and we had better be prepared for the possibilities now.
As for whether the Democrats will be smart enough to choose a moderate who can appeal to the wide center of American politics and to disgruntled Republican voters—well, the overall trend is represented by two minor candidates I will only mention in passing. California Congressman Eric Smallwell has launched a campaign based on a proposal for the forcible confiscation of semi-automatic rifles. But as someone pointed out on Twitter, the only people who vote based on this single issue are gun owners. Similarly, the New York Times tally I linked to above says that former Maryland congressman John Delaney "has pitched himself as a bipartisan problem-solver, but has also endorsed liberal causes like universal health care." That's a pretty consistent theme: candidates trying to describe themselves as "moderate" while adopting a far-left agenda down the line.
Here, as a preliminary sketch, are a few useful notes on a selected group of Democratic candidates.
Joe Biden: The Man That Time Forgot
There has been a lot of over-glamorizing of Joe Biden recently, both by boosters in the Democratic Party who have been talking up his candidacy—he hasn't declared yet whether or not he is running—and even by some on the right who see him as a better option than the Politically Correct whippersnappers coming up to challenge him.
I'm not going to succumb to this. Joe Biden may be more personable and less pinch-nosed and puritanical than the younger generation of lefties. But I won't forget that he was one of the people who encouraged Barack Obama to push through Obamacare even as wide public opposition to it grew. Moreover, it's important to remember that he has a long record as a blowhard who runs his mouth at random and is prone to adopting and then throwing away poorly-thought-out ideas. In short, he has a lot of the personality flaws of Donald Trump, combined with a pretty far left political agenda.
Oddly, his similarity to Trump is the main case being made to Democrats as to why they should back Biden—though it is not usually put that way. It is quite likely that he is the only Democratic candidate who could make a real play for the voters who put Trump over the top in 2016: the older generation that doesn't like all of this Political Correctness, and all those disgruntled miners and steelworkers who want someone who will champion the blue-collar worker against the "globalist" elites. Biden is, of course, as much an "elite" as Trump is, but I expect that he is capable of appealing to the same kind of cultural populism.
Yet this very thing would be his weakness if he chose to run. He is a product of the Democratic Party of the 1970s and 80s, but time has passed him by, and now it is beginning to catch up to him, particularly because of his history of handsy displays of affection for women. Peggy Noonan, a product of the same era, explains why.
We all know that what you intended as warmth is now received as a boundary violation....
In the past you were never really slimed and reviled by your party; you were mostly teased and patronized. But if you get in the race this time, it will be different. They will show none of the old respect for you, your vice presidency, or your past fealty to the cause....
You will be judged to be old-school and insufficiently doctrinaire. The current Democratic Party is different from the one you entered in the late 1960s, not only in policies but in mood, tone, style.... In the old party of classic 20th-century Democratic liberalism, they wanted everyone to rise. Those who suffered impediments—minorities, women, working people trying to unionize—would be given a boost. There's plenty to go around, America's a rich country, let the government get in and help.
The mood of the rising quadrants of the new party is more pinched—more abstractedly aggrieved, more theoretical. Less human. Now there's a mood not of Everyone Can Rise but of Some Must Be Taken Down. White people in general, and white males in particular, are guilty of intractable privilege. It's bitter, resentful, divisive....
It would be one thing if you wanted to enter the race to persuade the party on the merits of more-centrist approaches and working with the other side. But is that your intention? You've been apologizing for calling Mike Pence decent, and groveling over your "white man's culture." If you go with that flow, it will wash you away.
If they want to compete with Trump on his own ground, Biden is the Democrats' best choice. But I'm not sure that's such a wise idea. As a reachable disgruntled Republican, I can tell you that I will be unwilling to vote for Biden for many of the same reasons I am unwilling to vote for Trump. But I don't think I'll have to worry too much about making that choice. Joe Biden would be a good pick for making a broad and uniting appeal to the American center—but it would do too much to rip open the divisions within the Democrats' own party.
Who could achieve the same result without this disadvantage? A guy who has offended hardly anyone because he has stood for hardly anything.
Beto O'Rourke: The Blank Screen
Barack Obama once described himself as "a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." His inheritor in the 2020 race is Beto O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman whose greatest political accomplishment to date is losing a Senate Race to Ted Cruz by only three points.
I didn't think that would be a springboard to the presidency, but who knows? I didn't think being the star of a fake workplace reality TV show would be a springboard to the presidency, either.
O'Rourke is famous for being tall and charismatic and not standing for much of anything in particular.
Beto O'Rourke's most distinctive policy position? To be determined. There's no signature issue yet, no single policy proposal sparking his campaign. Convening crowds—and listening to them—is the central thrust of his early presidential bid.
When pressed on particular questions about where he stands, here is his typical response:
"I guess it's probably for you and voters to decide. All I can do is share the things that I believe in and the way in which I want to campaign," O'Rourke said. "And then where you want to affix me on the political spectrum is up to you."...
The exchange was reminiscent of O'Rourke's first day as a presidential candidate, when he told a crowd: "I am all ears right now. There's no sense in campaigning if you already know every single answer, if you're not willing to listen to those whom you wish to serve."
See what I mean? The blank screen.
Everything about O'Rourke is fake. "Beto" is merely a nickname, not evidence of actual Hispanic heritage; his real name, Robert Francis O'Rourke, is thoroughly Irish. He is a progressive "man of the people" who comes from a wealthy family and whose father-in-law, if not a billionaire, is "the richest man in El Paso." And O'Rourke's fame on the national stage comes mostly from the media over-hyping his chances against Cruz, enabling him to raise vast sums of out-of-state money that he spent with little effect—but which gave him a national mailing list of gullible donors. Come to think of it, maybe that is a realistic base for a presidential campaign.
All of this makes me surprisingly comfortable with a Beto candidacy. His lack of ideological core means that he is likely to make a lot of big promises to the left in order to get through the primaries—but also that he is likely to drift back to the center in the general election. In office, he would be likely to swim with the current and not accomplish very much. If we're looking for a sane centrist, well, this is probably the best example we're going to see of what one looks like in reality.
What I also find reassuring about O'Rourke is the way in which he is not like Obama. Barack Obama let others project their wishes onto his blank screen, but he did have something of an ideological core, having been steeped in far-left pieties by his mother, which he nurtured as an Alinskyite "community organizer."
In that respect, probably the better and more alarming parallel to Obama is the latest rising star in the Democratic roster.
Pete Buttigieg: The Red Diaper Baby
Buttigieg is certainly being built up in the way Obama was, in a series of puff piece reports short on substance and long on descriptions of his "sunny promise of a 'new American spring.'"
"Buttigieg," by the way, is supposedly pronounced "Boot-Edge-Edge," but look, we all know how we're going to pronounce it. Trust me on this. You can decide how you would prefer people to pronounce your name, but how they're actually going to pronounce it is a totally different thing.
If you want to get a better grasp of who Buttigieg is, I suggest starting with a good profile by National Review's Jim Geraghty. He's been doing these for every candidate, and I find them very useful, often chock full of publicly available facts that mainstream reporters don't seem all that interesting in emphasizing.
I got two big things from Geraghty's profile of Buttigieg. First, he comes across as a super-ambitious type whose head is full of leftist bromides and who ran for office at the very first available opportunity.
In high school, Buttigieg was senior-class president, valedictorian, and president of the school's chapter of Amnesty International.... He won an essay contest sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library as part of the organization's annual Profile in Courage Award. Buttigieg wrote an essay saluting the courage of then-congressman Bernie Sanders, declaring that the congressman's "real impact has been a reaction to the cynical climate which threatens the effectiveness of the democratic system." Invited to the JFK library, Buttigieg met Senator Ted Kennedy, and the senator offered him an internship.
His thoughts of running for office started quite early. In Shortest Way Home, Buttigieg writes of his high-school years, "I had begun to wonder what it would be like to be involved in public service directly, instead of reading or watching movies about it. Could political action be a calling, not just the stuff of dinner table talk?"...
Buttigieg became the student president at Harvard's Institute of Politics, a role described by The New Yorker as being "sought by the most ambitious of the exceptionally ambitious."
The other thing is that despite presenting himself in "centrist" terms, Buttigieg is a down-the-line, doctrinaire lefty who can be counted on to back every cause favored by Outrage Twitter.
His proposals include abolishing the Electoral College and instituting single-payer health care. He said he's open to statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and appointing more than nine justices to the Supreme Court [i.e., court-packing to undo the court's conservative majority] because"'in some ways it's no more a shattering of norms than what's already been done to get the judiciary to where it is today."...
Discussing his experience campaigning statewide and attending many county Democratic parties' traditional Jefferson-Jackson dinners, he laments that the events are named after "two morally problematic men," former presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.
His supposed "moderation" merely consists of putting a pragmatic gloss on socialism.
It is very pragmatic to look around and say, well, the countries that do this tend to be better than the countries that don't. The system we have isn't working very well; we ought to try this other system. Politically, it's never been possible, because it's been considered socialism, and socialism was a kill switch. Our generation did not live through the Cold War in the same way.
Buttigieg tries to portray this as a generational issue, as if having no idea what happened in the Cold War is a good thing—but he's not quite being honest. The reason he's not afraid of socialism is because he grew up with it. The one big fact Geraghty leaves out is that Pete Buttigieg's father, Joseph Buttigieg, was a Marxist college professor. He was the kind of guy who went to events that culminate with a group reading of "The Communist Manifesto," and who would saying things like, "Marxism's greatest appeal—undiminished by the collapse of Communist edifices—" do we really need to continue that sentence? Isn't that damning enough? OK, here's how it ends: "is the imbalances produced by other sociopolitical governing structures." If a guy can't realize that the dysfunction of Communism when put into practice far exceeds that of just about every other "sociopolitical governing structure," then he is pretty far gone.
The elder Buttigieg was specifically an expert on and translator of the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, who was a "cultural Marxist." This is a term that has gained some currency on the right recently, sometimes in an exaggerated and misused form. It is particularly popular among the religious-right and the alt-right, who use it to make their peculiar culture war obsessions look like a way of fighting Communism. But Gramsci really was a "cultural Marxist." These theorists took Marx's view that a society's culture and values reflect relationships of economic power, but they turned it on its head. Old-fashioned Marxists believed that economics would drive the revolution, and the revolution would then refashion all aspects of culture. Gramsci argued that Marxists should seek to infiltrate cultural institutions and change them first, in order to bring about the revolution.
Gramsci was all about applying Marxist theory to culture and cultural institutions—what is often referred to as a "long march through the institutions," such as film, media, and especially education.
This is what belies the younger Buttigieg's outward presentation as a sunny moderate. He grew up regarding hard-core Marxism as normal, and we've seen before how that can twist a president's perspective.
Pete Buttigieg is the candidate for Democratic voters who want their socialism (or at least sympathy for socialism) presented in a friendly, happy, non-combative form so as not to frighten the yokels. But what if that's not what they want?
Bernie Sanders: The Angry White Man
The mood of the Democratic Party's ideological base is not sunny, friendly, or non-combative. It is angry and vengeful. I've linked to several articles, most recently this one, arguing that the average Democrat is neither particularly angry nor particularly radical. But these Democrats are also not very politically engaged.
Every political party has two versions of its "base." One is the mass of rank-and-file voters who turn out in the general election. The other is a much smaller group of political activists who vote in the primaries, give money to primary campaigns, and turn out as volunteers early on in the process. The dilemma for any political party is how to gain the support of this ideological base without alienating the wider electoral base.
If the ideological base gets its way, they will choose Bernie Sanders, who is arguably the frontrunner at this early stage. Having run for the nomination in 2016, he has greater name recognition. To the extent it is someone's "turn" to get the nomination, it's his turn. So the New York Times is already reporting on a certain degree of panic within the Democratic Party establishment that Bernie Sander is their Donald Trump: the wild-eyed outsider that they just can't figure out how to stop.
What is most terrifying to me about Sanders is not his open advocacy of socialism, which he continually muddles with the welfare state and with Scandinavian countries that insist they are capitalist. What terrifies me more is his demeanor. Sanders is not a socialist because he is overwhelmed with a positive vision of how much better life supposedly is in Denmark. He is a socialist because he is disgusted by America. Check out any video of him, like this one describing his excitement at Castro's Communist takeover in Cuba because it was an uprising against "rather ugly rich people"—and then his literal nausea at John F. Kennedy's anti-Communism. Sanders has a tendency to spit out his words contemptuously, filled with anger and revulsion at the way things are in this country. In his mind, America has already been judged and found wanting.
This may explain why Sanders has a history of making excuses for totalitarian dictators, because this is one of their chief characteristics: disgust and contempt for the world as it is and for people as they are. Everyone but him is rotten and venal, and he just can't wait until we get what's coming to us.
I am current reading Richard Pipes's Property and Freedom, and I was struck by his description of how utopian socialism was often "inspired by a physical revulsion from the world as constituted." Quoting Jean-Jacques Rousseau telling a visitor that "mankind disgusts me," Pipes concludes that "utopias have always served as an outlet for misanthropic emotions."
That's Bernie Sanders to a tee. He is the misanthropic utopian, the humanitarian with the guillotine. There is definitely a market for this among the most politically active members of the Democratic Party's base. But in the general election, this is fortunately a much harder outlook to sell to the public.
If I were the type to cheer on the political equivalent of radical chemotherapy, I might welcome a Bernie Sanders candidacy. On the one hand, if he loses to Donald Trump, it might have the effect of pushing the Democratic Party back from its swerve toward radical socialism. After 2016, a lot of Democrats talked themselves into the idea that they would have won if they had gone big for Bernie. If they try that and get a second Trump term, it would discredit that line of thinking and re-embolden any remaining moderates in the party.
On the other hand, if Sanders beats Trump, that would be an opportunity for a radical shakeup of the Republican Party. Trump told us we would be tired of all the winning—but what if his main legacy is an avowed socialist in the White House?
So would I welcome the opportunity for a giant NeverTrump "I told you so" moment? The problem is that you can't game the culture this way. Maybe a Bernie Sanders administration would be a shock that would help reform the Republican Party in a direction we like. Or maybe it would just cause our politics to devolve further into a contest between two different version of collectivism: socialism versus nationalism.
The upshot is that I will be encouraging Democrats to sound the alarms and knock Bernie Sanders out the lead for the nomination.
We still have a number of candidates left—Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, and heck, maybe even Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard. Assuming they don't drop out, I will return to them in a future edition.
But note the pattern we have so far. The only "moderate" we've met is a man without substance, and the candidates with the most substantive agendas are the socialists. That reflects the current state of the Democratic Party and the American left in general. Its only ideological content is some form of socialism. So it's that or nothing, and sanity may consist in hoping that the guy who stands for nothing wins.