As sure a sign of 2019 as the dropping of the Times Square ball, the starting gun for the crowded Democratic presidential race has fired. Elizabeth Warren’s jump off the blocks, the first by a major candidate, got one pundit imagining a field that sounds like a jingle from the Christmas season just past: “You know Biden and Bernie and Beto and Booker …”
The question before the house is whether the party’s ascendant progressive wing will rehash the peculiarly Democratic ritual of eating its young.
There’s a glimmer of self-destructive identity politics that’s concerning for those of us who believe 2020 must be — first, last and foremost — about defeating an unfit incumbent, regardless of his opponent’s skin color or anatomical parts. “There have been plenty of white males running for president over time,” a Warren supporter harrumphed to the Boston Globe. “There’s a strong desire to have a combination of racial and gender diversity on the ticket.”
I consider Warren superior not just to Trump — that’s a cinch — but to his fellow white man, Bernie Sanders, as well. Yet obsessing over identity rather than the content of character both ignores Martin Luther King, Jr.’s counsel and flirts with political fire.
Take it from this Republican who watched his party crack up in 2016 with identity politics: They don’t work.
Take the case of Beto O’Rourke, whose emergence as a potential contender was the subject of a recent piece in The New York Times.
The three-term Texas congressman needs a job, having lost a close U.S. Senate race to Ted Cruz. He has proven attributes as a campaigner: a magnet for vast amounts of small donations (by mid-October, almost half of the $69 million raised for his Senate race came in contributions of $200 or less); a responsible if devoid-of-big-ideas platform (pro-worker, pro-common sense gun safety, pro-improved Obamacare); and a charisma that connected with a near majority in a red state Cruz should have won in a romp.
If the goal is to dump Trump, what’s not to like? The Times cites wary liberal activists who, echoing the Globe’s interviewee, “wonder if a white man with his resume and biography is the best fit for this moment, just after the party recaptured the House, in large measure, on the strength of female and nonwhite candidates.”
A South Carolina pol questioned the lack of entreaties to “equally talented” African American politicians: Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, who lost even closer races for governor in Georgia and Florida, respectively. “I look forward to welcoming Beto to the Brookland Baptist Church [a historically black congregation],” the South Carolinian said, “to see if he can clap on beat.”
He meant to cast doubt on O’Rourke’s ability to win black Democrats’ primary votes and, by implication, the White House, as African-Americans, and women especially, are the party’s most enthusiastic voters. (Perhaps he forgot that Hillary Clinton won African-American voters in the 2016 primaries, crushed Trump among them in the general election — and still lost.)
Any of the candidates eyeing a 2020 run would clear the stench now emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Abrams, whose highest elected office was state representative, and Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, may indeed be O’Rourke’s equals in presidential timbre. But that’s unproven in at least one area: As a congressman, he has dealt with the issues a president faces, from defense to entitlements. They haven’t. That matters, as Trump, whose inexperience and incompetence has all Washington taking antidepressants over Jim Mattis’s resignation, proves. The nation’s first African American president agrees — the Times also reports that Barack Obama has offered O'Rourke his admiring “counsel.”
With white voter turnout eclipsing that of nonwhites, some scholars argue that Democrats’ path to retaking the White House actually lies in wooing enough whites from Trump to tip the balance. “Democrats still aren’t going to win a majority of the white working class,” the Times’s David Leonhardt writes. “But they don’t need to. They just need to avoid getting crushed. When they do that, they win elections.”
All of this is worth recalling when considering another possible white, male candidate, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. The conservative but Trump-loathing George Will warns that identity politics could derail a man who potentially is the Democrats’ most formidable nominee, a consistent progressive who won re-election in November in a battleground state Trump carried in 2016.
Take it from this Republican who watched his party crack up in 2016 with identity politics: They don’t work. The GOP primaries coughed up a geriatric white guy who rode white racial resentment to victory. If that’s all an election is for, identity politics is great. But of course, an election is more than a football game; the country’s welfare is at stake. By my lights and Trump’s own (where’s that wall? Why doesn’t anyone want to work for him?), identity politics gave us a rank failure.
White men aren’t the only people who can run a country. Besides Warren, Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, likely to run, offer diversity and experience. Those who thought Hillary Clinton less presidential than Trump either were racially fearful or progressives who equated her ethics to Trump’s follicles-to-feet corruption, proving the left can be as stupid as the right.
Any of the candidates eyeing a 2020 run would clear the stench now emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Voters shouldn’t rule someone out because of race or gender.
That includes Caucasians with Y chromosomes.