Roundtable – 2020 Democratic Candidates, Pt. 1

The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links were added after the fact. This conversation happened on March 31, 2019.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor
Last weekend Attorney General Barr issued a four page letter reporting about the Mueller report, which is still unavailable to the public. These are important events, but until the report is released, all we can do is call for that information to be made available at the earliest possible opportunity, so that the nation can have the results of the investigation it paid for. Today, we want to discuss a different subject, one where there is much more information available for us to make our judgement: yes, it’s finally time to discuss the 2020 Democratic primary. The field of candidates seems to have stabilized, with the possible exception of Joe Biden, whom we might as well lump in here. The list of major candidates is 10 or more, but each of them in these early stages have revealed different strengths, weaknesses, campaign approaches, and policy focuses. For this roundtable, I’d like to take each in turn, get everyone’s thoughts, and wrap up with a brief discussion of the overall state of the race. (The order of candidate has been randomized.) We’ll start with Kamala Harris, the Senator from California. Thoughts, assessments, concerns, predictions? 

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor (aka Christo)

I think something interesting is that while some candidates have a brand and been relatively consistent through their career, such as Bernie, we also have relative frontrunners (who knows, at this point) like Harris that are attempting to separate themselves from their earlier careers. Prosecutors have to do some pretty awful things to get ahead, because our criminal justice system is awful. The fact that she is a black woman makes that intersectionality interesting, and we will see where it goes. The question is more about whether she can sell it than anything else. Honestly, it’s pretty clear that policy is not nearly as important as anyone would wish it, but that’s always true in politics.

Josh

I think there is a lot of policy discussion happening, but because the field is mostly aligned on the broad policy details–most of them are for some form of single payer or transition to single payer healthcare, for example–rather than a primary like in 2008 where the details of the plans are the focus of the disagreements, this primary seems destined to be about who has the record that proves they’re more likely to follow through on the ideas the candidates all share. Harris is an exciting figure–smart, charismatic, dedicated–but I agree that her past as a prosecutor is likely to be her biggest weakness in the primary (even if it might become a strength in the general). I did a deep dive on one of the critiques of her involving her office’s impact on a case of transgender inmate rights and was not too happy with what I found. I’ll be interested to see how she addresses these sorts of issues once forced to (at the debates, most likely). 

Ann Anderson, Contributing Writer

On the one hand with Harris, there are concerns about how she ran her prosecutorial offices and with her history as a prosecutor in general. On the other, she offers a sense of solidity and has showed a willingness to consider at least some more progressive ideals. I think that in the game of public perception, she has some strong advantages. I hate to use the word “electability”, but she has some ability to bring in voters who might fence sit or hesitate with respect to other Democratic candidates. Obviously, a lot is still up in the air here, but that’s true for the whole field at this point.

Josh

I’m willing to believe that Harris was as progressive as she felt she could have been in her job, and that she will be more progressive now. I think the willingness of a candidate to respond to the voters in that fashion is perhaps more important sometimes than the candidate being zealously for the position I want–because zealots can’t be pressured, even by the voters. 

But let’s move on to the next candidate on my randomized list, former HUD Secretary and Mayor of San Antonio, TX, Julian Castro. An early contender in the race, he seems to have not made much of a splash since. Do we expect him to resurge at some point or is he already out of the race? Or is that a dumb question to ask this early?

Christo

A big problem with such a large pool of candidates is that making a “splash” is actually rather difficult. Part of it is that as you said, policy wise, there’s even less deviation than at the end of the 2008 primaries, and part of it is that I think there is a dynamic of people not really wanting to pay attention or cover the thing. Because everyone knows it will be awful. So there’s this odd dynamic of almost forced reluctance. The other problem is that while the people actually voting want to hear about healthcare etc., the Beltway and whatnot want to frame this entire thing purely through the Trump lens, and Trump probably doesn’t know that a hispanic man named Castro is running against him. 

Ann

At this point in the race, it’s never a dumb question to ask if a candidate may resurge. Everyone is still jockeying for position. Julian Castro, as “the Texan in the race” is being overshadowed by Beto O’Rourke, but that’s subject to change, even as O’Rourke’s initial surge is beginning to slow down a wee bit. I think he may also be suffering some name recognition issues due to his brother Joaquin Castro’s position as a U.S Representative. It sounds weird, but since Joaquin shows up on the 24-hour news cycle as much as Julian, people may be confused. As if to say, “Wait. Is this the guy running for president or is this his brother in the House?” If they even know about his brother and aren’t thinking they are the same person.

Josh

Personally I feel like after listening to Castro speak that he’s just… boring? I’m sure he’d be fine as a president–and let’s be clear, I prefer all of these people to Donald Trump, or even a generic Republican–but Castro’s geographical association with Beto just goes to show that charisma is super important. Castro to me just doesn’t seem to have it, and we need a candidate in the general who can be inspiring enough to motivate the base and interesting enough to wrest the media spotlight away from Trump sometimes. This is not the time for another John Kerry.

Next up on our list is Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Senator. Warren is definitely one of the frontrunners at this point, but it already feels like she’s running a gauntlet of sexist media coverage, even while she’s running rings around the rest of the field in terms of policy proposals. What do you think of her campaign at this point?

David Spitzley, Senior Contributor

I think the biggest thing she has going for her is she has concrete policy proposals, and due to her history as the progenitor of the Consumer Rights Protection Bureau and her general role as primary progressive figure in the news until Bernie hit it big, those proposals are actually getting some air time, rather than landing with an audible thud.

Ann

I like Warren, her policy proposals intrigue me and impress me as being more than mere talking points, and her intelligence always has made me notice her. I am attracted to candidates who propose things with the how and the why behind them thought out. I agree that she has run into the wall of double-standards when covering female candidates. I find myself particularly irked that her nerdiness gets presented as a laughable liability while the nerdiness of someone like Pete Buttigieg gets presented as adorable.

Josh

That is a great point–Warren gets tagged as Lisa Simpson, Buttigieg as some kind of prodigy. (edited)

Christo

Warren and Bernie definitely have the advantage of having had these policy battles in public and on television. While Harris and Booker have been somewhat calmly and deliberately building their own names, Warren and Bernie were in front of it, which lends a certain notoriety.

Honestly, I think the field is going to winnow itself by necessity before the first primaries. I hope we don’t have the big kids and little kids’ tables for debates, because that shit was embarrassing.

Josh

The debates will be randomized, not split into big kids and little kids. To qualify you need a certain number of donors or at least 1% in the polls, basically.

David

I think the DNC made a mistake allowing 20 candidates.  If the requirements were clear this far out, they could  reasonably have said “top 10, that’s it.”

Josh

I don’t blame them for being wide open after they get accused in 2016 for putting their thumb on the scale.

Ann

I feel that’s an important factor to keep in mind.

Christo

Although a certain amount of that was Republicans

Josh

As for Warren, I have two concerns about her as a candidate. One, I don’t care about the Native American DNA test thing in and of itself, it’s very minor and the public doesn’t seem very engaged with it (as opposed to the media and Trump), but it displayed a certain level of unsavviness in terms of dealing with Trump’s trolling that I doesn’t make me optimistic for a Warren general campaign. Two, I just flat out think she’s too old to be president (same for Bernie and Biden).

Christo
The first only matters in a meta sense, and I think it was generally a mistake rather than an indication of forward strategy. She screwed up, she isn’t dwelling but moving on.

The second is a massive issue with our politicians in general, and part of the reason everything is so screwed up now. But I also think she is smart and capable, so…. we’ll see, I guess. I don’t have an answer

Josh

Let’s move on then, because I also agree that time will tell with Warren–she’s definitely not dropping out anytime soon. Next up is Tulsi Gabbard, US Representative from Hawaii. Ann, I know you’ve looked into her–do you have any overall impressions?

Ann

Gabbard is one of those people who, at first glance, sells well. Many people cite to how well she speaks and presents. She made a name for herself in the DNC by jumping ship and endorsing Bernie Sanders early in 2016. On the surface she’s a passionate progressive and environmentalist. However, dig a bit, and problems come up. Among them, a very nasty history with conservatism as well as anti-LGBTQ and possibly anti-Muslim ideologies come up. She also has been accused by her constituents of being a Democrat in name only. Add to that her military policy, including apparent sympathy for Assad and Steve Bannon thinking she would work well ideologically with the Trump administration on foreign policy, and there is plenty of reason to take a step back and think twice when it comes to her.

Josh

Do you think Gabbard is actually a politician in that weird political overlap of voters who voted for Bernie in the primary and Trump in the general?

Ann

Possibly. The main accusation noted by her constituents is that her alleged conversion to Democrat and progressive were rather conveniently timed given an ever bluer and bluer home state of Hawai’i.

Christo

Has Gabbard said anything about Trump’s hatred of LGBT and Islamophobic policies?

Ann

As I recall, not really. She also tries to present as one of the “I like to work across the aisle” people, but I may not be recalling correctly. She strikes me someone who would come out against things like that when she has the political cover of sounding like one of a bunch of Democrats in the sea and getting overlooked. In other words, she says things to make herself look like one of the other Democrats to her constituents, but I don’t think much more than that.

Josh

There are a lot of things I’m looking for in a Democratic candidate, but being left wing is definitely one of the most important. Of the so-called moderate candidates, Gabbard is probably the most concerning. Her history of anti-LGBT sentiments is significantly worse than even where leaders of the party were before Obergefell. 

Christo

Yeah, I don’t need left-wing per se, but I don’t consider fighting for civil rights to be left-wing.

Ann

In response to the Mueller report being delivered to Barr and Barr’s subsequent letter, Gabbard tweeted saying essentially, “That’s done; let’s bury the hatchet and forget all about this.” It isn’t a good look, if you are worried about her leaning in Trump’s direction.

Christo

Eesh.

That is a terrible look for someone trying to run for president. A presidential candidate must be prepared to take up the fight.

Ann

The scary thing with Gabbard, to me at least, is like Trump she has learned how to work with words and definitions to flip the script and make some of the questionable stuff she does and says sound like reasonable, progressive policy. That could work to deceive voters if folks aren’t careful.

Josh

I’ll second both of you on that. Let’s move onto final thoughts–anything else you want to say about these four candidates (Harris, Castro, Warren, Gabbard), or the state of the race as it is currently?

Christo

I think the most important thing for all of the candidates is that they cannot get fixated on Trump. He wants the election to be about him, but it is, as always, about the American people. They can talk about how he is trying to kill the ACA again, and also his lies with pretending he has a new policy (and the idiocy of introducing it after the ACA would supposedly be gone). But talking about Trump is a dangerous pitfall. It’s one reason why Warren’s DNA thing was such a mistake.

Ann

I think the one good thing about Warren’s DNA thing was that, since it was already out there as an issue for Trump, she tackled it head on early as far as the 2020 race goes. I’m not endorsing what she did, but at least she knew enough to know she had to deflate some of it now rather than later.

On the whole, I wholeheartedly agree with focusing on healthcare or jobs or things that directly affect and concern Trump voters. Candidates can hammer Trump by asking, for example, where the infrastructure initiatives or the coal jobs are and offer constructive proposals that actually do address those concerns. By the way, that’s not my endorsement of coal jobs either, it’s my endorsement of introducing other solutions to economic growth and jobs in coal country. The focus on policy over Trump seemed to work pretty well in 2018 and took some of the wind out of Trump’s sails in his attempt to make the election all about him.

Josh

This election will be all about Trump no matter what, because the media still doesn’t know how to cover him and Trump is very good at making the world pay attention to him. But I’m glad we have so many candidates in the primary this cycle, and I’m glad we’re starting early, because we need time to make sure that whoever wins the Democratic primary is someone who is charismatic and skilled enough as a campaigner to beat Trump, and liberal and pragmatic enough to do what needs to be done once in office. And while all of these candidates have some major issues, there’s plenty of time for them to address and move past them. Out of this rock tumbler primary will come one polished gem, I hope. Because I’ll vote for a rock over Donald Trump, but I’d prefer not to have to.

We’re going to leave it there. We hope to continue this discussion of the 2020 Democratic primary candidates in next week’s Roundtable. Until then, thanks all for participating, and thank you for reading.

Please check out part 2 of our candidate discussions.

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