Roundtable – 2020 Democratic Candidates, Pt. 2

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 April 7, 2019.  The first part of the candidate discussion was published last week.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor
Hello and welcome to today’s Roundtable. This time we’re continuing our discussion of 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 today with Jay Inslee, current Governor of Washington. Thoughts, assessments, concerns, predictions?

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor (aka Christo)

I think Inslee is in it more to ensure that Climate Change is a major part of the platform and conversation than to necessarily take the board. He doesn’t have quite the name recognition of the top tier, but seems to take his issue seriously. Climate Change should probably be the massive issue of the next several (and should have been for the last several) elections, so it seems like a good idea.

Ann Anderson, Contributing Writer

I have to agree that Inslee may be in this more as a platform pusher than an actual viable candidate. I’m glad Inslee is pushing the ball forward on climate change. He is also a proponent of minimum wage increases, but we don’t have much more from him. On the con side of the equation, he apparently gave a lot of tax concessions to Boeing to keep it in Washington but forgot to get job guarantees, leaving Boeing to bleed about 20,000 out of the state, even as the corporation stayed.

David Spitzley, Senior Contributor

I think Inslee needs to take one lesson from Bernie’s experience VERY seriously: thou shalt not run without running. All of the complaints by his supporters about the unfairness of the primary process in the 2016 campaign aside, he has stated directly that he originally ran to “raise issues”, and he wasn’t ready to take advantage of the support he discovered until too late in the campaign to avoid falling behind. You don’t run for President unless you are going to do it with your entire being. It’s better to flame out than to never launch.

Josh

I think it’s acceptable to be a single issue, I’m just here to raise this thing, candidate. Bernie’s problem was more that he decided halfway through the campaign that he had a chance of actually winning. That pivot was not great for the party. I don’t want to see Inslee win, but I’m happy for him to make sure climate change gets the “Winter is coming” level of urgency that it deserves in this primary.

Christo

I think for an early primary bid, issue running isn’t a terrible idea, but in this case a) the field is already full, b) we already have ideas such as the Green New Deal, and c) Inslee has weaknesses (Seattle becoming a Corporate Town on a scale not seen almost anywhere else in the U.S. is not a good look for a Democratic Nominee).  I don’t think it will do much damage, per se, but the impact of him running is also limited.

Also, from the limited amount I’ve seen, he isn’t as good at running as some of the front runners.

Josh

Does Inslee have a specific preferred response to climate change? Does he support the Green New Deal or what?

Ann

From what I have seen he supports the Green New Deal or some idea equally sweeping. (edited)

David

He’s definitely in the “we’re all gonna die” camp, as most rational people are, or are getting close to being these days

Josh 

Yeah. My fervent hope is that Inslee fails to make a splash because every major candidate comes out as sharing his position.

David

“Amen” says the agnostic…

Christo

It reminds me of Brexit, except in this case if Labour was competently opposing the conservatives

Josh

At any rate, speaking of candidates running to raise issues, that’s definitely not what Bernie Sanders is doing this time around. Ahead in the polls (besides Biden, who still isn’t in the race), ahead in fundraising, the 2016 runner up, is it Bernie’s turn? Is he the frontrunner? What do we think of his qualities, weaknesses, and chances?

Ann

Honestly, I think Bernie has a solid chance of winning the nomination. He has come to be seen as the one setting the bar when it comes to progressive policy, although this time out he is not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. He still carries with him blind spots that can trip him up, including ego, an inability to connect with various minority groups, and his supposed ignorance of the sexual harassment during his last run for the office. Further, on a personal level, I tire of old, white men telling everyone else they know what’s best. I was not one of the ones convinced he could beat Trump in 2016, and I am not convinced he could do it in 2020 either.

Christo

Bernie is a known quantity this time, and he also knows that he has a fighting chance from the beginning this time. So it’s not going to be a “come from nowhere” thing like last time. However, the democratic party has moved left in 4 years, so he is less notable than last time. He also *still* has to contend with other candidates having comprehensive policy plans.  That just isn’t his wheelhouse. Also, he is too old. I think he can beat Trump, but as Ann mentions, having 2 old white dudes yell at each other isn’t the best image for what represents America

I don’t think being the “spoiler” or whatever from 2016 is going to be a big deal.

David

I’m just not sure what to make of the fact that Biden is flattening Bernie in the polls.  One interpretation is that Hillary would have beat Bernie even harder if she hadn’t been Hillary, and the Dems at the party level really want a center-left White guy who reminds them of their uncle.

Christo

If Hillary had been anyone besides herself, she would have crushed everything, because the media would have only been shitty about her because she was a woman, not comprehensively shitty because she is Hillary Clinton.

David

Another is that left support is sufficiently splintered that Bernie is the biggest fragment remaining, and he will hit a ceiling as other candidates disappear and consolidate into a larger bloc.

I have trouble really seeing him grab the nomination, but I guess we’ll see.

Christo

I don’t know how good Bernie is at running when he isn’t the outside man. He isn’t much more liberal than a lot of the candidates anymore, and a lot of the policy positions and overall strategies are the same, even if specifics are not hammered down or are indeed different. We will see if he can run a campaign not based on his outsiderness. Also his official pledge to be a democrat seems to me that he, or someone in his campaign, knows how badly he screwed up with that last time

Also, he is too old. We will be saying that with a lot of candidates

Josh

I’m concerned about Bernie. I saw a lot of issues with him in 2016–his age, his foreign policy or lack thereof, his difficulties with appeal across racial lines, his more fanatical supporters, and his insistence that the way to accomplish bold policy is for a revolution to appear out of nowhere and sweep Dems into full power. Some of those elements have gotten worse this time around (he’s even older), and to them I’d add things like the fact that he still (!) hasn’t released his tax returns. I think Bernie has never had real scrutiny and I worry what might come out in the general if he coasts to victory in the primary on his 20-25% in a crowded field. Bernie deserves a lot of credit for pushing the party left, but now that many of the candidates share his policy views, all that’s left to differentiate him from the pack is that he’s probably a poor executive and a nasty coming fight over who has the purest progressive past. I’m not looking forward to his campaign and I hope as other candidates gain more name recognition that Bernie starts to fade.

Let’s move on, though, to the other major frontrunner, who is winning in the polls despite not actually being in the race yet: Joe Biden, former Vice President. What does it mean for the race that the leading candidate hasn’t announced yet? Do we think Biden will run, and if he does, will his lead hold?

Christo

I think Biden is going to be running on the Obama nostalgia. If he doesn’t make “Big Fuckin Deal” his slogan, someone in his campaign (and also him) screwed up horribly.  I think he makes Centrist Dems more comfortable because he has been in the party forever. As for the personal space problem, I think he is going for the “reassuring uncle” persona, and I think unfortunately it will work. He is going to go for the “but I am learning!” thing, even though he is more than twice my age. 

He is also too old.

Ann

First of all, I have to agree that the strategy he is using will probably work regarding the recent touching headlines.
However, even before the recent news coverage of Biden’s tendencies toward non-consensual space invasion, his legislative history has raised issues and concerns. The public has not yet been reminded of them, or else, I suspect, his poll numbers might be different. Perhaps that’s some of why he’s acting like the prima donna and trying to be last to officially enter the race. He may be trying to hold off that scrutiny while allowing the public sentiment for him to build. 

He has adopted some of the more progressive rallying cries, but when pressed, calls himself an Obama-Biden Democrat, which, to discerning voters, means centrist and conciliatory, as it should. Obama’s glow stems less from being aligned with current Democratic sentiment and more from being in contrast to the Trump cesspool. Again, another old, white man saying he knows what’s best for everyone is not a great look either.

Josh

I agree that Biden is too old and too moderate to win in this primary. His pole position is fog and mist that will dissipate after Iowa separates the leaders from the pack; if he lasts enough to get real scrutiny he’ll buckle. People want him because they’ve heard of him and because he won before, but that doesn’t make him right for this moment, and his brush with #MeToo is just one more indication of that. It would be best if he simply bows out before he begins. The same thing happened in 2016, when media dissatisfaction with the candidate crop had them pining for a sudden Biden entry right up until the first debates. Once people start paying attention, Biden will fade. Thank God.

David

The weird part about this? Am I alone in thinking that Hillary might have a lot of power in a Biden/Bernie slapfight? There are still people in mourning over her loss, specifically hers, not just the party’s. I could see a lot of voters following her guidance if she pointed to one or the other of them and said “him.” 

Ann

I’m not so sure I see that. I’ve gotten the sense that there are a lot of Democrats that seem just tired of the whole Clinton, whether it’s Bill or Hillary, involvement in things and want them to sit on the sidelines.

Christo

I think Clinton is not going to get involved with this. She seems to be mostly done with direct political involvement. Plus it would have the potential to just set the entire board on fire.

Josh

Hillary, an establishment politician and campaign loser, would cause so much resentment among the rank and file that she might well do better to endorse the candidate she doesn’t want.

But I think most of the Dem leadership is aware this time that they really, really need to avoid putting their thumb on the scale. I don’t expect Obama, for instance, to name a preference during the primary, at least not until the field is down to 2 or 3. Maybe not even then. Unity in the general is more important than who wins the primary.

Ann

I hope you are right, which brings me to another issue I have with Biden. He seems, at times, to be begging Obama to put his thumb on the scales, and he should know better.

Josh

Speaking of politicians with ties to Wall Street (Hillary burn!) our final candidate today is Corey Booker, former Mayor of Newark and current Senator for New Jersey. What do we think of his message and overall chances?

David

I think his “the Mayor is here to fix my pothole!” aura is still working for him, but I’m curious whether he’s managed to keep that type of buzzworthy constituent service going since he hit congress.

He seems to have that kind of Bill/Barack vibe going for him, but I’m not certain it will sell as well as it used to.

Christo

I think Booker is personable and affable enough. He absolutely is going to go for the “I am the next Barack Obama” image. His connections to Wall Street are… look, if he votes and signs for the regulations, I don’t particularly care, but the problem is with how that influence manifests, and it is a very good question, and he needs to be able to say “These industries have and are screwing the American people, and they need to be regulated”. No one in the field has a completely clean past. If he can advocate for the policies that America needs, then the issue is minimized.

If he can overcome his Wall Street past, I think he is one of the eventual front runners that can work well (along with Harris [who has her prosecutorial issues] and maybe Warren, possibly some others). 

Josh

I like Booker a lot. I think he’s charismatic and energetic. I like his strong sense of justice—racial, economic, environmental. He also knows how those three are intertwined, a message that eluded Bernie in 2016. I think he’s a strong candidate. But I do think he shares some key weaknesses with Hillary Clinton. First, the Wall Street ties are less a problem for me personally than they will be a political albatross in the general, just like Hillary’s were. Second, Booker strikes me as really, nakedly ambitious. He really wants to be President, he’s wanted that for a long time, and his speaking mode always seems to be aiming for lofty presidential oratory rather than an authentic conversation. I worry about that kind of ambition and what a man like that might be hiding, or what he might do for personal advancement. But that’s a bit more ephemeral and hypothetical. Booker is still probably top five for me in the race as it stands.

Ann

Booker has charisma, ambition and a lot of boxes checked. Yet, somehow I can’t help wondering what is behind the mask of popular perfection. We know some of it, with his support of big pharma over drug price reform, for example. He talks a lot of the progressive talk, but so much of it seemed, even at the time, to be for show as part of a run up for a presidential bid that I just don’t feel as good about him as some of the others I have questions about, like Kamala Harris. That said, some of his positions, such as those on race and overall equality, seem genuine. I agree that he definitely could end up one of the front runners.

Christo

I just want to say that I think there is a difference between running for president because you think you deserve it and running for president because you think you can win it, and positioning yourself accordingly. I agree that Booker has wanted to be president for a long time, but I feel like he has an actual goal for the nation beyond that ambition. who they are behind the mask is important, but frankly, every single person running is by their nature ambitious and power-hungry. Or at least they should be.

Ann

I certainly agree that ambition for the office is not necessarily a bad thing. The key is what they want to do in office for the country, as you say.

I know people who would vote for Booker over Bernie in a heartbeat. I know others who would take Biden over both. I know others who would take Bernie over everyone. So this is shaping up to be a interesting primary race, but that’s also my main fear. I hope the Democrats don’t tear themselves apart before the general election and undermine their chances of beating Trump in the process.

Josh

Indeed. Any other final thoughts before we wrap up for today?

David

It’s honestly amazing we’re already discussing this campaign at this level of detail. The idea of the Invisible Primary is really pretty much dead, isn’t it?

Christo

I think since the stakes are so in our face that it’s impossible for it to stay invisible.  

That coupled with the fact that elections help news media ratings means they always want to be talking about an election

Josh

As with the 2018 midterms, Democrats are very much looking forward to rebuking Trump at the ballot box.

David

So were the Democrats after Reagan and after W. The real difference is how thoroughly permeated the political system is by online media these days. Whatever happens it hits the front pages of the political sites. 

Ann

I think that Trump’s inauguration and then immediate decision to lie about something as petty as crowd size triggered a growing knowledge that, as bad as people thought Trump might be, he was going to be even worse. That put a sense of urgency in Democrats and some independents that was there leading all the way up to 2018 and will continue to crescendo until 2020. The desperation is deeper than I think has been in past efforts to flip the presidency. 

However, the fanaticism of Trump’s base is also pretty darn deep.

Christo

I think the Dem’s failure in 2004 to flip the presidency also ring clear, where it was treated as something we should do, but wasn’t treated nearly as seriously by the media and, frankly, the parties.

Ann

I think, given the voter turn outs, even for presidential races, in this country, that those able to vote in the past have exhibited a deep complacency, as if to say that no matter how things turn out, it can’t get too bad. I like to hope that Trump’s election and subsequent shambling mound of a presidency has shattered that feeling, but we shall see. 

Josh

As has been said before, this is once again the most important election of our lives. We may have questions about our candidates, we may have preferences, but we all care very much about seeing the right Democrat win the White House in the end. And that’s where we’ll leave it for now. Next time we’ll discuss the remaining major candidates. Thanks all for a lively conversation, and thank you for reading.

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