Roundtable – 2020 Democratic Candidates, Pt. 3

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 14, 2019. The second 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 covered in the previous installment. 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 Beto O’Rourke, former Congressional Representative from Texas and former TX Senate candidate. Thoughts, assessments, concerns, predictions?

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor (aka Christo)

Beto seems to be one of the group of younger candidates with a pretty big push. On the one hand, he ran competitively in Texas, on the other it was against the least liked politician in America, and he still lost. He seems to have good ideas, but I don’t know about his actual viability.

Ann Anderson, Contributing Writer

Beto O’Rourke is another candidate who has a lot of charisma, but I’m concerned about whether there is substance underneath. In his case, he’s got a history supporting the fossil fuel industry, which is probably unsurprising for a former U.S. Representative for Texas. There’s also been some questions of how concerned he really is in minority interests other than as a banner to carry in order to gain votes. He’s made some minor missteps in his campaign launch which I don’t think will trip him up too much but may be indicative of future tone deaf presentations. On the other hand, it’s just too early to tell with this candidate. We need more substance, less talking points from most of these candidates in order to assess them at this point in time.

David Spitzley, Senior Contributor

My main thought about Beto is that we’re talking about former members of the House, mayors of mid-sized cities, people who had good fights in losing elections, etc. It feels like the Democrats have a really wide bench that’s only an inch or two deep. Putting that aside, I’m afraid that Beto is one of a large number of candidates who simply aren’t making a real impression on me. Maybe it’s just that there are at least a half-dozen candidates (plus Biden) that I’ve heard of many times outside of the context of elections, doing things, catching headlines, and many of these candidates feel… small in comparison. 

Christo

I think that fighting the good fight is somewhat important, but being president is bigger than that. It’s why I understand why people like the PSA [Pod Save America-ed] guys are excited for people like Beto, but the problem is that running a losing campaign is not exactly a viable foundation. That isn’t to say they can’t do it, but it is absolutely a consideration to make 

Josh

Beto is the only candidate I’ve seen in person, as a guest on a live podcast I attended back when he was running for Senator in Texas. I think he has some real charisma, I think he ran a very strong campaign for Senator and did very well (he didn’t win, but he came closer than anyone has in a long time, and his ticket did wonders for the Texas downballot). I also think he’s more progressive than people give him credit for because of him being from Texas, but he actually is with or even to the left of the average for the candidates at this point. My concerns are mainly that he seems inexperienced and… the flip side of his authenticity, which people like, is that he’s sometimes a little bit, well, weird. Which people don’t seem to like as much.

Beto losing in Texas doesn’t bother me; the next Democratic nominee will almost certainly lose Texas in the general. But if Beto’s margin in Texas is consistent nationwide, he’ll sweep the table. This whole “stench of losing” thing is a myth, I think.

Christo

My problem is more what the highest office they’ve actually achieved and worked at, rather than a “stench”

Ann

For clarification, O’Rourke has served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

David

Which is not a particularly favorable predictor of success in the primary…

Josh

If experience and height of government position is a concern, then let’s take it a step further: next up is Pete Buttigieg, current Mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Pete is very smart, he would be the first openly gay candidate ever, and he’s gotten a lot of press and attention. What do we think of him as an outside contender for the nomination?

David

There’s the basic question “outside of what”? He’s a Rhodes scholar and a Harvard graduate. He’s not even Jimmy Carter, coming in from peanut farming and nuclear engineering, he’s a pretty typical “I’m going to get into government” guy. That by itself isn’t disqualifying, I happen to like people who think ahead about being a public servant.

The real issue is that, as Current Affairs recently argued, he seems seriously unaware of issues of privilege and race.  He is mayor of a city with a significant African American community, with a major economic gap between white and black, and his political autobiography barely mentions it, and doesn’t call out any major initiatives that would have benefited the underprivileged in his city. That doesn’t seem like the kind of political agenda that will prosper in the primary. For that matter, it may make it harder for him to stand out from Trump in the general should he somehow win the nomination.

Ann

As to Buttigieg being unaware of the issues of privilege and race, I haven’t really gotten the same impression of him that the article presents. If he is really clueless, he stands in good company in this race, as I would say several of the white males and some of the white females have exhibited similar issues. I’ve also heard him speak to income inequality among minorities and others.

David 
I’m kind of relieved to hear that, really.

Ann

Buttigieg’s political experience is in an executive office, but it is small city executive. I like a lot of what he has to say. He seems to have charisma and speaks well about important policies. He’s even got the veteran cred going for him. However, it’s fair to be concerned that he doesn’t have the know-how to handle Washington politics or the demands of the office. He’s also another one where I have heard criticisms that his policies are not fleshed out at this point, and thus there is not much to distinguish him from the others except for his personality. That problem is not limited to just him. I can say the same of most of the candidates outside of Warren and Sanders. I don’t think that’s terrible at this stage, but sooner or later, people will need more than talking points.

Christo

I think at this point we need to see how all of these candidates actually function. Last time around, we didn’t really have any questions into that side of the candidacy, because we knew who she was. Basically, it’s a long time until 2020, and we will get more answers as we go.

Ann

I totally agree. I fear I sometimes come across as too harsh on these candidates, when, in fact, a lot of this is just us having to wait for more information, which we will get at things progress.

Josh

Buttigieg was a candidate I was more excited about until I read that takedown Dave linked–less because of the privilege issue, because I don’t think a candidate who can’t speak to that can get through the primary, and more because Pete seems resistant to giving out strong positions on any issue, other than maybe LGBT rights. His website doesn’t list his positions on anything, and I did some research before this Roundtable and couldn’t find more than a handful. I think a fair number of candidates have signature issues or policy proposals–Warren, Sanders, Booker, Castro, Harris, Inslee, even Yang–and others have at least made it clear where they stand (like O’Rourke).

I get what you all are saying about giving these candidates time, but a lot of them got into the race because they already knew what they wanted to do. Pete seems vague as a deliberate strategy, the way he’s running a very Rovian campaign of making his weaknesses into strengths–he’s not too young, youth is just what we need right now!, etc. When I listen to him talk, I like him, but I find it hard to imagine just what his presidency would actually look like, and that lack of definition is a problem for me right now. There’s time for any of these candidates to change my mind, but this is how I feel today.

Ann

If it helps, since he has begun touring around, I have heard him come out for universal healthcare, addressing climate change, and addressing income inequality. He doesn’t have positions on his campaign page, but many folks don’t have much more than standard progressive talking points on theirs anyway. That’s where I’m having to exercise patience with most of the candidates. They all check certain boxes on policies in the generic sense, but right now details of what’s behind those stances are only beginning to come out. 

Christo

At the end of the day, policy only takes you so far. In 2008, the most significant policy difference between Hillary and Obama was the public mandate, and Obama eventually adopted Hillary’s policy. A lot of the candidates have a similar group of policies, and the differences will be negotiated away by congress amyways. How they operate is much more important, and we will watch that through this year.

Josh

Let’s move onto our next candidate, Kirsten Gillibrand, a third-term Senator from New York. She’s definitely running as a mother–“I want to fight for your children the way I fight for mine” is her refrain–and she’s done well in Senate hearings, including during the Kavanaugh nomination process. What do we think she has to offer as a candidate, and what are some potential challenges for her in the race?

Christo

Gillibrand is coming at this from the whole “I am willing to fight” message is a smart one. She can point to not just her motherhood, but from fighting for reform in the military to deal with sexual assault, for example. It’s an acknowledgement of what we were just talking about, I think, that how they campaign is as important as the policy.

David

So, what are the odds that the double-standard against women being “too aggressive” is going to sink her? Given that Hillary survived the primaries, the bias isn’t fatal, but it’s obviously going to be an obstacle for her. 

Christo

I think the danger for that is past, and helpfully minimized by the “I will fight like I would for my own children”. We expect moms to be aggressive, and I think her message mitigates that avenue purposefully, even with her sincerity.

David

Good point, even if it’s unfortunate it needs that kind of cover.

Ann

The biggest issue I foresee for Gillibrand is her history. She was a U.S. representative for a conservative district in New York. Unsurprisingly she has a history of conservative voting at that time. Then, in becoming a senator, she went from a district to the whole state, a much more left-leaning constituency, and her voting and stances became more progressive. Again, that’s not a surprise. Frankly, she makes a more convincing narrative of “I’ve changed” than Tulsi Gabbard does, and has more actual action to back it up. To me, it’s almost as if Gabbard is a conservative masquerading as a progressive, where Gillibrand may have been more of a liberal masquerading as a centrist or conservative. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking though.

Christo

I agree. That is how politics works, unfortunately, and good ones figure out how to operate in the framework

Ann

On the flip side of what I said about her conservative history, I have run into several people who will not forgive her for spearheading the removal of Al Franken from the senate. So, that may work against her too, but quite frankly I think she is a very solid candidate on policy, presentation and political experience. 

Christo

I think Franken should have left. I don’t know how much of a negative that is.

Josh

I am generally okay with a politician being a politician–after all, there’s widespread public approval for most progressive policies. If people are willing to listen to their constituents, they’ll do okay. I am curious, though, from a politics nerd perspective about the way she’s choosing to run her campaign. There was a lot of talk after Hillary’s loss in 2016 that she had attempted to run in a more masculine mold of what we think a president should be, rather than trying to forge a new idea of what a female leader should be like. Gillibrand is running explicitly on that (including taking on one of Hillary’s key positions, paid family leave). Her strongest issue may very well be being the #MeToo candidate. I wonder how well all that will work for her.

Which I think brings us to our final candidate today, one of the other prominent female candidates: Amy Klobuchar, current Senator for Minnesota. Klobuchar is known for two things at this point, in my opinion: being perhaps the top field contender running the “I’m from the Midwest, I can get independents and Republicans to vote for me and work with me” strategy, and having a starting gate scandal with allegations of mistreating her staff. What do we think of her chances and qualities as a candidate?

Ann

At the risk of repeating what you just said, Klobuchar has some solid positives. She’s said she’s concerned about climate change and is for universal healthcare. Also, for decades, rural America has felt left behind by the Democratic party due to the optics of the Democrats’ embrace of minorities, which gives the appearance of favoring the cities over the agricultural communities in the eyes of rural voters. Klobuchar has the potential to help bring in those votes, and I think that’s a good thing. The downside is, of course, that some find her too centrist, and then also there’s the little issue of her allegedly being a nasty boss. I’m not sure how much of that is actually true and how much that will hurt her chances, since she has a long time before the 2020 primaries to put that all behind her. 

I think there is a chance that she is perhaps more solid than the mainstream media would have folks believe. However, she faces the same uphill battle the other female candidates face in this race: mainstream media coverage and the way it characterizes and shunts to the side female candidates.

David

I’ll be honest, the bad boss thing really worries me. Women are regularly attacked for behavior that’s lionized in men, but this is solid “toxic masculinity” stuff: shouting at staff, mistreating your subordinates, none of that is reflective of healthy psychology. We’ve seen plenty of chaos in Trump’s administration purely due to him driving people out, and I consider Klobuchar’s track record of having one of the highest staff turnover rates in Congress to be a red flag.

Christo

I think I am on the fence with her. On the one hand, Dave is correct about the way she treats and goes through staff. But being the Midwest candidate is also a major asset. I think now that we know, we can watch her much more carefully. As with everyone else, we will see if she can take the weight of that scrutiny.

Josh

I too am really worried. Klobuchar might be an example of that Midwestern “kindness” that’s a mile wide and an inch deep–certainly it’s true that one way to get the measure of someone is to see how they treat those they perceive as below them. If she acts that way toward her own workers, how can we trust her to fight for labor rights or the poor? It’s tough, even though I’m sure there are other candidates and other politicians who do this exact sort of thing but don’t get called out on it because that’s just how men Get Stuff Done. It’s troubling, but luckily there’s a long campaign ahead to get into it and see how she does in other contexts. If there’s one thing a presidential campaign does, it shows the public who you really are.

We haven’t covered every 2020 Democratic candidate in these three Roundtables (you can read the first one here and the second here), but we have done the dozen most prominent. Does anyone have closing thoughts on the state of the race, or a particular preference for one candidate at this point?

David

Honestly, I just want to see the debates, which is unusual for me. I typically prefer to read the synopses later, but I think seeing how the candidates interact will be kind of important here. I will be very, very interested in what issues emerge in the debates, who hides in the shadows and who actively pushes policy agendas.

Otherwise, I just want a strong candidate, and I trust that we’ll get some rational policy advances through if they win, and I’ll hold my fire over differences of priorities and specific plans unless we get somebody utterly unsuited to the office, which after GOP 2016 I do not consider an impossible outcome…

Ann

Basically, I think we are all agreed that we have to see what happens going forward: how the candidates handle themselves, how they flesh out their policies, and how they stand up to increasing public scrutiny in the pressure cooker that is a presidential race. That said, this election cycle I find myself worrying about factors to which I usually don’t give a lot of concern, especially at this stage of the race: candidate age and, of course, can they beat the incumbent in the general election. How I look at candidates has really changed in the Trump era.

Christo

We need to know more about how the candidates operate than their policies, and that only comes with time. Not that the policies weren’t important, but it seems that there is something of a basic framework for a democratic nominee at the moment.

I think I am already exhausted with 2020. This is going to be a slog in a way 2016 wasn’t, because Trump was not actually possible back then.

Josh

2016 was definitely a slog. At least 2020 promises exciting policies. I really feel like, despite how many candidates are running, none of them are perfect (and maybe I would have felt that way about Obama and Hillary too in 2008, if I’d been paying closer attention to that primary). All of them have flaws I could consider disqualifying, especially since, as you said, Ann, there feels more pressure than ever before to pick a candidate who is not only the best choice for president, but the best choice to win in the election. This is an important primary, and I’m glad we’re going to have a nice, long period of time in which to make our decision, because that decision is definitely, very, extremely, painfully important. So I guess we’ll see.

Thanks to everyone for an excellent Roundtable series, and thank you all for reading.

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