Democrats Need an Unbreakable Presidential Candidate in 2020

Democrats need a presidential candidate who, like TV’s Kimmy Schmidt, is impervious to adversity. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/ Netflix

While doing research for a different article, I made a discovery that shouldn’t have shocked me, but did: The first formal candidate debate in the Republican presidential nominating contest eventually won by Donald Trump was on August 6, 2015. If Democrats follow a similar pace in choosing their nominee from a wide-open field, their 2020 contest could become deadly serious in just over a year from now. And they are not even remotely ready for that, at all.

Thanks to the national obsession with Trump’s antics, and the natural preoccupation among Democrats with making enough midterm gains to disrupt or destroy the GOP “trifecta” of control in Washington, talk about 2020 seems remote and almost theoretical. Lists of possible presidential candidates are enormous; one published last month by the Washington Post had 33 names. The possibility of this huge field producing an accidental nominee like Trump is accentuated by the strict proportionality rules Democrats use in awarding delegates, and the reduced role of unelected “superdelegates” after reforms sure to be adopted by the party next month. That means Democrats need to become quickly deliberative about 2020, and try to winnow the unmanageable field before it gets out of hand.

But what criteria should be employed? Given the incredibly high stakes of deposing Trump in 2020 (particularly with two liberal octogenarians on the Supreme Court), you’d figure “electability” would be super-preeminent in choosing a nominee, even among Democrats focused on the ideological direction of the party. But as New York’s Eric Levitz notes, “electability” is hard to measure, and arguments based on electability are often made in bad faith.

Consider the probable front-runner for 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders. He was clearly considered “unelectable” by a lot of his Democratic opponents in 2016, without much actual evidence, as I noted at the beginning of the nomination contest:

The first post-Thanksgiving national poll, from Quinnipiac, provides some counterevidence to the Bernie-can’t-win assumption. It shows him actually leading every named Republican candidate in general-election trial heats by margins equal to or greater than Clinton’s (his leads over Carson and Cruz are literally twice as large as HRC’s). Sanders also has the best favorability ratio — +13 — among all registered voters of any candidate in either party. 

Some quite plausibly argued that once Republicans dumped a billion dollars or so into oppo research and ads exploiting his long, rich record of controversial words and deeds, Sanders would not look so “electable” anymore. But that was conjecture. And he would face the same largely unanswerable questions if he ran in 2020; he’s again looking good from a polling standpoint, but remains vulnerable to a host of attacks he’s never really encountered in Vermont or in intra-Democratic competition.

There’s a lot of buzz about Elizabeth Warren as a candidate who could unify the party, including the Sandernistas who might otherwise be embittered by another rebuff of their champion. But as Levitz documents, her own “electability” credentials are suspect. Some Democrats, particularly “centrists,” are looking to Joe Biden as a potential savior. Like Sanders, he looks pretty good in polls, but his “electability” résumé has to take into account his not-very-impressive presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2008. And then you have the long, long list of less prominent potential candidates whose electability is going to be a largely hypothetical matter until their national name identification rises significantly.

If you add in the fact that partisan polarization and the steady shrinkage of the genuine swing vote means that most nominees have about the same chances of winning, the case for worrying about “electability” becomes very meager. And Levitz is right: Many electability arguments disguise not just alignment with particular candidates but questionable prejudices. In particular, it’s a rare private conversation among Democrats on this subject that doesn’t reveal the fear that nominating another woman or nonwhite person will play into Donald Trump’s strengths. That’s an electability argument with almost no empirical basis that tempts Democrats to turn back the clock on their own party’s diversity.

But that doesn’t mean the only recourse is Levitz’s conclusion that Democrats should “simply vote for whichever candidate they would most like to be president” and let the chips fall where they may. I would propose a different standard than electability: unbreakability, the odds against a given candidate undercutting the party’s strength through some disastrous mistakes or misadventures.

That means, above all, Democratic candidates for president should be thoroughly and fearlessly vetted for missteps or misstatements that could become dangerously dominant in a general election campaign. And it strongly suggests that the field should be ruthlessly winnowed via all available means, whether it’s donor pressure or activist endorsements or actual consolidation behind a small number of strong candidates. At the same time, Democrats must avoid the kind of ideologically driven bloodletting that contributed to the 2016 disaster via depressed turnout trends and third-party (and even cross-party) voting. It’s a narrow path to navigate, but simply keeping the field wide open and hoping for the best could produce another avoidable setback.

The thing that could most visibly “break” a presidential candidacy at a crucial moment, of course, is ill health or death. And given the prominence of Sanders (who will turn 79 before Election Day in 2020) and Biden (who will turn 78 just after the election), Democrats need to fearlessly face the “age issue” and resolve it one way or the other early on. There is zero question that Team Trump and conservative media would go to enormous lengths to exploit any signs of age-related weakness in an opponent. Is this something Democrats would choose to risk given the availability of so many younger candidates from across the ideological spectrum?

Thinking about “unbreakability” rather than “electability” also brings to mind personality traits tailored for the rigors of a long, difficult campaign, whether it’s political or high-risk business experience or manifest mental “toughness.” It casts a different light as well on the endlessly discussed quality of “charisma.” In a polarized contest with few swing voters, personal charm and “relatability” may matter most as a cushion against adversity (think of Bill Clinton’s “comeback kid” capacity, as contrasted with the glass jaws of candidates voters just don’t like).

And finally, Democrats might insist that their nominee give up the traditional iron control over the general-election campaign lest strategic and tactical mistakes the party has no control over combine to “break” an otherwise winning campaign. Had anyone been in a position to second-guess the Clinton campaign’s deployment of resources in October 2016, we might be living in a very different country right now.

All in all, Democrats should approach 2020 with some confidence in their ability to beat an unpopular incumbent who has aroused the donkey party’s base like no one in living memory. “Electability” is a chimera, and often a deceptive optic for predicting what will happen in a high-stakes, super-mobilized election contest. But Democrats owe it to their voters and their country to make sure victory in 2020 is not squandered by a presidential nominating process that produces a divided party or a fragile nominee.