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America 2020 - first impressions

I’m getting excited about the 2020 democratic presidential race. Here are my thoughts on the candidates I’ve been watching (not all of them - there are 24 and I have a busy life) and one candidate I wish would run.

What am I looking for? (limiting this to 5 so we’re not here all day)

  1. Policy that makes sense at the grassroots as much as does in the talking points, or at least an ambition in that direction.

  2. The Presidential voice (stolen from Amy Gardner on The West Wing, but she was right - the next President needs to re-establish that office’s gravitas, though hopefully in a new way)

  3. An intersectional message that pays attention to race, class and gender

  4. A strong message on the issues I care about - green new deal, healthcare, gun control etc

  5. A thoughtful approach to America’s place on the global stage

The narrative so far:
At this stage of the campaign, there aren’t many data points for commentators to point to. Opinion polls and money raised is about all they’ve got. Obviously, the male candidates have some structural advantages on that though Warren and Harris are performing well too. It’s fast becoming a generational question too. A choice between the old guard (Biden, Bernie, Warren) and the young upstarts (Beto, Buttigieg). Regardless of the eventual candidate, the millennial voting block will be a significant one. 

If the democrats want to win in 2020, the political and media narrative needs to be about more than economic security and the disempowerment of white men, which are often presented as two sides of the same coin. I’m rooting for a candidate who will reach beyond these narrow parameters so we can have a more rounded debate. As always, the choice of candidate is likely to set the terms of the debate too. 

So, the candidates (in no particular order):

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JOE BIDEN
From the man himself, describing the 1992 Senate Judiciary hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas: 

“There were a bunch of white guys … hearing this testimony in the Senate Judiciary Committee. So when Anita Hill came to testify, she faced a committee that didn’t fully understand what the hell it was all about. And to this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us.”

Of course, he could have. Biden was the person in charge. He could have prevented the ordeal Hill endured and he could have called witnesses to corroborate her testimony. If you need a reminder, check out this clip of him telling Anita Hill that she will be subject to whatever questioning the Senators deem appropriate.

So, I’m not a Joe fan. To me, he’s always been a grabby old man. (& now we have stories too). Though he’s not the worst sexual harasser we’ve come across (what a high bar!), he’s still in the race because the way he’s treated women and people of colour and their bodies (either personally or through the legislation he co-sponsored and supported) isn’t deemed to be "that bad". He co-sponsored legislation enacting mandatory minimums for drug offences, which led to more severe sentences for users of crack cocaine (often poorer people of colour) compared to users of powder cocaine (usually wealthier, white people). His record on women’s rights to autonomy over their bodies is abysmal. (This is a great summation of his record.)

I know the temptation to go for 'reliable old Joe', with his folksy charm, his Obama bromance, his sympathetic backstory. He will likely appeal to the white working class block of voters which the campaign narrative has already begun to centre around. That is both short sighted and silly. I don’t think he, nor the American mainstream media, have really grasped how much America is changing and in what ways. Of course he’s better than Trump, but that doesn’t mean he’s objectively good. And for the democratic nominee, we can do better. Also, Biden has spent most of his life in Washington and would be the party’s second establishment candidate in a row. 

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KAMALA HARRIS
Whenever I say 'Kamala' out loud, it comes out as 'Camille' and I have to do a quick double take: Camille, aka Mrs Prince Charles, Kamala, powerhouse California senator. She’s smart, thoughtful, dedicated, charismatic, polished. She has come out with solid policy proposals, but (like all the female candidates) she hasn’t gotten the same kind of soft, “authentic” media opportunities as Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg have. (exhibit A: this story of a campaigning trip through South Carolina.)

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ELIZABETH WARREN
Similarly, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign hasn’t benefited from the kind of introductory media attention as some of the young boyos. When I think of her, I think: steady, smart, an advocate for everyday people. She talks about the middle class, about her family background and it’s all wholesome and lovely. As expected there have been questions about her “likability”, but she’s leading the field when it comes to policy planning. She’s also made it to SNL, which is its own kind of honour.

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BERNIE SANDERS
I’m still harbouring some 2016 disdain for the Bernie Bro parade, fuelled by how he reacted to the a Black Lives Matter interruption to his event. (Did you know that Vermont has a serious problem with white supremacists? I did not. As a Vermont Senator, he might want to say something about that.)

Much as I might agree with him, I can’t abide listening to Bernie yelling and shaking his fist. In part, it’s because a female candidate could never get away with it. Without question, Bernie has moved the needle in measurable ways on issues like healthcare. And I’m thrilled to see smart women (and especially WOC) mount their own campaigns on the democratic socialist ideals he campaigned on. (Rep Omar and Rep Ocasio-Cortez to name just two.) But otherwise, I’m not a Bernie fan.

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BETO O’ROURKE
Beto was rightly criticised for this ridiculous cover story and, to a lesser extent, this cringey campaign launch video with his silent wife grinning at her husband’s bombastic ego. And as many have pointed out, a female candidate could never be as that indecisive or grandiose. He’s pitching himself as bringing a fresh new approach, though his wife is placed in a very traditional and notably silent role. Eesh, it just felt so out of tempo with this moment. If the campaign launch video made you eye-roll, I hope this might make you laugh. 

Beto is charismatic, energetic and youthful. He has the whole Kennedy jawline thing going, and he’s raised a lot of money. It was the ‘last great hope of earth’ line from the launch video which really bothered me. Simmer down, lad.

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PETE BUTTIGIEG
Pete Buttigieg never wears a suit jacket. It was a smart choice, which says I’m young, but with the tie neatly done up to the top, not irresponsible. He hasn’t been arrested for drunk driving (like Beto). When Beto was in a punk band, Pete was in Afghanistan. But these two haven’t been pitched against each other. At least, not yet. 

Buttigieg is the first openly gay man to run for President. He’s gotten some nice media coverage which befits the milestone that is. Watch Pete and his husband do morning TV, stay for the bit where the dog does something oh so charming and Pete gets to show how relaxed and authentic and ‘good under pressure’ he is.

Buttigieg is a solid media performer, formal but youthful. He’s an ex-McKinsey consultant and you can hear it in the measured, deliberate way he speaks. He’s a master of the soundbite (that Americans find meaning “in scholarship, faith, family or enterprise”.) I haven’t read his book, though I will if he wins the nomination. He’s been book touring and has done a bunch of interviews. I recommend his conversations with Remnick, Ezra Klein and in The New Yorker.

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KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND
I first discovered Kirsten on The Conversation way back in 2012. She came across as smart, kind and hard working, so obviously her media personae is of an ambitious, demon woman. Gillibrand has proudly centred motherhood in her campaign. Announcing the run, she promised to “fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own.” Again, like most of the female candidates running, her policy platform is wide ranging and cohesive. For some reason, she took most of the heat for calling for Al Franken’s resignation though many of the male candidates made similar calls.

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AMY KLOBACHAR
Amy Klobacher announced her candidacy in the Minnesota snow (great move Amy, and your hair still looked great!). I met her very briefly when I worked in the US Senate in 2008. She regaled us with stories of her husband joining the Senate Spouses Club, which is almost all women as most senators are heterosexual men. She was hilarious, in a very Mary O’Rourke way and whip smart too. Her $100bn plan to address addiction and mental health issues was a particularly worthwhile addition to the campaign. 

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MARIANNE WILLIAMSON
I went to see Marianne Wiliamson speak when I lived in New York. Then, she was running for Congress and I paid $100 to see her speak alongside some well-known internet wellness people. It was an interesting night. “You can’t transform the world over white wine and Brie”, she said. It was a white wine and brie crowd. They lapped it up and opened their cheque books. FDR said that the administrative functioning of the president is secondary; the primary role of the president is moral leadership. Williamson’s campaign grows from that idea. What America really needs is a healer in chief.

Williamson is not going to win, but she brings something unique to the whole equation. She’s succeeded in inserting new ideas and saying the things that need to be said. When a CNN reporter asked if reparations for slavery were a realistic proposal, she did the right thing and laughed. (If you haven’t already, do read Tah Neshi’s seminal piece on the issue). She won’t last long but I’ll be listening for as long as she does. (Also, there are no Marianne Williamson gifs on the internet.)

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STACEY ABRAMS
My wish list candidate. I realise it’s going to be difficult for a candidate who lost a Governor’s race to convince primary voters that she’s ready for the presidency, but I’d love Abrams to enter the race. She came within a whisper of being the first EVER African-American female governor. And let’s not forget that Beto O’Rourke just lost a senate race and still launched a bid for the presidency. Black women have long been the unrewarded heartbeat of the democratic party. They are the most loyal electoral base and a significant proportion of party activists and supporters. It’s long past time that a democratic candidate reflects the party’s core demographic. She seems smart, determined, hard-working and not afraid of a fight.

A few other things I love about her: 

  • She’s been open about the debt she’s in, and how she got there (by doing crazy, irresponsible things like supporting her family, funding her brother’s stays in rehab and covering her father’s cancer treatment). 

  • Oprah campaigned with her

  • She wrote romance novels. (& like Alan Shatter had to sit through a journalist reading out the saucy bits in an interview.)

Her entry into the presidential race could meaningfully change the tenor of the debate so far. I don’t think she will run, but I’d love to see it. 

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The first official debate is happening over two nights on June 26 and 27 in Miami. Have the popcorn ready!

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