What do Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey have in common? If you answered all were Democratic presidential nominees who lost the general election, you get half credit. To get full credit, you should also note that they all won primaries by positioning themselves as the resume insider candidate. That is, they presented themselves as having the best qualifications on paper and, by the time they successfully sought the Democratic nomination, were Washington insiders. Three of these candidates were either former or sitting vice presidents, when they ran. Another had been a US Senator and Secretary of State, while yet another had served almost twenty years in the US Senate when he lost the general election. In fairness, some Democrats who lost in recent years, notably George McGovern and Michael Dukakis were not the resume insider candidates, but also lost general elections. Nonetheless, in the last half century, the only three Democrats to be elected President were all outsiders with limited Washington experience, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were governors who had never served in Congress. Barack Obama was a veteran of only four years in the Senate when he became president.
These unsuccessful insider candidates all struggled to excite the Democratic base and could not articulate a new and compelling vision to the country. It is possible that none of this has any bearing on the 2020 Democratic primary, but it certainly suggests that the claim of electability which is at the core of the campaign of Joe Biden, who is a consummate resume insider candidate, should examined in this light. This is not to say that Biden cannot win as recent polling shows that Donald Trump is a weak and vulnerable candidate, but it suggests that if electability is your top criteria, Biden probably should not be your choice.
It must be preemptively noted that Biden, like almost all the candidates in the Democratic primary race would be an exponentially better president than Donald Trump and would have a real chance of winning a general election. There are good and legitimate reasons to vote for Joe Biden. More conservative Democrats who find Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to far left and are not convinced that, for example Pete Buttigieg is ready to be president, will naturally be drawn to Biden. The Democratic Party is certainly diverse enough for people like Biden and his supporters to coexist with people like Sanders or Warren and their supporters and even for some voters to prefer a new approach to politics as presented by candidates like Andrew Yang or Marianne Williamson, but these decisions should be based on policy differences, personalities or even visceral feelings not contrived and transparently false ideas about who is electable.
When told that Biden, or any other candidate, is electable, we should remember that while some broad trends about electability, such as the danger of Democratic insider resume candidates, can be discerned, electability is often a very slippery concept, that usually also falls victim to intellectual laziness and tautology. Candidates are electable because they win, so once a president is elected a backstory about electability is filled in. For example, we now “know” that Hillary Clinton was unelectable, but if 80,000 or so votes in a few key states had gone differently in 2016, the pundits would have explained that Hillary Clinton was electable because of her experience, centrist policies and calm temperament and that Donald Trump’s bigotry and mental instability scared off too many voters and made him unelectable. The problem with this approach to electability is that it is not predictive. It is not a theory; rather, it is essentially just political kibitzing both before and after the election.
In 2020, Democratic Party unity will be a far more important factor in whether or not Trump is reelected than if the Democratic Party nominates, Biden, Warren, Harris, Sanders, Buttigieg or anybody else. For this reason, people who want to see a Democrat win in 2020 would be much better served by spending their time worrying less about who is most electable and building a broad consensus that the party must coalesce behind the eventual nominee. My view is that Biden would be a liability in the general election, but I know that many more conservative Democrats won’t believe that. I am ok with that, and will enthusiastically support him if he is nominated, but hope that Biden’s supporters agree to support Warren, Sanders or somebody else if their man is not nominated.
Photo: cc/Gage Skidmore