Shortly after the 2016 election, I put together a list of possible Democratic contenders for the 2020 election. Obviously, it was still quite premature at that point to speculate on who would challenge Donald Trump when he hadn’t even yet been inaugurated. Nonetheless, it was a fun and somewhat comforting exercise.
More than three years later, we have arrived at the Iowa caucus, and the race has been running in earnest for the past year.
My original plan was to write out lengthy profiles of every single Democratic primary candidate, providing commentary, my own personal pros and cons, and an overall assessment. The problem was that twenty-nine of these maniacs eventually announced their candidacy for the nomination. And I really only seriously considered around a half dozen of them. After a few weeks of tinkering, I found myself slogging past the 4,000 word mark, and I had only written parts of about eight profiles. My lack of brevity, combined with the glut of available information conspired to make my original plan… unrealistic.
In the end, I found myself wanting to concentrate on explaining why my favorite of the bunch is the best choice for the nomination, and would make the best president. Some of the others deserve mention, and one in particular will feature prominently as a point of comparison. But in the end, this is about one candidate.
Late in 2018 through the spring of 2019, my personal front runner shifted frequently as new candidates waded into the fray. I did my best to keep an open mind, rationalizing there was plenty of time to make a decision. Over the next year, twenty-nine “major” candidates announced their campaigns for the Democratic nomination, and as of this writing (2/3/20), 17 have dropped out.
Update (2/17/20): 21 have now dropped out, leaving 8 still in the race, just before the Nevada caucus.
The candidates varied widely in experience, ideology, and seriousness. Some seemed interesting at first, then less so as I learned about them. At different points throughout the first half of 2019, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Jay Inslee, and Kirsten Gillibrand all jumped to the top of my consideration, and then dropped back down.
Even as I learned more about each candidate, one in particular stood out as the most consistently impressive to me.
Elizabeth Warren not only has the most comprehensive policy positions (and the best ones in my view), but she also has by far the most thoughtful notions on what it will take to implement her policies. She’s given a great deal of thought to the structure of our government, what reforms are currently possible, and what needs to be done to ensure policy can be made. Many candidates have good ideas of what we should do. Relatively few have articulated how we should do it.
Before becoming a senator, Warren was tasked with putting together the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a federal agency she had championed for years. It’s no small feat to conceive of an entire federal agency as a private citizen, and not only see it successfully created, but be the person who actually made it happen. The process of creating the CFPB was painful and acrimonious, and made her enemies in both parties. But she did it. No other candidate in the 2020 race can say they’ve actually organized and constructed any of the bureaus or policies they propose. The ability to understand the process of enacting meaningful change can be the difference between an ineffective leader and a transformational one.
The centerpiece of Senator Warren’s campaign has been her overarching anti-corruption policy. This amounts to a large number of sweeping reforms designed to reduce the impact of corruption in government, business, and most importantly, where the two intersect. She has effectively made the argument that progressive policies are difficult to pass, and even moreso to enforce, when the systems tasked with implementing them are operating in bad faith.
Her experience with the CFPB (along with much of her prior academic work) has made her uniquely suited to understanding the regulatory process, how money and power influence governance, and what is necessary to reform the systems.
Her anti-corruption agenda includes numerous policy proposals, including more effectively regulating defense procurement, new antitrust policy, an “economic patriotism” plan, and so many more. But it’s not just corruption. Child care, student debt, private prisons, climate change; every policy is aggressive and well thought out.
Compared to her competitors, she has the most comprehensive agenda for creating serious, progressive change in the United States. Her vaunted (and occasionally mocked) “plans” aren’t just a gimmick. She knows how governments operate, she knows what needs to be repaired, and she understands how to do it.
I liked Julian Castro’s commitment to racial justice and opportunity for immigrants.
I appreciated Jay Inslee’s laser focus on climate change.
I thought Cory Booker’s own policy proposals were unique and worth strong consideration.
I believed Kamala Harris had a toughness lacking in most of her opponents, and showed a willingness to learn and grow.
Eric Swalwell and Beto O’Rourke both meaningfully shifted the discussion on firearms proliferation in the US.
All of these candidates brought important ideas to the race, and each are impressive in their own way.
But none of them could match Warren.
There is one candidate who I haven’t yet addressed.
I supported him in the 2016 primary, and have followed his career with great interest since the late 1990s.
The elephant in the room (or should I say donkey?) is her nearest ideological match in the race – Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. To many of his supporters, he represents a purer and clearer version of Warren. She is seen by many as basically “Bernie-lite.” Some in the Sanders camp view her even less charitably, seeing her verbal commitment to capitalism and her party affiliation from thirty years ago as a sign of untrustworthiness.
On the surface, Bernie Sanders presents a similar policy agenda to Warren. There are a few areas where he certainly tacks harder to the left than she, although there are certainly a few that go the other way, too. But he also presents a unique philosophical viewpoint that entrances many. He isn’t nearly as far left as many of his most vocal fans, but to them, he represents the best possible step in the direction they want to see.
I used to feel the same way.
Let me backtrack slightly.
I turned 18 in the summer of 2000, and registered to vote within days of my birthday. I had supported Bill Bradley’s primary campaign, but I was a couple months too young to get to vote for him. In 2004, I was an enthusiastic Howard Dean supporter, though he was mostly out of it by the time Missouri voted. In 2008, I supported Obama from the start (although I had hoped Al Gore might jump in the race). In 2016, I went all-in for Bernie Sanders.
Clearly, my record of supporting the eventual nominee is not particularly strong. But I generally pulled for the person I viewed as the most progressive voice in the race. I have always advocated for fundamental changes to the way this nation is governed, and I’ve been drawn to candidates who could best articulate my own (admittedly inconsistent) ideological vision.
That said, I also have a pragmatic streak. I have never believed half-measures are worthless. Sometimes, compromise is necessary, especially when attempting to balance the wants and needs of 330 million people. There will always be people who don’t agree. Ideally, we win them to our side, or at least help them despite themselves – but we can’t pretend they don’t exist.
When Bernie ran in 2016, I was initially excited. I thought that for once, a candidate was clearly elucidating the real problems in America, and was managing to convince a large percentage of people that words like “socialism” may not be that scary.
I had a faint, probably naïve, hope that Sanders might even represent the beginning of the end of the Reagan political/economic era; the quasi-libertarian corporatist cult that has amounted to the dominant American ideology since around the 1976 Republican Convention, and only slightly softened by the Democratic presidents serving during the era.
Then he lost, and I found myself constantly arguing with people who struggled with that loss, even to the point of inventing conspiracy theories and refusing to support the “half-measure” that would still result in progress. Hillary Clinton was easily the best realistic option for America after July of 2016, and many refused to accept that.
I don’t think that bitter Bernie Bros are the sole reason she isn’t president now, but they didn’t help, either. And Donald Trump has been, well… look around. Check out the Supreme Court, and what will happen there over the next few years.
Sometimes we don’t always get what we want. And sometimes we have to compromise to get even some of what we want.
It’s now 2020. And Bernie is back. But now, so is someone ideologically close(ish) to him, who also possesses the experience and knowledge to make that ideology effective.
But we can’t talk about supporting Warren in 2020 without explaining why I believe she is a better choice than Sanders. So let me go ahead and just get this out of the way.
One of the issues with comparing these candidates is how people (myself sometimes included) tend to conflate policy and philosophy. If one just grabs a list of policy positions, simplifies them enough to fit checkboxes on a spreadsheet, and then lines up all the candidates, one would find most of them match 85 percent or more across the board. Bernie Sanders fans roll their eyes (or yell on Twitter) when someone points out that Bernie and Elizabeth Warren match up on most commonly recognized policy positions. The thing is, on the surface, they clearly do.
In 2016, Bernie and Hillary Clinton matched up on 85ish percent of the media-discussed issues. Maybe more. Hell, it’s easy to cherry pick a large swath of positions and demonstrate for any particular argument that say… Kamala Harris, or Kirsten Gillibrand sit comfortably to Bernie’s left.
The counter to the policy comparison point is twofold. For one, there is a lot of nuance beyond the checkbox. Partisans of individual candidates will happily point to their person “getting there first,” when it’s noted that two candidates hold identical views on a particular topic. And in many cases, one candidate wants to take a position farther than the other, or to a different degree. But more importantly (and yes, we’re mostly talking Bernie here), is the philosophical comparison.
Warren and Sanders end up at a lot of the same conclusions in terms of what they want to see from government policy. But how they get there matters a great deal to many. Bernie and Elizabeth see the world in largely different ways. Both are concerned about the inequality, oppression, and exploitation of the poor and middle classes by the wealthy. But to Bernie, it’s an indictment of an entire economic system, political system, and even worldview. To Warren, it’s a sign of wayward political decisions, that can be remedied by better political decisions.
She isn’t less serious about the problems than Bernie, and she (largely) wants to prescribe similar fixes. But she doesn’t see the need for a new economic framework to arrive at the required fixes, the way Bernie does.
Are Sanders and Warren on the same page? Well, yes. And also no. The practical results of their preferred policies may not end up looking all that different. But the ride to get there will.
I would also like to note to those who occupy the left end of the party with me, or even those further left – the kind that sneer at liberals as hard as the right does – the entire Democratic Party has shifted pretty hard in your direction on a great number of issues. Some of the leftward movement started during President Obama’s second term, a decent amount of it can be credited to the relative electoral success of Bernie Sanders in 2016, and some is probably a reaction to the current state of the US government. Regardless as to the reason(s), however, the shift is real, and significant.
My favorite examples are the healthcare plans of the current primary candidates.
In 2009, the left half of the Democratic Party was fighting tooth and nail with the centrists just to include a public option in an otherwise center-right, market-based healthcare program. The bones of the ACA originated from the Heritage Foundation in the early 90s, and was somewhat successfully implemented by Mitt Romney in the 2000s, in Massachusetts. And the mere suggestion of adding a fairly small public option was enough to sink the bill entirely.
And this was almost entirely a debate just within the Democratic Party, as the Republicans repeatedly refused to even breathe near these debates, so they could better weaponize the program for the 2010 midterms.
Now, in 2020, among Democratic primary front-runners, the most “moderate” plans go leaps and bounds beyond the Affordable Care Act, and would have been swiftly rejected by even the ideological middle of the party a decade before. Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke (before he dropped out) have both taken up lanes repeatedly described as “centrist” on healthcare, yet both propose public options vastly more robust than what Max Baucus shot down ten years ago.
The positions taken by Sanders and Warren today would have been treated as laughable by most, taken about as seriously as Dennis Kucinich was in 2008.
Democrats have changed, largely for the better. And the progressive wing of the party not only has more power and influence than it used to, but it has more than one serious presidential candidate.
I’m bullish on Warren over Bernie because it appears she has a better understanding of what it takes to successfully implement progressive policies. She has accurately noted the way the Republican party has gamed the system. Gerrymandering, the Senate, the Electoral College, the courts – the GOP is currently set to rule from a minority position for years to come. It would take significant majorities just to win the White House and the Senate, and even then, Trump’s success at appointing judges ensures legislative difficulty for Democrats for a generation.
Medicare-for-All is not going to happen under our current government. It won’t happen with a Sanders administration and a 51-49 Democratic Senate. It won’t happen, especially as long as Bernie remains resistant to institutional reforms, particularly eliminating the filibuster, which allow political minorities to maintain strangleholds on power, despite their lack of popular mandate. Conservatives decry “the tyranny of the majority,” but it comes across as a bad faith argument when they consistently operate via tyranny of the minority.
Ezra Klein recently made an excellent point about this, noting, “You have to make the system governable before you can govern.”
Among all of the Democratic candidates, the only ones who have shown a strong commitment to pushing for serious structural change within the mechanisms of legislation have been Senator Warren, Governor Inslee, and Mayor Buttigieg.
Although, I should note when Mayor Pete was routinely talking about topics like the Electoral College, the setup of the Supreme Court, and the filibuster, he was still running in a largely adjacent lane to Warren, and has since shifted pretty blatantly back toward the political center.
Our current political system clearly favors the Republican Party. The Electoral College provides much greater weight to smaller, generally more conservative states, as does the Senate. Thanks largely to the Electoral College, the Republicans have been able to greatly tilt the partisan lean of the courts at every level in their favor. Thanks in part to House apportionment created in tandem with the Electoral College, the Republicans have had free rein to manipulate the shape of Congressional districts to make it easier for them to win. Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, and have won a disproportionate percentage of the national popular vote in recent Congressional elections, too. But those popular mandates simply don’t translate to political majorities. This antidemocratic flaw will not improve as long as candidates don’t make it a priority,
Not only will it be an uphill battle for a Democrat to win the White House, but keeping it, and then successfully implementing policy will be even more difficult. A Democratic President will have to understand the system working against them, and will need to be able to lead the party, keeping the House, and winning the Senate. It’s going to take someone who can be a team player, and a coalition builder. It’s going to take someone who is willing to give something in order to get something. Someone who can play the game. This is an area where I trust Warren more.
One of Bernie’s selling points, according to his supporters, is his unwavering worldview. He hasn’t changed his mind on anything in 50 years, we hear.
Well, that’s not technically true, but those same supporters tend to wave away the issues where Sanders has evolved. Bernie has definitely shifted leftward on law and order, on immigration, and on guns. Now, I don’t consider his shift on certain policies to be a negative thing. And I don’t think a lack of ideological movement is a virtue. Much has been made of Warren’s shift from generally uninvolved moderate Republican to liberal populist, but even when she was a “Republican,” there’s some evidence her politics and even voting record were more complicated than that.
I’m more impressed with someone who is willing to change their mind when confronted with new information, than with someone who is convinced they’ve always been right, no matter the evidence.
Regardless, Warren hasn’t exactly changed her stances overnight, and Sanders hasn’t been entirely steadfast in his principals, either. And neither truth should be disqualifying. But it does highlight a degree of hypocrisy among those castigating candidates for past positions, while making excuses for their own.
But there’s more to it than where he has and hasn’t changed. His class-focused philosophy has created certain blind spots that deserve deeper analysis.
Senator Sanders has made it clear he believes that ethnic, racial, gender, and orientation-based disparities don’t require nearly as much significant special attention as economic issues.
While he has made strides in this race (especially compared with 2016) to acknowledge and plan for ameliorating systemic biases based around identities, his interviews and debate responses make it clear he doesn’t really get it. The basic worldview he espouses is that the inequalities of our economic system intertwine so thoroughly with every other significant social issue, that reducing economic inequality will inevitably reduce or even eliminate the problems of racism, sexism, etc.
It’s absolutely true that class issues DO mix with other kinds of inequities. But there is almost no evidence to prove that destroying the flaws of capitalism will lead people and systems away from racist outcomes.
Many within the larger Sanders-supporting community have treated “identity politics” as a nuisance, an obstacle in the way of the really important change. Sanders himself has echoed some of this, though he does take pains to acknowledge the real disparities faced by minority groups in America. But in a nation led by a man who explicitly ran on a platform of white male resentment, it’s dangerous to assume that racism, sexism, and anti LGBTQ bigotry should automatically take a back seat to economics.
Ideally, we should be able to tackle both issues. My support for Elizabeth Warren exists in part for her ability to emphasize a need for combating the excesses of the market economy while also addressing systemic social bias in a way that doesn’t relegate those concerns to a mere afterthought.
My support for her is due to her comprehensive command of the mechanisms of government, her deep knowledge of how systemic inequality plagues Americans, and her ambitious efforts to resolve these issues.
It sounds corny as hell… but I believe she legitimately cares about improving the lives of those who need it. And I think she has the ability to do it. Or at least make people care enough to vote out the ghouls who make real change impossible.
That’s the hope, anyway.
I don’t dislike Bernie. If he’s the nominee – and it certainly appears he has a shot – then I’ll support him and work as hard as I can to help him beat Donald Trump.
But the primary is for figuring out who would do the best job of being President. And that would be Senator Elizabeth Warren.
For anyone who has somehow made it this far, I’m also including a mostly-final ranking of the 2020 Democratic candidates. This is simply my personal order of preference. Multiple factors enter into this, including, but not limited to, ideology.
I also consider effectiveness, experience, knowledge, moral clarity, and an admittedly subjective x-factor that would require another 3,000 plus words to adequately explain.
I’ve crossed out those who have dropped out as of February 3rd, 2020, but I still included them on the list for reference, and for an idea of where I’m coming from.
That said, my interest in being thorough has limits. Almost all candidates between 12 and 23 are basically interchangeable for me, and the ranking at that point isn’t precise. And all of the candidates ranked 24th and below would make me strongly consider voting for a third party candidate.
I might eventually put together my notes about the remaining candidates, should they, y’know, remain. But it makes sense to start with the one I actually want to win.
Anyway, as a merciful end to this screed, here is where the 29 “major” candidates rank in my bizarre mind:
- Elizabeth Warren
- Jay Inslee
- Julian Castro
- Cory Booker
- Kamala Harris
- Kirsten Gillibrand
- Eric Swalwell
- Bernie Sanders
- Beto O’Rourke
- Bill De Blasio
- Pete Buttigieg
- Joe Sestak
- Seth Moulton
- Amy Klobuchar
- Joe Biden
- Steve Bullock
- Wayne Messam
- Tim Ryan
- John Hickenlooper
- Tom Steyer
- Michael Bloomberg
- Mike Gravel
- Richard Ojeda
- Tulsi Gabbard
- Marianne Williamson
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