The official, way-too-early ATR 2020 Democratic primary straw poll

going liberal

The first votes in the 2020 Democratic primary won’t be cast until (God help us) almost a year from now, but as far as media coverage is concerned the campaign is already in full swing. As of today, there are 12 announced candidates (Sen. Cory Booker, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, former Maryland representative John Delany, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, Washington governor Jay Inslee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “spiritual author” Marianne Williamson, and businessman Andrew Yang); 2 all-but-announced candidates (Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, both of whom have formed “exploratory committees” but haven’t formally announced); and 10 people “considering a run” (including high-profile likely candidates like former VP Joe Biden and former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke).

I can’t honestly say I have firm opinions about most of these folks, but as of right now, there are some I like more than others.

The good:

Policy-wise, I’m probably most aligned with Elizabeth Warren: I find her account of the structural failures of the U.S. economic system and how it’s rigged against average people pretty compelling. She’s a champion of the little guy against concentrated economic power and has shown time and again that she’s not afraid to stand up to entrenched interests. Though her policy prescriptions overlap a lot with Sanders’, Warren’s approach is more in line with traditional American ideas about the relationship between the state and the market. Warren also seems to have the technocratic know-how to get things done, while still being able to communicate her ideas to ordinary people. For me she hits a sweet spot between incrementalist liberalism and doctrinaire leftism. Like a lot of people, I’m a little worried about what the whole DNA test episode says about her judgment and skills as a candidate, but I’m definitely rooting for her to overcome that misstep and run a viable campaign.

Kamala Harris is in many ways the ideal 21st century Democratic candidate, at least on paper. She’s an experienced, successful woman of color from the most populous state in the Union. She’s young—but not too young. She seems to appeal to many different factions within the party. She’s charismatic, connects easily with people, and has a facility with inclusive, inspirational rhetoric (not unlike a certain recent president). All of this makes her a pretty ideal rebuke to Trump. And yet this “all things to all people” quality can make it difficult to pin down exactly where she stands on some issues. Her waffling about the role for private insurers after endorsing Sanders’ “Medicare for all” plan is a case in point. I think there are multiple defensible positions on that question, but her floundering for a consistent answer suggested that she hadn’t really thought about it all that much. This gives the impression that she’s adopted some of her positions out of convenience rather than conviction. She’s clearly a progressive, but also seems fairly willing to trim her sails, which makes her seem somewhat less “authentic” than Warren and Sanders (even though asking for “authenticity” from politicians is a bit of a mug’s game). I’m still very much open to voting for her in the primary, but I’d like to see her more convincingly articulate her vision for the country and why she’s the right person for the job at this moment in our history.

Speaking of Mr. Democratic Socialism himself, I’m probably more favorably disposed toward Bernie Sanders than I was in 2016. If that election showed us anything, it’s that a cautious, hew-to-the-center campaign is no guarantee of success. Sanders deserves a lot of credit for the new energy flowing into the Democratic party from the left (even if he remains somewhat aloof from the party itself, to the annoyance of some party stalwarts). Along with Warren, Sanders has one of the clearest and most compelling accounts of what ails the country, along with proposed solutions that are proportionate to the scope of the problems. He’s also done more to flesh out his foreign policy vision—a notable blind spot from 2016—and it’s in pretty close alignment with my own views. I’m still somewhat skeptical that Sanders would really be an effective executive, and there’s the not-insignificant matter of his age. Plus, he tends to be dismissive of issues related to representation and identity, and his “political revolution” seems more like wishful thinking than a plausible account of how he’ll get his ambitious platform passed. But I’m not ready to kick him off my short list just yet.

Jay Inslee isn’t someone I see going all the way, but he deserves kudos for launching a campaign that explicitly centers climate change as the most important issue facing the country. If he does nothing else but force the other candidates to talk about this more, he’s done the country a service.

The maybes:

Cory Booker has a certain energy and intelligence, and I can see why people like him. But he also comes across (to me anyway) as very calculated in a lot of his public positioning. His shift from charter-school-loving friend of Wall Street to lefty firebrand isn’t super convincing. On the other hand, he would be the first vegan president!

Amy Klobuchar is interesting in that she’s running explicitly as a convinced centrist (at least relatively) in a field of candidates tripping over each other to prove their progressive bona fides. She’s definitely more centrist than I would prefer, but she also seems smart and tough (albeit maybe too tough, based on reports about Klobuchar’s treatment of her staff). As one of the few candidates hailing from a purple state, she can also make a pretty good electability argument. I’d like to learn more about/hear more from her.

Kirsten Gillibrand—former Blue Dog and a booster of the financial industry–is also running rather unconvincingly as a born-again progressive. That said, her commitment to fighting sexual assault and the fact that she’s very explicitly running a feminist campaign that centers the concerns of women are admirable and important.

I honestly don’t feel like I know enough about Castro, Delaney, Hickenlooper, Williamson, Yang, or Buttigieg to have a firm opinion about them one way or another. But I’m open to learning more.

The meh:

I like Joe Biden in the same way that many Americans do: as the affable if somewhat gaffe-prone uncle of the Democratic Party. And few people would gainsay his loyal service as Barack Obama’s VP or his compelling personal and family history. But Biden also had a long senatorial career that carries a lot of baggage putting him out of step with the contemporary Democratic party. This includes support for “tough on crime” policies, his treatment of Anita Hill, a long history of pro-bank policies, his votes for DOMA and the Iraq war, etc. Biden, like many veteran pols, can claim to have “evolved” on certain issues, but it’s hard to see the appeal of someone who’s constantly having to explain away his past positions. And like Bernie, he’s an old white guy at a time when the party’s energy is increasingly coming from women–particularly women of color. Some have suggested that Biden is either uniquely electable or uniquely able to tamp down our current partisan rancor. But the evidence for either of these propositions is pretty thin. He seems like someone who’s moment has passed, in more ways than one.

Tulsi Gabbard’s opposition to military interventionism (something I generally agree with) has a tendency to slide into outright apologetics for foreign dictators like Bashar al-Assad.

Beto O’Rourke’s record as a rather undistinguished congressman who narrowly lost an election to Ted Cruz doesn’t exactly strike me as presidential material.

Like I said, it’s really too soon to be forming strong attachments here: Some of these candidates will fizzle out early, and there will be further winnowing as the campaign proceeds. It’s possible, even likely, that by the time I get to vote in the Maryland primary at the end of April 2020 it’ll already be effectively over. Overall, it strikes me as a pretty strong field and I’d be happy to vote for most of these people in the general election. And lack of enthusiasm on my part isn’t even a deal-breaker here–I will vote for literally whoever the Dems nominate, up to and including the reanimated corpse of Grover Cleveland.