The first Democratic debates reinforced an instinct I first had months ago. Kamala Harris had the best debate of the 20 people on stage. She had the best one-liner. She had the most commanding presence. She felt the most energized and best prepared.
In fact, these first debates will be remembered for the incredibly weak performance of Joe Biden, the weak performance of Bernie Sanders, the competent performance of Elizabeth Warren, and the standout performance by Kamala Harris.
For the first time, it looks like the finalists in the struggle for the Democratic nomination for president may be two senators—one from each coast. If this is the case, the choice may come down to Warren’s icy intelligence versus Harris’s passionate crowd pleasing. I would bet on Harris winning that showdown.
I first said that I thought Harris was the most likely nominee back in January. A number of reporters called to ask for my reasoning.
As I answered their questions, I was reminded of three big facts about the American political process.
First, Americans always focus on “what’s next.” One of the reasons that so many Americans ignore history and refuse to learn from the past is this inherent passion for tomorrow and boredom with yesterday. In many ways, this attitude was driven into the psyche of the country from the very beginning. As European settlers learned that they were in a new land with new opportunities and had to focus on carving out a better future, they realized they couldn’t rely on the old structure of European aristocracy and its fixed rules. Generations later, this same passion carries into politics to such a degree that even before an election, people begin speculating on the next campaign.
Second, the truth is we don’t know who is going to be the nominee 13 months before the national convention. I am going to expand on the history of being wrong about predicting nominees in just a minute, but for the moment, simply remember that all of those fancy commentators on radio, television, in newspapers and blogs don’t actually know anything certain about the nomination and election process that they describe with such authority and certainty. People prefer the gossip of ignorance and the seeming expertise of irrelevancy to waiting patiently to see what will really happen.
Third, even though most supposed authorities don’t study or learn the lessons of history, there is an enormous amount that can be learned about the future by applying the results of the past. This essay is going to take this exact approach: studying and applying history to develop a better understanding of the next 17 months.
The first presidential campaign I followed was the 1956 race between President Dwight Eisenhower and former Governor Adlai Stevenson. I was a 13-year old in the Junction City, Kansas, school system while my dad was serving in the Army and stationed at Fort Riley. Eisenhower grew up in Kansas and was a former Army general. My favorite relatives back in Pennsylvania were solid Republicans. It was easy for me to support Ike. Yet, the most interesting political maneuver in 1956 was Governor Stevenson’s decision to throw open the Democratic vice-presidential nomination and let the delegates pick whomever they wanted to fill the second spot on the ticket.
Turning real power over to delegates (instead of having the nominee dictate who he wanted) was a bold and even radical idea. It made for a much more exciting convention. It also provided then-Senator John F. Kennedy with a remarkable opportunity to leap into the national spotlight. The drama unfolding on black-and-white television was real, because the race for the vice presidency was a true reality show. Kennedy came close to beating the much better-known Senator Estes Kefauver, who had run twice for president. In that contest, Kennedy became a national figure, and the stage was set for him to run for president in 1960.
The 2020 presidential nominating process will be the 17th that I have either been active in or watched. The lessons I learned from the previous 16 contests and by studying earlier campaign efforts, such as Andrew Jackson in 1828, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, or William Jennings Bryan in 1896, give me a sense of the amazing range of possibilities that make the American political system the most open and unpredictable in the world.
Through the unpredictability, I try to start from a principled analysis of the larger political, cultural, and historical environment in which the political nomination process operates.
In 2015 and 2016, the most powerful reality of the Republican nominating process was how really angry—and even disgusted—Republican voters were with their leadership in Washington. In 2015, Pew Research found that only 19 percent of Americans trusted the federal government most of the time, and 72 percent thought that elected officials are selfish. So, unlikely as it seemed to the Washington establishment and the news media’s so-called experts, there was a very great likelihood that the Republican nominee would be one of three outsiders. Candidates Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, and Senator Ted Cruz seemed to be weaker choices to the Washingtonians compared to Governor Jeb Bush (whose campaign and PAC raised a combined $150 million and garnered only three delegates for the candidate), Governor John Kasich, Governor Chris Christie, and others. Republican voters did not agree. In fact, during the entire nominating process, once Trump became the frontrunner, only Dr. Carson was ever ahead of Trump, and only for a couple weeks.
With the Democratic Party, a very different dynamic was at work, but one that in some ways paralleled the anti-insider mood that was so obvious among Republicans. There were three realities in the Democratic nomination process that media experts simply refused to take into account in the early stages of the Democratic nominating process.
First, there was a huge anti-Clinton mood in the left-wing of the Democratic Party. Matt Bai brilliantly described this in his 2007 book, The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics. Bai spent the 2006 campaign listening to Democrats and their left-wing allies. The anti-Clinton anger he described became a key part of the rise of then-freshman Senator Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008. In the 2016 election, this anti-Clinton attitude on the left was still there, and it was looking for someone to fill the vacuum. Senator Bernie Sanders came very close to repeating the Obama achievement of beating the best-known candidate in American politics. In fact, if the Democratic National Committee had not rigged the game against Sanders, he might have won the nomination. Even in defeat he galvanized and defined a new militant and radical American Left, similar to the way in which Senator Barry Goldwater aroused a generation of conservatives to change the GOP amidst his defeat in 1964.
Second, the Clinton scandals consisting of 33,000 erased emails, using BleachBit to scrub a private email server, and destroying mobile devices with hammers, hobbled Hillary in both the nominating process and the general election.
Third, Clinton may simply be the worst candidate of any modern, national figure. This a critique of her activity—not her person. She doesn’t understand modern campaigns, she doesn’t understand grassroots communication, and she doesn’t have the energy to compete on the ground. The sheer difference between the passion, energy, and enthusiasm Sanders and Trump brought to their campaigns, and the dogged, determined but joyless endurance that was Hillary’s reality, was simply an enormous liability (as it had been against Obama eight years earlier).
The key factors for the Democratic nomination in 2020 are very straightforward.
All the energy, drive, and passion are on the left. This may be the most aggressively left-wing cycle for Democrats since Senator George McGovern was nominated in 1972. The most electable left-winger might be nominated, but an electable centrist will be destroyed.
There is an enormous premium in 2020 to nominate someone younger to contrast with President Trump. The fascination with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Mayor Pete Buttigieg reflects this hunger for the new and the young. The news media, in particular, is going to be heavily biased toward younger, new faces. If you are young, the news media will overlook stunning ignorance of facts. If you are older, your knowledge will not help you. This bodes very badly for Vice President Joe Biden and for Senator Sanders.
There will also be an enormous advantage for female candidates. If you watched the State of the Union, you saw the lengths to which the Democratic Party went to highlight the newly elected, younger, Democratic women. The news media wants this to be the year of the woman candidate and they will have a bias toward covering female candidates above all others.
The Democratic Party’s nominating process is heavily weighted toward minorities in general, and African-Americans in particular. The simple mathematics of the share of the Democratic primary vote that comes from the African-American community in many states indicates there will be a huge advantage for those who can appeal directly to African-Americans. It is the power of this community, combined with a rabid left-wing radicalism, that accounts for the elevation of both Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida as national figures in the Democratic Party—even though they both lost.
Another thing that must be considered: Presidential campaigns are enormous nationwide businesses that emerge, grow, and win—or wither and die in a remarkably short period. No other nation has the kind of endurance gauntlet that resembles the American presidential selection process.
In a lot of ways, this system is perfect for us. It enables talents to emerge who would never be accepted in a parliamentary system. It tests the management skills, endurance, and capacity to remain calm and solve problems in a crisis. Candidates who don’t seem to be able to master the complex, daunting mechanics of a national campaign, simply disappear as their failings become painfully obvious. Consider the announcement of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bid. It was largely treated as non-event. Similarly, her debate performance left her nearly invisible on the stage. The ability to raise money and run a national organization have become the minimum requirements for a successful presidential campaign.
The presidency is legitimately scrutinized more than any other institution in American life. It is the most powerful political-governmental office in the world. Anyone who decides to run for president must be prepared to endure, survive and surmount assaults on every aspect of his or her life. In 1972, when Senator Ed Muskie broke down crying in New Hampshire because of media attacks on his wife, he proved he did not have the toughness to be president. His campaign never recovered. My guess about Senator Harris becoming the nominee assumes she will be able to survive whatever unpredictable crises emerge during the campaign.
Remember, the gauntlet today is wider and tougher than ever before. In addition to reporters and the other campaigns’ researchers, we now have random eruptions by individuals out of the past who make headline-generating allegations that can take on a life of their own (note the cases of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Governor Ralph Northam, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax as recent examples).
We live in the age of the Kardashians. The candidate that has rhythm will have an enormous advantage over the candidate that cannot capture the rhythm of the modern era. The media has never come to grips with the reality that President Trump has caught the rhythm of his times in a way which lets him be amazingly dominant.
The rise of Ocasio-Cortez, fueled by her adept use of social media, is in many ways a Kardashian function. President Trump’s years with the Apprentice TV shows and his mastery of Twitter and Facebook were—and still are—keys to his success. We do not yet know if one of the Democrats will turn out to understand the rhythm of the new, emerging political culture. My hunch is: As a Californian, Harris is more attuned to the cultural rhythms which often start in the entertainment industry in California.
Given these principles, how should we assess the 2020 Democratic field?
What follows is purely my own guess. I am not any more likely to be prescient than any of the supposed experts talking and writing every day. So, take these observations with a grain of salt.
First, erase the term “traditional power brokers” from your political lexicon. In the era of social media, direct communication to voters, and crowd-sourced fundraising, the old Washington kingmakers are dinosaurs who no longer matter. The 2016 election was their last gasp. The rise of Sanders (against the will of the Clintons) and the fall of Jeb Bush in 2016 are clear evidence of this.
Second, every male candidate should be substantially discounted. If this principle is right, then supporters of former Vice President Biden, Senator Sanders, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Senator Cory Booker, and others should start asking themselves who they want to support if their male candidate is simply unacceptable in the modern Democratic Party’s year of the woman.
Since Senator Harris is female and Senator Booker is male, you have to give Harris the edge in a head-on fight. California dwarfs New Jersey as a political base. Her stories seem a lot more honest, and her west coast goofiness is not quite as jarring as Booker’s Newark goofiness. I expect he will be an imitation, East Coast male shadow of her real campaign.
Importantly, there will be a race to be the “real left-winger” to appeal to both the media and the Ocasio-Cortez-wing (she would probably be the Democratic nominee if she were 35 years old, the constitutionally mandated minimum age to be president). Senator Amy Klobuchar could make a run at this role. However, given the Scandinavian stoicism of the culture of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, it will be very difficult for Klobuchar to effectively imitate the frenzied patterns of the modern Left. She is too rational and too reasonable for a Democratic Party that sees no limitation in its pursuits. Like the French Revolution, the emerging left-wing totalitarians require the guillotine to eliminate the imperfect for their sense of revolution to be satisfied.
Senator Warren has the hard-left views and the toughness to be the nominee. As a radical woman, she comes close to emerging as a serious contender in this new Democratic Party. However, she has three fatal weaknesses. First, she is as dishonest as Hillary Clinton. The discovery of her registration form for the Texas State Bar, where she claimed in her own handwriting that she is of Native American descent, proves she is willing to blatantly lie.
Second, if Ocasio-Cortez has the rhythm and charm to dominate the Facebook-Twitter-Instagram-YouTube-TV talk world, Warren has the lecturing, patronizing style of your high school chemistry teacher. She doesn’t project the energy to capture the essence of delusional fantasies which is the heart of the modern Left. She has the words, but she can’t get the rhythm. Warren is a person from the age of print, and that world is gone.
Third, Warren seems like a Puritan but pretends to be normal. Her effort to appear relatable as she was drinking a beer on Instagram was as unbelievable as her false claims about exploiting her exaggerated heritage in hopes of advancing her career. Trump proved in 2016 that authenticity can erase a lot of problems. Warren is inherently the least authentic candidate in the Democratic Party’s current list of possible candidates.
All of this gets us to Senator Harris.
Start with the name: Kamala signals a strong, interesting personality. Then there is the simple fact that Harris is the most compelling candidate in the field. In the age of television and YouTube, excitement matters, and she wins the excitement primary.
She is also a very passionate, articulate, and compelling public speaker who is capable of arousing crowds. We are already seeing that this is a big asset for her. A CNN poll conducted from June 28-30 found that 41 percent of Democrats or left-leaning independents who watched the debates and are registered to vote felt Harris did the best job. The next highest was Warren with only 13 percent (17 percent of respondents didn’t have an opinion).
Harris also proved in California that she can raise the money and run a big campaign. California is so big and has so many media markets and interest groups that it is virtually a country of its own. Harris has survived and prospered in that environment.
Moreover, California’s delegates will give her a huge bloc going into the convention. I think Harris will win the women’s primary against a much quieter, less flamboyant, and less inherently interesting group of women. She will win the African-American primary, because Booker’s stories are so often false that he will be discounted by the media. She will tie anyone in the radical primary, because a California radical has huge advantages in the range of historically radical (and nutty) ideas on which they can draw.
Look at Governor Gavin Newsom’s call for a tax-paid universal health system that would expand access for illegal immigrants (thereby sending a worldwide signal that if you are sick, you should sneak into California). This would doubtlessly bankrupt the State of California. This will give you a flavor of the left-wing political universe that surrounds Senator Harris. The fact is that the California Democratic state legislators have more extreme, radical, and manically foolish policy proposals every week than Ocasio-Cortez can generate in a year. Harris will do just fine in the “I’m more radical than you” primary.
This analysis does not mean Senator Harris will be the Democratic nominee: It means that she is the most likely as of today. Our presidential election process is too dynamic and high-pressured for anything to be certain with a year of campaigning, debates, and news cycles to go. But for now, I think Harris is as good a bet as you can make.
Of course, all this will only help her win the nomination. In a general election, Harris will not have to be pushed to the left. She will naturally run to the left. She is an authentic California Democrat. This will help her in California and with some younger hard-left voters. But it will be a hurdle in other traditionally Democrat-leaning voting populations.
The danger for Harris, and other like-minded Democrats, is that they go to cocktail parties and rallies where the nuttier you are, the more normal you seem. Meanwhile, the rest of America just sees the nuttiness. This is what destroyed George McGovern in 1972. Every Democrat should take Theodore White’s Making of the President 1972 to the beach this summer. It will be sobering reading.
A clear example of how close the Democrats are to the 1972 disaster was the fact that a majority of Democratic candidates in the debates raised their hands in favor of Governor Newsom’s proposal to give free health care to every illegal immigrant —a distinctly unpopular position with the American people.
So, this analysis also does not mean that she—or any Democrat—has a chance of beating Trump. That is an analysis for a later time. For now, let’s just enjoy the Democrats’ nominating brawl.
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