About two dozen Democrats have announced that they are seeking the 2020 U. S. Democratic presidential nomination. What our country needs, and needs badly, is for one of the candidates to emerge with a progressive message that can begin to unify our fractured nation. What we as voters must do is decide which of the many Democrats can best accomplish this task, while simultaneously ending a presidency that has been a national disgrace.
In LA Progressive, Steve Hochstadt has written: “The array of Democratic candidates who want to replace him [Trump] is dauntingly large, but it would be hard to find a more politically attractive and personally admirable class of presidential aspirants in our history. Each one presents a powerful challenge to Trump and everything he does. . . . The Democrats, every one of them, are better than Trump. They are better because of what they share, their values and their determination to enact them for the good of the nation.”
I think Steve is right, but how do we decide which one of this talented group to support—with our primary vote and/or contributing our time or money?
To begin, a few preliminaries. The criteria that follow are tentative and primarily an attempt to clarify my own thinking. If they are helpful to others, great. If not, no harm done. And for a variety of reasons, I will probably wait until the Democratic primary in Michigan (March 2020) to back a candidate.
Note that this means I will vote for a Democrat and support one in November 2020. No Third Party candidate for me. We need someone who has a good chance of beating Trump—and yes that will affect which candidate I choose to back. If I like a certain Democrat who appeals to very few other voters, I will instead back one who I also think is good, but much more electable.
The various Democratic candidates reflect a wide spectrum regarding age, gender, and race. These differences matter and will affect my choice, but less so than the major qualifications listed below. The candidates stances on various issues are also important, but exactly what they have said on them—even on climate change, which I consider the world’s most significant problem—matters less to me than my assessment of their overall character.
First of all, I want someone who seems likely to be a wise president. In March 2012 my “What is True Political Wisdom? A Primer for the 2012 Election” appeared on this site, itself a condensed version of a much-longer essay. In these articles I spelled out that the goal of politics should be enhancing the common good by exercising political wisdom. . The virtues needed to demonstrate such wisdom include the proper mix of realism and idealism, optimism, respect for truth, compassion, empathy, humility, tolerance and a willingness to compromise, a sense of humor, creativity, temperance, self-discipline, passion, and courage. Prudence is also necessary in order to properly balance, prioritize, and fit together these virtues and values in any particular situation so as to achieve the greatest good. Since actions are necessary for this achievement, skills as well as virtues are also required. For a president, for example, being an effective communicator and a good judge of people so as to select effective cabinet and staff members are important skills to possess.
Later in March 2012, my “Does Barack Obama Have True Political Wisdom?” was also posted on these pages, and I concluded “yes,” he did display political wisdom most of the time—no one always acts wisely
Now, however, more than seven years later, Obama’s second term and more than two years of the Trump presidency have just strengthened my convictions regarding political wisdom. Already in May 2016, I wrote that Trump’s “main problem” was his lack of wisdom, including wisdom virtues such as humility and the ability to laugh at himself. Subsequent essays dealt with topics such as how his narcissism “leaves no room for wisdom or other moral values such as humility or empathy,” and with his lack of self-discipline.
So far the Trump presidency has hammered home to us, via its negative example, the importance of George Washington’s Farewell-Address words about the importance of wisdom and virtue in the conduct of governmental actions. The character and virtues, or lack thereof, of our presidents do make a difference, a big one.
Thus, in a Democratic presidential candidate for 2020 we want someone who, unlike Trump, possesses the major wisdom virtues, virtues that will assist him/her to further the common good. In addition, we need someone with a progressive unifying vision. Someone like Franklin Roosevelt. After the mid-term Congressional elections in 2018, former President Obama called for “a return to the values we expect in our public life—honesty, decency, compromise, and standing up for one another as Americans, not separated by our differences, but bound together by one common creed.”
“Bound together.” How do we do that in our fractured nation? Not just by appeals to reason or rationality. The ideal Democratic presidential contender in 2020 needs to present a new national vision, one that will appeal to people’s hearts as well as heads. As I pointed out previously, historian Jill Lepore makes such a case in a Foreign Affairs essay, “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story.” In it she quotes from an 1869 speech of Frederick Douglass where he refers to a “‘composite nation,’ a strikingly original and generative idea, about a citizenry made better, and stronger, not in spite of its many elements, but because of them.”
The successful Democratic candidate needs to build on the example of the visions suggested in the 1960s by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, which foreshadow Lepore’s “new Americanism.” As I indicated in an earlier essay, MLK’s dream embraced the hope that “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” And RFK believed that we could display “love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” (If he were speaking today, he might well add “whether they be citizens or whether they be illegal immigrants.”)
As part of a new American vision, the Democratic nominee in 2020 needs to present a concise outline of an appealing immigration plan. So far one has not emerged. But Trump continues to stoke fears about illegal immigrants, and Democrats need to counter his rhetoric of hate with an appeal (as Lincoln put it) to “the better angels of our nature.” Building upon the proposed 2018 Central America Reform and Enforcement Act would be a good start, but crafting an effective response requires some of the skill Lincoln displayed in writing the Gettysburg Address: combining conciseness, simplicity, and eloquence.
Appealing to “the better angels of our nature” should infuse not only the Democratic immigration plan, but also other parts of the Democratic platform in 2020. It should stress equal opportunity, justice, tolerance, compromise, pragmatism, generosity, and boldness.
Political wisdom, a compelling national vision (new but building upon the past), and a personal background that meshes with that vision—these are qualities I’ll look for in a candidate who I hope can beat Trump.
The successful Democratic candidate should demonstrate how his/her background and ideals mesh with a “new national story” or vision. Women and minority contenders, of whom there are many, could point to the dream of the USA as the land of opportunity, not just for white men but also increasingly for women and ethnic minorities.
Some candidates, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have already begun empathizing how their backgrounds symbolize the American Dream. Sanders has stressed that, like many Americans, he descended from immigrants (his father and his maternal grandparents) and grew up in a working-class family. He has contrasted his 25 cents per week allowance with Trump’s “$200,000 allowance every year beginning at the age of 3.”
Warren likes to remind voters that she “grew up in Oklahoma,” that all three of her older brothers joined the military, which “was their ticket to the middle class.” She “wanted to be a public schoolteacher, but her “family didn't have the money for an application to send” her to college, “much less to pay for four years of college.” After getting a scholarship, she “fell in love at 19, got married and dropped out of school” and thought she “had lost it all.” But she later took a job “part-time waitressing,” went to a commuter college, and became “a special-needs teacher” until her visible pregnancy got her dismissed. Thus, the future Harvard Law professor, like Sanders and unlike Trump, has a working-class background that is typically American for someone her age.
Political wisdom, a compelling national vision (new but building upon the past), and a personal background that meshes with that vision—these are qualities I’ll look for in a candidate who I hope can beat Trump. I’ll also look for appropriate skills such as being a good administrator and communicator. If such a person possesses such qualities and skills, they will be reflected in issue positions on such matters as climate change and health care and make him/her popular enough to make Trump a one-term president (with the Republicans controlling the Senate, ending Trump’s presidency any earlier via impeachment seems highly unlikely.)
Many events, including debates, will help narrow down the Democratic contenders in the year ahead. Voters will have many opportunities to observe their character, virtues, and skills and winnow down the Democratic field of presidential candidates. The above essay indicates one way of doing this. I look forward to examining other approaches.
Walter G. Moss