Ignore conservatives’ advice on how to pick the Democratic presidential nominee

After the first Democratic debates, Joe Scarborough declared them a “disaster” for Democrats and hoped no one was watching. Talk about being out of step: 15.3 million watched the first night and 18.1 million the second, and viewers liked what they saw.

Spare us from supposedly well-meaning conservative pundits telling the world whom the Democratic Party must — and must not — nominate for president. They’re out of step with the times.

It’s still more than six months until the first votes in the Iowa caucuses, a year before the Democratic National Convention, and nearly 16 months before the actual 2020 election itself. Yet conservative columnists and television commentators — many who fall into the “Never Trump” category — think they hold the secret to the perfect Democratic nominee.

These conservatives contend that the only way Democrats can win back the presidency is to nominate someone that they approve of. A moderate — nay, a center-right — nominee is the only possible pick who could capture those “white, working class voters” that all conservatives think are necessary for a winning path to the White House.

Here’s an idea, conservative pundits: If you want to help pick the Democratic nominee, become a Democrat. If you can’t stand Trump (and many of you have said publicly that his presidency is a racist disaster) and you still want to offer advice to Democrats, give advice that reflects a Democratic mindset, not just your own.

If you still want to stick with your conservative values and want to keep your GOP credentials, fine. Tell your own party to dump the racist-in-chief and choose a new candidate.

Business Insider recently ran an opinion piece by Democratic campaign strategist Matt Herdman that was the written equivalent of someone banging his head against his desk. The conclusion in the headline: Republican pundits keep offering Democrats advice. It’s almost all terrible.

Usually it comes from “Never Trump” Republicans, who share a common interest in beating President Donald Trump in 2020. I’m glad that these Republicans are on the team, but I hope none of the Democratic presidential candidates take the bait and listen. …

Polling suggests voters, and independents, support a popular vote rather than the electoral college. It also suggests that voters favor the Green New Deal, creating new social programs like Medicare for All and expanded funding for childcare, and Warren’s wealth tax. But you wouldn’t pick up on that from these pleas for Democrats to run as diet Republicans.

Charlie Sykes, a conservative MSNBC contributor and editor-in-chief of the Bulwark, listed 11 steps in Politico that he claims would ensure Trump’s re-election. The advice is what you would expect from a conservative as policy losers: Abolish private health insurance, license guns, be vague on open borders, promise free stuff without paying for it, etc.

As to that last point: Probably the most satisfying answer at the first Democratic presidential debate was when California Sen. Kamala Harris, when asked a “how-will-you-pay-for-it” question, shot back, “Where was that question when Republicans passed their tax cuts, now that the deficit is out of control?”

Just for the record, Charlie (hey, I worked with him at The Milwaukee Journal), Democrats aren’t “vague” on borders and support border security as much as any Republican. The proposals on gun safety stress the common-sense restrictions such as universal background checks that are supported by more than 90 percent of Americans.

Or take the advice from writer George Will. His recent column in The Washington Post advises Democrats that their best bet would be to nominate … Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.

Reading too much George Will all at once can cause a serious case of eye-rolling. Will says he favors Bennet because “He can distinguish between what he calls ‘the Twitter base of the Democratic Party’ and the ‘actual’ version.” (I’m leaving out Will’s wordy attempts at showing off vocabulary and knowledge of ancient Greek historians.)

Don’t get me wrong. I like Michael Bennet. His election in 2010 as a Democratic senator from Colorado was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal year for Democrats. His entry into the crowded Democratic field was delayed by treatment for prostate cancer, so other candidates gained followers who might have gone to him. His positions could hardly be called conservative, yet he doesn’t embrace some of his colleagues’ ideas on issues such as Medicare for All and the decriminalization of migrant border crossing.

Bennet remains optimistic that he still has time to break out of the lower rungs of the crowded field into a higher position. Never mind that he is receiving between zero and 1 percent support in national polls reported by FiveThirtyEight.com and likely won’t qualify for the September debates. Despite a decent performance in the June debate, his poll numbers remain unchanged. Yet Will thinks that Bennet is a sure winner.

Another Washington Post columnist, Robert Samuelson, made the often-repeated charge that none of the candidates seems presidential. Samuelson’s complaints — that the candidates resembled a “gaggle of graduate students” — centered on ideas you would expect from conservatives. They aren’t saying how they’ll pay for everything when they should be cutting budgets (tell that to Republicans blowing up the deficit). They don’t have foreign policy experience (as if the current occupant hasn’t turned the U.S. into a laughingstock on the international stage).

Samuelson’s most ridiculous complaint was that the Democats don’t come off as “leaders.” Well, sure, if you’re defining leadership as being a white, male Republican.

There are a lot more, from the usual suspects such as Bret Stephens of The New York Times and Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal. But they’re all basically saying the same thing: The country needs a “center-right” Democrat, even if that’s the opposite of what Democratic voters want.

An intriguing theory on why all of this dated advice sounds the same comes from a piece in New York Magazine: The pundits in this country are still adhering to old rules — from a time when they wrote the rules. “In all of their hand-wringing, they seem not to have noticed that, in fact, assumptions about a safe center are crumbling in the hands of a new generation of political leaders willing to make a stirring case for radical ideas.”

Where many Americans have seen the emergence of compelling and charismatic candidates who don’t look like those who’ve preceded them (but do look more like the country they want to lead), some prominent pundits seem to be looking at a field of people they simply can’t recognize as presidential. Where many hear Democratic politicians arguing vigorously on behalf of more justice and access to resources for people who have historically been kept at the margins of power, some prominent columnists are hearing a scary call to destabilization and chaos, imagining themselves on the outside of politics they’ve long assumed should be centered around them.

Altogether, what’s emerging is a view of a presidential commentariat that — in terms of both ideas and diversity — is embarrassingly outpaced by the candidates, many of whom appear smarter, more thoughtful, and to have a nimbler grasp of American history and structural inequities than the television journalists being paid to cover them.

No, Democrats aren’t going to run as “diet Republicans,” as Herdman dubbed those mythical creatures in the Business Insider piece. No matter the nominee, he or she will embrace progressive ideas in the campaign, even if political reality means scaling back some of those ideas once the winning Democrat has been sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021. But how will we ever know if we don’t try?

Originally posted on Daily Kos on July 21, 2019.

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