Joe is Biden his time, but he Beto not wait much longer. Steve sees 2020 as a generational election that favors the young.
When I evaluated applicants for senior positions at an ad agency, I inspected their resumes and asked tough questions to establish that they actually had real experience in the advertising business before I unleashed them on our employees and our clients. Call me crazy. I thought experience was important.
Somehow, however, the voting population of the United States has a different hiring philosophy. It’s as if they would conduct a job interview for a computer programmer by asking about the applicant’s proficiency as a dog groomer or endocrinologist.
Or, worse still, they would say, “So, you want to work for us a computer programmer? Just so you know: the more experience you have had as a computer programmer, the less attractive a candidate you are. We count relevant experience against you.”
So it would appear to be. Repeatedly, Americans have chosen the candidate for President who has demonstrably less experience.
Go back to 1976, when a peanut farmer turned one-term governor of a mid-sized state defeated the guy who actually was the President of the United States. Four years later, an actor and two-term governor of a bigger state defeated the guy who was the President of the United States. Ronald Reagan would be re-elected in 1984, and was succeeded in 1988 by the only clear exception to this thesis, when the demonstrably more experienced George H.W. Bush defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
By 1992, the triumph of inexperience returned: small state governor Bill Clinton defeated Bush, the incumbent President, and won again in 1996 against the very elder statesman Bob Dole. In 2000, Texas guv George Dubya defeated the far more experienced sitting VP Al Gore, and beat three term Senator John Kerry in 2004. In 2008, a charismatic young Senator named Barack Obama -- who had not even completed his first term in office -- defeated fifteen-year Washington elder statesman John McCain.
Then, of course, we reached the apotheosis of this particular theory in 2016 when a marginal real estate developer cum reality television star defeated a woman who may well have been the most thoroughly experienced and well qualified presidential candidate in history.
No experience necessary? Heck, no experience wanted.
Here’s another interesting fact for Democrats to chew on as they consider who should carry the party’s flag in the most important election in the nation’s history. Democrats win when they nominate a youthful, relatively inexperienced charismatic. When they nominate a graying policy wonk, they lose. Think about that. John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were all highly charismatic but nonetheless inexperienced candidates, and each would win the presidency while still in the forties. Democrats win when they embody generational change.
In contrast, think about the imagery conjured by these names: Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. Each of these candidates could blow you away with their command of policy detail, global politics, and the practical workings of government. Every single one of them was over fifty --most well over fifty -- when nominated for president. And yeah, maybe every single one of them would have been a fine President. But here’s the significant thing they have in common: the Democratic losers over the past forty years were all wooden technocrats who suffered from chronic charisma deficit disorder.
Ah, the wisdom of Mario Cuomo, who noted that politicians must “campaign in poetry, and govern in prose.” None of these losing Democratic candidates had enough poetry in them to make it halfway through a haiku.
What does all this mean for the Democrats as they hurtle toward an impassioned, fractious, incredibly high stakes nominating process in 2020?
First things first: is there really a rhyme or reason in this pattern, or is it just coincidence? Is there a substantive explanation for this phenomenon?
Yes, there's truth in the inference that experience can be every bit as much a negative as a positive. Most pointedly, a candidate with a deep resume has left a paper and video trail of decisions, positions, and actions that often leave them with a bullseye on their backside. In 2012, Mitt Romney was traumatized by his inability to explain how his successful universal healthcare initiative as governor of Massachusetts was not functionally identical to Obamacare. In 2016, Republicans screamed “Benghazi” so often you’d have thought it was the only word on the card in the church Bingo game. People who have been on the big stages of politics for decades have, along the way, inevitably created terabytes of video documenting contentious positions, improperly phrased opinions, or weak moments that Fox and MSNBC can summon in real time.
In contrast, a fresh face with a featherweight curriculum vitae carries no baggage. In a holy war of cable news soundbytes and recently unearthed videos, the person with the least recorded history is the least vulnerable.
A second possible explanation: Americans seem to have a child-like desire to imbue shiny new objects with the presumption of perfection. Where Europeans grudgingly but willingly turn to the devils they know, we assume the people we don’t know must be angels.
This distinctly American allure of the fresh, the different, the new, and the unknown can lead to unspeakable calamity. Sturdy patriot and seasoned government veteran John McCain offered up the omni-ignorant Sarah Palin as his first in line for the oval office. And then there's the most comprehensive and terrifying threat to American democracy in history... the mental tabula rasa currently wolfing down a Big Mac in the Lincoln bedroom while being hypnotized by Sean Hannity on the big screen.
But the right fresh face can be intoxicating. Like an icy blast of fresh air, the right newcomer can seize and define the moment. John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama proudly identified with the needs and concerns of a new generation coming of age and assuming positions of leadership in times of great change. They each appeared more tuned in, plugged in, and of-the-moment than their older rivals.
All of this is bad news for Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and it’s gonna burn the Bern, too. It is, however, very good news for Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and Cory Booker, who have George Santayana on their side… if they can figure out what to do with him.
Sure, Joe, Bernie, and Elizabeth are doing well in the early polls, but most of that preference is name recognition, plain and simple. Look more closely, and each of these candidates has already spent way too much of their time on their heels, already pushed on the defensive by their own personal bios.
Joe Biden has the most experience, and – not surprisingly – the most baggage. Biden had to drop his first presidential bid thirty years ago when evidence surfaced that he had plagiarized a speech from British politician Neil Kinnock. Then there is ample video of Biden Behaving Badly in the Anita Hill hearings, where the then-Senator callously allowed his colleagues to persecute the witness. Today Biden is working to distance himself from the his support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which is now viewed as the catalyst for the dramatic and disproportionate increase in incarceration of African-Americans. And let’s not forget the epic fail of his 2008 Presidential bid, which lost all of its mojo literally hours after he announced his candidacy, when he made this assessment of nascent rising star Barack Obama: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."
There’s no doubt that Joe Biden is a well-liked, popular, and formidable candidate, with a salt-of-the-earth appeal that can win back Democrats in all those Rust Belt states that Hillary forgot to campaign in. But he is also Grandpa Faux Pas, captain of the Gaffe Spree, a man whose vocal chords regularly outpace his cerebrum, and a man who has been soundly thumped in a number of prior runs for the White House. Let's be clear on one thing: if Joe Biden decides to run, he must win Iowa decisively. He will have more of an uphill battle in the next three primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and California. If he fails to win big in Iowa, his entire candidacy could be derailed in the first week. Again.
Bernie Sanders’ prodigious initial fund-raising sprint has given him the aura of a front-runner, but let’s remember that this is a marathon. He has already had to spend a lot of time dealing with Me Too explosions on his campaign staff. Feeling the 2020 Bern? That white hot heat is actually the still-smoldering seething anger that Clinton disciples feel for the man who took his sweet time climbing aboard the Hillary train in 2016. Then there his “Democratic Socialist” label, which Donald Trump will use to eviscerate Dems like Darth Vader with a light sabre.
Bernie was impressive when he was the big surprise challenger in 2016, but back then he was one of two candidates.. and the other was the charisma-starved Hillary Clinton. This time around, he’s carrying some heavy baggage, and there could be twenty candidates eating corn dogs at the Iowa State Fair.
Elizabeth Warren is an enigma. She is a forceful, straight-talking, high-integrity persona, and yet she has managed to allow what should have been an eminently manageable issue become a hefty albatross. Dear Ms. Warren: woman up. You made a mistake when you claimed that you should be categorized in any way and for any purpose as a Native American. It may have not technically been an error, but it was the wrong thing to do. We all make mistakes. Most can be defanged by taking full ownership. Do it. Out loud. “I made a mistake.” Better late than never, or never also going to be the word they use to describe your candidacy.
Indeed, the portion of the Democratic field that already qualifies for Medicare is heavily burdened by the weight of history… their party’s history, and their personal histories. Yes, they have name recognition now, and that counts for something in a crowded field. But their experience is as much of a problem as it is a benefit. This is certainly true for the instances of controversy and poor judgment, but also simply in the realm of pure symbolism. They are all of a different generation, and a new generation with its own opinions about its own future impatiently awaits.
On the other end of the Democratic political spectrum, there is an undeniable gust of 1960, 1992, and 2008 in the air. There are candidates who offer generational change, visceral charismatic appeal, and a sense of vision based on values, aspiration, ideals, and yes, supported by policy. It is policy that supports a vision, rather than vision that is simply policy.
Each of the new generation candidates need to step up their game. Cory Booker needs to build an organization that can raise the kind of money that Bernie is raising. Kamala Harris needs to hone and focus her message, which currently feels like an endless shopping list to bring to a progressive policy Whole Foods. And Beto O’Rourke? He needs to get in the game.
Each needs to work frenetically in the near term as initial impressions are forming. Each needs to pick a small number of battles around which to define their candidacies. Each needs to raise their sense of urgency. Now is the time that the cement is wet. Don't wait for others to define the race, the issues, and the Democratic agenda. Don't wait for an air of inevitability to form around Biden. Don't let Bernie brand the future of the Democratic Party. Don't wait.
Step it up, Cory, Kamala, and Beto. Now. You are lucky enough to live in a crazy country that doesn’t seem to care whether you have the requisite experience for the job.
Indeed, that country seems bound and determined to hold real, genuine, hands-on government experience against the people who have it.
It is a country eager to turn a page on a particularly bleak period in its history, when a tidal wave of divisiveness, dishonesty, opportunism, and brazen self-interest rendered our nation unrecognizable to its citizens, its global allies, and even to its most ardent enemies. That country is poised to conclude that this is one of those moments in history when only a fresh face can create a complete break from a sorry past and once again turn our hopes and dreams toward the future.
As Democrats, you belong to a party that aches for charismatic visionaries who look forward, dream big, and speak to our better angels.
Those, indeed, are the only Democrats who ever win.
Each of you has the potential to be that visionary, to be the torch that passes to a new generation, to be that poet, and to be that winner.
The field is wide open now.
We need one of you to step up, to be bold, to seize the moment, and change the game.
No experience necessary.
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