Joe Biden is finally officially entered into the 2020 stakes, and that means it’s time to welcome you to THUNDERDOME. Twenty three Democrats are currently vying for the opportunity to take on Donald Trump, and while only one can be the chosen champion, the fight to seize that opportunity is likely to be extremely bloody and aggressive. There are built in competing narratives about the future of the country that will be unavoidable for Democrats, and while much of the electorate is indeed pragmatic and willing to back the candidate who, on paper, looks likeliest to win, getting there is not going to be an easy or painless process. And as always, we should expect unexpected twists along the way.
The three leading candidates for the Democratic nomination today in the state of New Hampshire are Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg all in double digits, with Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris rounding out the top five. One can pick dark horses from the rest of the field, but the likelihood that the eventual nominee will be one of these five candidates is particularly high given New Hampshire’s historical importance.
Of these, Biden is obviously the current leader, Sanders is hemorrhaging support, and Buttigieg is the shiny new object of Democratic affections. Warren has built a sizable team, Harris lines up with many of the current Democratic priorities, but the failure of other Senators – Booker, Klobuchar, Gillibrand, and Bennet – to get any traction could be an indication that it’s still a good time to be viewed as a DC outsider if you’re not named Joe Biden.
This weekend in New Hampshire was my first opportunity to see Mayor Pete in action. A few thoughts on his town hall with Chris Wallace, which was attended by several hundred aggressively pro-Pete New Hampshire and Vermont voters, held in an Americana drenched high school gymnasium during a heavy downpour. Buttigieg comes across as very intentional without being devious. His rhetorical posture at times seems to be a purposeful imitation of Barack Obama. He doesn’t lose his cool even when he’s schvitzing under the hot lights.
In person, Pete is midwestern nice with a bit more stiffness to his spine. He is aware he is criticized as too serious, coming out of an SNL sketch that depicted him as a studious nerd lacking in personality. But that could be less of a challenge than his physical stature, which is not a problem in a town hall but in a field with so many tall, physically imposing people – Beto, Booker, de Blasio – puts him at risk of seeming like a kid among adults. On the other hand, he carries himself with a military stance that seems permanently at attention, with the physical composure that those like O’Rourke lack. Perhaps it’s better to come across like the serious kid than the silly adult.
He has a major race problem. White people of all ages eat him up, but he’s typically at zero or one percent among black voters, who make up a decisive portion of the Democratic primary electorate. It’s early yet, but there looks to be a brick wall for him in the South that could prove his undoing. He will have to break that down to have a real shot, and talking up his linguistic capability and his love for James Joyce won’t do it.
At the moment, his tactical choices don’t seem aimed at that. Instead, it’s as if Biden’s dominant presence in the race has pushed him away from a soupcon of moderation toward more honesty about the leftism of his agenda. Buttigieg has made a big deal about his willingness to speak to those who voted for Trump in 2016 – it’s the whole justification for going on Fox News. But an agenda of third trimester abortion, a litany of new taxes, getting rid of the Electoral College and packing the Supreme Court are all things that speak more to the concerns of the donor class than to the concerns of Trump voters.
It is a simplistic frame, but the way I see this race at the moment is a contest between three competing visions for the Democratic party. Joe Biden’s appeal is a reset – a return to “normalcy”, normalcy being defined roughly as the assumptions of the American policy elite circa 2014, those halcyon days when Daenerys was still greeted as a liberator. Bernie Sanders and to some extent Elizabeth Warren should be views as the candidates of ambition – proposing the biggest sweeping Democratic socialist domestic priorities aimed at an elite who failed us. And Buttigieg should be considered the aspirational candidate: yes, by all means let’s trust this relatively inexperienced youngster because he checks the right boxes and can better translate the priorities of the elite than this roster of Baby Boomers.
The enigma in this set of five is Kamala Harris, who seems to be trying to execute a combination of ambition and aspiration. The challenge is that the Democratic primary electorate is older than many might think, and for those 65 and up, the promise of a reset is profoundly encouraging. Getting back to the before time, getting away from the Tweets and the cable news craziness, has enormous appeal. Aspirational candidates like Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama have been the most popular Democratic presidents. But nostalgia is a warm blanket, and it may turn out to be what this party wants in 2020 after all.