Primary concerns

Primary concerns April 25, 2019

The first primary caucuses and elections for 2020 are still 10 months away. The very first debates among the candidates are still two months away. But the silly season of primary contention has begun.

This long campaign promises to be exciting because the field of Democratic contenders is both very large and very impressive, including many I’d be very pleased to vote for and to see elected president. As these candidates introduce their vision and their policy ideas, I’m finding a lot to get excited about.

In theory and in the abstract, I appreciate the notion that hard-fought primary campaigns can be a net positive for the eventual nominee. They can help to hone that candidate’s message, to vet out potential pitfalls and responses to them. That is less likely to be true, though, when primary contestants choose to run whatever-it-takes, scorched-earth campaigns that encourage their followers to despise every other candidate and their supporters — something we’ve seen happen in recent years with first the “PUMAs” and then the Bernie Bros (or, at least, the Bernie Bots).

In the hotly contested 2008 primary, I expressed a wish that the leading candidates — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — would do more to acknowledge the historic nature of one another’s campaigns, and of what each was therefore having to overcome. Specifically, I wanted to see Obama state, explicitly, that “If you’re supporting me against Clinton because you don’t want to vote for a woman, then I don’t want your vote.” And I wanted to see Clinton state, explicitly, that “If you’re supporting me against Obama because you don’t want to vote for a black candidate, then I don’t want your vote.”

This was, I was told at the time, impractically idealistic. In such a closely fought campaign, some thought, every potential advantage had to be exploited — even the unseemly ones repackaged under the pseudo-respectable umbrella of “electability.” (That was then, and still is, mostly a gross euphemism for “realistically” acknowledging that much of the electorate is racist and/or misogynist, treating that fact as an implacably static reality, and then shrugging and saying, hey, whatchagonnado?)

I still think such statements would have been important and eminently practical — good politics as well as morally obligatory. I think they would have been a demonstration of leadership — the kind of leadership that just might persuade some to follow and to try to be better than they might otherwise have been left to their own prejudices.

I was, of course, disappointed in this wish back in 2008. And I was disappointed yet again in 2016 not to hear similar statements during the heated contest between Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

So here is one thing I’m looking for from the field of 2020 contenders. Yes, they’re running against one another. Fine. But I still want to see them explicitly endorse and model the solidarity that their party and their country requires. So I want to hear each of them state, flatly and without reservation, that if you’re inclined to support them over another candidate because that candidate is a woman, or a person of color, or is Jewish, or gay, then you can keep your damn vote to yourself thankyouverymuch.

Beyond that, I’d like to see the various candidates endorsing and supporting the best ideas coming from their competitors. Back in 2008, there was much dispute over the competing health-care reform ideas embraced by Obama and Clinton, with much discussion over whether the candidates were “stealing” ideas from one another (or from John Edwards).

I think that’s the absolutely wrong way to look at it. Steal away, I say.

I’d like to see this primary campaign play out like a “scramble” in golf. (I am the rare middle-aged white American male who has somehow avoided the cult of golf, so I’m a bit cautious in using a golf analogy and I may have this terminology wrong.) The idea of a scramble is that everybody takes their tee shot, but then everybody plays from the point of the best ball after that, and then from the best ball after that, etc., on every hole. The final score is the product of all those best shots.

One candidate comes out with a terrific statement on, say, the student-debt crisis. Mark that spot and everybody move to within a club-length of that location. Then everybody takes another swing at the next issue. Take the best idea and move on from there.

This is not, I recognize, politics as usual. Politics as usual says that in a crowded field like this one, candidates should be working to differentiate themselves, to put daylight between themselves and the rest of the pack. I get that. But I think we’re at a point where politics as usual ain’t gonna cut it. And I also think, again, that candidates can demonstrate leadership by being willing to follow good ideas, even when those good ideas come from one’s “opponent.” When Kamala Harris rolls out a plan to raise pay for teachers, or Elizabeth Warren rolls out a whole raft of Baileyite prescriptions to rein in Old Man Potter, then I think the best and most responsible course of action for the other candidates is to commend and endorse those ideas (and the people advancing them).

Would this “work”? What would happen if, say, Corey Booker spent most of the first debate deferring and endorsing the signature ideas proposed by the other candidates? Would he “look weak” or would he, perhaps, look stronger for it? I don’t know. I’m not any kind of expert at hard-nosed political campaigning and I have no idea whether such a thing would ultimately be good or bad for any single candidate.

But I think it would be good for the country. And I think it might even be necessary for the country.

When however many of the candidates take to the stage in late June for the first debate, I’m hoping to see something that discourages the kind of brawling we got last time around. I don’t know exactly what that would look like, but I imagine it’d be something like this — one of my favorite things — a “songwriters circle” concert from a few years back in the UK.

Concert organizers invited Neil Finn, Roddy Frame, and Graham Gouldman to come and share some of their favorite songs. Why? Because they’re all really good songwriters. The artists didn’t have much of a chance to rehearse together, but they were able to join in on several of the others’ songs because they knew and admired each others’ work and wanted to see the best of one another showcased well.

I don’t think Frame and Gouldman come across as diminished by chiming in to support Neil Finn here. Quite the opposite.

I’ve watched every video from this concert several times and enjoyed every performance. That’s partly because each of the songwriters here is also enjoying every performance by the others. Roddy and Graham are awestruck and envious of “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” Neil and Roddy seem stoked that they’re getting to sing “I’m Not in Love” with the guy who wrote it. Neil seems like he can’t wait to hear Roddy’s guitar joining in on his songs.

This mutual admiration is endearing not just because it’s generous, but because it’s accurate — because it’s deserved.

Come late June, we’ll have the chance to tune in and see Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Corey Booker, Julian Castro, Mayor Pete, Beto, Gillibrand and more take to the same stage. That’s not exciting only because of any single one of them, but because of all of them. If they don’t recognize and acknowledge that, too, then something important and necessary will be missing.

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