I just read Frank Bruni’s thoughts about the Democratic “bench” for the 2020 election and I kind of agree with him and I kind of don’t. It is how I disagree that will rankle thoughtful people. So here it is: I really don’t think the Democrats can successfully run a minority or woman candidate in 2020. To do so, I draw this conclusion reluctantly, is too risky. There is a motivated — and agitated — base of conservative voters who might be motivated to vote against that candidate. I know, I know…it is an awful position to hold, but what do you think?
Consider this: An unqualified lout defeated an exceptionally experienced and qualified candidate in 2016…which is telling in the first place. More importantly, however, that victory has given cover to a lot of long-sequestered sexism and racism that amazingly still exists in this country. Racism, sexism? No longer quite as shocking as it once was. The decades have rolled back. Indeed, for many people, making America “great” again is couched in the rhetoric of racism and sexism. (Exhibit A: Donald J. Trump…our president.)
That puts Democrats in a tough spot. A lot of Democratic talent — probably the majority of it — is in the leadership of minorities and women. The question is whether putting forward a minority or woman candidate can draw enough votes to outbalance those motivated to vote against such a candidate. If it is Trump running, I’m not sure they can. The GOP is Trump’s party now. You would have to pull those so-called left behind angry white working-class voters away from Trump, the ones who once voted for Obama. Hell, you’d have to pull votes from better-off, better-educated suburban conservative white voters whose latent racism appears to be stronger than we care to admit. They don’t recognize Trump’s bigotry…or choose not to care. (Trump is polling around 85% favorable among Republicans.)
Now, of course, I seem to be making the simple-minded case that Trump won because he was a man and Clinton was a woman and therefore if we tried the same dynamic again (run a woman or minority against a man) the result would be the same. (And, yes, the GOP candidates for president will be men.)
However, I think my argument is more subtle than that. I think a large part of the American electorate is seeking what it thinks is a middle ground, something that feels more like fifty years ago. To them, progressives are a muddle. Progressives get in the way with all their ideas for something better than what America once was when what America once was is what America should be. And there is no better way to sustain that narrative than by putting it — literally — in black and white.
So I am saying Democrats capitulate, right? Well, kind of. The stakes are pretty damn high. A hard swallow of realpolitik pragmatism might need to prevail. It is an offensive and a defensive play. Keep the bigots at home while pulling in more progressives.
I really hope I am wrong.