How I’ll Evaluate the Democratic Presidential Candidates

For a couple of years now, Jay Rosen has been advising journalists who cover Donald Trump to think outside the box in terms of how they do their job, because their old methods are arcane when it comes to covering this president. He’s now asking journalists who are preparing to cover the upcoming presidential election to do the same and reject the kind of “horse race” coverage that so dominates the media.

More than an anti-Clinton bias, Rosen identifies the most important way so many journalists blew their coverage of the 2016 presidential election.

He goes on to suggest that covering Trump’s presidency led many journalists to abandon “the production of their own innocence” but, as they begin to cover the 2020 race, it is creeping back in. He offers a video clip of a recent segment from Chris Hayes as an alternative.

I found the list of things Hayes suggested we should focus on to be particularly helpful.

  • What the candidate’s worldview is
  • What their platform calls for concretely
  • How they’ve conducted themselves in the past
  • What we can best find out about their mettle and their judgement
  • Who they will fight for
  • What will they fight for
  • Can they be trusted to do what they say

Lately I’ve been thinking about which candidate I am likely to support in the primary. But it is still way too early to decide. First of all, we’re still in the very early stages and don’t know who all of the candidates will be. When it comes to the potentials, my experience has been that by the time my state’s primary rolls around, the field will be winnowed, so at this point it is more of a sorting process.

But the debates will begin this summer, which is when we’ll learn more about their platforms. That will provide some crucial information. However, the context will be that the Democratic field will have a lot of overlap on the policies they propose, particularly in comparison to their opponent in the general election.

There are those who will suggest that a candidate’s platform is all that matters, but I’m not one of those people. Items like the candidate’s worldview, their mettle and judgement, and whether or not they can be trusted are just as important. That’s why I’d add an item to Hayes’ list. Take a look at how Melissa Harris-Perry described Barack Obama after her experience of knowing him long before he ran for president.

These early encounters with Obama remind me that he is President not solely, or even primarily, because of innate gifts, but because he moves up a learning curve more swiftly and fully than anyone else in public life. My consistent support for President Obama, despite my real differences with him on a number of policy issues, is deeply rooted in my understanding of his openness to and capacity for learning.

I trust that when he does not have the answer he will seek it. I trust that when he fails with one strategy, he will adjust. I trust that when he needs a new skill, he will learn it. I trust that when he needs advice, he will seek it.

Especially after watching the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump, that is something that has moved up to the top of my list of things to look for in a candidate.

A candidate’s worldview is perhaps one of the most important things to consider for a variety of reasons. One of those is that it dictates their theory of change, which was a significant difference between Democratic candidates in both 2008 and 2016. I expect it will be equally so in 2020.

When it comes to the matter of trust, that is what the whole question of authenticity is all about. Jonathan Chait nailed it when talking about how that is the essence of the battle that has already unfolded between the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke.

One of the deeper strategic goals of the left is to equate progressive maximalism with authenticity, like Sanders did. They want candidates who take uncompromising left-wing positions to be seen as authentic, and candidates who adopt more moderate lines to be seen as calculating and phony. The socialist left will attack any non-Sanders candidate, but O’Rourke is especially dangerous to their project precisely because of his Obama-like personal appeal.

The “personal appeal” Chait refers to is the fact that O’Rourke was successful in running an authentic campaign for the senate and that his supporters trust him.

The problem with the recent craze about authenticity is that candidates will see it as important and try to fake it. I believe that’s where Elizabeth Warren faltered when she decided to have a beer while filming a video for Instagram. What makes Warren authentic is that she’s a fighter, not that she has a beer while pontificating in her kitchen.

Hayes used the word “mettle,” which is an interesting choice. The dictionary defines it as “a person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.” Being president means facing unpredictable challenges on an almost daily basis. Handling them in a “spirited and resilient way” is definitely part of the job description.

Qualities like authenticity, mettle, and judgement are often in the eye of the beholder and more difficult to quantify than policy proposals. But as Michelle Obama so wisely said, “the presidency doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.” One of our jobs in the primary is to determine who these candidates are so that it doesn’t come as a surprise when/if they are elected.

If you’ll notice, neither Chris Hayes nor I have mentioned the word “electable” because that is part of the horse race approach. My view is that the primaries give voters the chance to pick the candidate they think will be the best president. Trying to calculate which of them is electable is almost always a matter of projection. In other words, we justify a candidate as electable because they meet more of our criteria, which we assume is shared by a majority of voters. A more honest approach would be to say that the candidate I support would make the best president, and here’s why. Many of those distinctions will disappear in the general election when it becomes abundantly clear which candidate is better suited for the job.

The race for the Democratic nomination will be one of the defining stories of 2019, long before any primary votes are actually cast. I reject the idea that the only possibilities for having a discussion about that are confined to either the horse race or a comparison of their policy proposals. While the latter is important, it is not the distinguishing factor that some would have us believe. Issues like a candidate’s worldview, their mettle, their willingness to learn, and whether or not they can be trusted are more open to interpretation, but equally important.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .