Presidential Candidates and the ‘Scandal Test’

A recent Monmouth University poll showed that a majority of Democrats favor a 2020 presidential candidate who can beat Trump over one they agree with on most issues. With that in mind, Bill Scher has written a guide to determine the candidates’ so-called “electability.” It includes passing the “scandal test.”

Many Democrats believe that molehills are often unfairly turned into mountains by disingenuous Republicans, aided by a conflict-driven and content-hungry news media. But you don’t get elected president by whining about unfair attacks. You get elected by beating them back…

In all likelihood, the 2020 primary will be a protracted affair, giving ample opportunity for top-tier candidates to be thoroughly scrutinized. Controversies, of varying severity, are inevitable. Primary voters should watch carefully to determine who has the skills to nip accusations in the bud, and who can’t seem to put them to rest.

While I ultimately wouldn’t argue with the assumptions Scher has made, I do think that it is important to point them out. First of all, he assumes that Republicans and “conflict-driven” media will launch unfair attacks against the Democratic candidates. Secondly, he assumes that all of the responsibility for dealing with those attacks lies with the candidates themselves.

Let’s be honest. No matter what the issues are that the Democratic candidates espouse, Republicans are going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at them (and maybe the sink too). The idea that any of these candidates will endure the primary or general election without getting trashed by that kind of scandal-mongering is nothing but a fool’s dream. What that means is that advice which suggests, “don’t do or say that because Republicans will use it as an attack” comes from people who aren’t paying attention. The attacks will be launched no matter how careful a candidate tries to be.

In addition to that, we know that a lot of people in the media didn’t learn much from the debacle of their Hillary Clinton coverage in 2016. We’ve already seen the “likability” issue emerge for female candidates, with questions arising about why they chose their spouses and how they eat fried chicken. I fear they’re only getting started.

With all of that in mind, I find Scher’s second assumption to be the most maddening. Why is the responsibility for dealing with fake scandals and media nonsense left solely at the door of the candidates to deal with? Can we call out Republicans for their lies and distortions? Can the media focus on what we need to know about candidates instead of treating elections like soap operas? Can voters be expected to sift through the distractions and base their evaluation of the candidates on meaningful assessments?

The realist in me knows that the answer to those questions right now is “no.” So in order to be electable, presidential candidates will have to pass Scher’s “scandal test.” I suppose we’ll learn something about the contenders in the process, but whether that has any bearing on what kind of president they’ll be is probably a mixed bag. Meanwhile, the show will go on because of our failure to hold anyone else accountable for their role in the circus.

Nancy LeTourneau

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