cory booker and elizabeth warren
Credit: kelly bell photography/flickr

If you’re a Democratic voter, primary season is either exhilarating or exacerbating. Some Democrats welcome a full-throated conversation about policies and values to help energize and excite the progressive base, while others fear that a long and potentially acrimonious contest will hurt the effort to oust Donald Trump. (I lean much more heavily toward the former, as there is little evidence that contested primaries harm the political party seeking to unseat an incumbent, but that’s another piece for another day.)

Similarly, the prospect of nearly every major Democratic candidate for president running on a series of previously unthinkable progressive policy platforms–Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, reparations for slavery–is either exciting or deeply concerning.

Realistically, Democrats shouldn’t get too concerned or excited by this development. First, the electoral concerns are largely overblown. Donald Trump is not a formidable candidate for re-election. In fact, he may not even end up being a candidate at all. The Mueller report has yet to drop; House Democrats have only just begun their inquiries; Michael Cohen is just the first witness to drop bombshells under oath, implicating the president in serious crimes, and none of that even touches on what other investigations will reveal from the Southern District of New York. Trump’s approval rating is already deep underwater, he currently loses head-to-head matchups with almost every major Democrat in current polling, and most indications suggest the economy is headed toward a recession. Just as most pundits wildly underestimated his chances throughout the 2016 cycle (I did not), the same reverse Cassandras are overcorrecting by wildly overestimating him in 2020.

Even if Democrats do win the White House, the Senate is another matter. Chances are good for Democrats to retake the Senate in 2020, but even if they do, it will likely only be by a slight margin. Which means that unless Democrats have the wisdom and courage to get rid of the filibuster, little will still be accomplished legislatively at the federal level. Which means, in turn, that most of those idealistic campaign promises will be dead in the water as soon as the new president takes office.

So how to pick between candidates? Well, politicians can be notoriously deceptive. But one tried-and-true method of testing a person’s character in almost any situation is to examine the people with whom they surround themselves. That mantra becomes even more relevant when that person has the power and privilege to choose their own social circles and to hire and fire employees. Politicians may shift with the political winds, but their consultants, advisers, staff, and donors are tremendous windows into who they really are and what they really believe.

They’re also key to the policies they intend to push forward in a divided Congress. Insofar as President Barack Obama disappointed progressives with overly cautious decisions in office, they had much less to do with his conciliatory approach and much more to do with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Attorney General Eric Holder’s refusals to get tough with white collar criminals, Wall Street, and the thieves who fleeced the country in the run-up to and aftermath of the financial crisis.

And then, of course, there’s foreign policy. No matter how stymied a president is domestically, they have extraordinary authority to determine military and diplomatic policy abroad, and their choices for Defense and State Department are crucial in this regard.

As Democrats look hard at their choices on the primary ballot, they should probably focus less on what the candidates say and instead look at their advisors, donors, staff, friends, and longtime associates. Crucially, voters and journalists should get them on the record less about the details of their healthcare or tax policy (which, after all, will appear in speeches, issues pages, and white papers regardless), and much more on exactly what kind of people they will appoint to key positions.

A short list of potential nominees to each major cabinet post would do more to clarify the differences between the candidates than all the debates and speeches throughout the primary season.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.