Dear current, recent, and long-ago students of mine;
I have watched you on social media over the last twelve months advocating effectively for Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic nominee who would take the fight to Donald Trump in the 2020 campaign. Your passion for a shift away from politics as usual is commendable and your impatience with the status quo gives me hope.
And yet, here we are. Yesterday, Senator Sanders made what was likely the inevitable decision to suspend his 2020 presidential campaign.
This is certainly hard to deal with. The direct affront to such an optimistic vision easily leads to a “pox on both your houses” moment. The temptation to sit out the 2020 election is understandable. But it must be resisted.
I have a long history of processing such disillusionment. I have voted in enough elections over my career to know how these emotions play out. Especially since my favored candidate has lost far more often than won.
Even though the 26th Amendment passed in 1971 allowing 18-year old’s the right to vote, my own 18th birthday fell 11 days after the 1972 election. So my first vote was cast for Jimmy Carter in 1976. I was excited about Carter’s energy and enthusiasm. But he really had no experience at the federal level and had relied too much on his “Georgia mafia.” If it had been a period of quiet in American society he might have been okay, but economic downturn and the Iran hostage crisis rendered him over his head.
In 1980, it was clear that Reagan was going to handily beat Carter. In that year, I cast the only vote I’ve ever made for a third party candidate, supporting John Anderson’s independent run. I thought that if enough people voted for Anderson, it might not change the outcome but it might just create legitimacy for third party efforts in presidential campaigns. It didn’t.
Reagan’s governing philosophy (such as it was) was anathema to a sociology PhD student in 1981. He was working hard to minimize issues of inequality and to handcuff government’s ability to get anything done. I tried to remain hopeful but it was hard work.
In 1984, I was intrigued by the young visionary Senator from Colorado, Gary Hart. He was brilliant and had long-range vision. He dealt with ideas that others hadn’t even realized were topics of consideration. It was a good run but he was eventually overwhelmed by the establishment candidate who had been Carter’s vice president four years earlier, Walter Mondale. I voted for Mondale in ’84 knowing that he was going to lose (but not thinking he would lose as badly as he did).
The 1988 election gave us the possibility of an open race. The Reagan years were over and GHW Bush was running. Gary Hart was the presumed front-runner on the Democratic side and he was stronger than in ’84. And then his candidacy imploded in the Donna Rice allegations. Jesse Jackson ran for president in the Democratic Primary and he got my vote. The nomination eventually went to Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, who had strong technical skills but no charisma. That he made GHW look compassionate was a real feat. But I voted for Dukakis anyway because I thought we needed a pragmatist/technocrat following the free-wheeling years of the Reagan Administration.
In 1992, Bill Clinton emerged as a surprising front-runner in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual misbehavior, assault, and potential rape. There was something of a generational change underway and a younger charismatic candidate following GHW’s handling of a serious recession coupled with a serious third-party run by wealthy anti-free-trader Ross Perot, made him president. That marked the second political win of my voting career. Clinton had been a major force in the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate/conservative Democrats who were attempting to combine a pro-business orientation with a social safety net. When the Gingrich revolution flipped the House in 1994, Clinton tacked to the right in order to govern. The 1996 election is hardly worth mentioning. Senator Bob Dole, a tower of Republican leadership, was given the nomination but it was clear that Clinton’s re-election was never in doubt. The Lewinsky scandal and impeachment followed on the heels of the election which cast real doubt on the Democrats’ ability to retain the White House.
In the 2000 Democratic primary, I was enamored with New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. He was progressive, having opposed Clinton’s welfare reform act. But his campaign never took off and vice president Al Gore took every primary contest. Gore was in a tough spot, inheriting Clinton’s policies while not quite being able to distance himself from Clinton’s moral failure. Texas governor George W. Bush, GHW’s son, won the Republican primary as a “compassionate conservative” (those were the days!). I supported Gore and saw the election contest stretch into early December when the Supreme Court ruled against a state-wide recount in Florida, giving Bush the election.
While Bush had tremendous popular support after 9/11 (as his father had after the first Iraq was), his decision to invade Iraq and interest in privatizing social security were liabilities. There were a number of strong candidates in the 2004 Democratic primary field (it was the year of the Howard Dean “scream“). Senator John Edwards got my attention with a consistent message about “two Americas” where some people are doing great and others are greatly suffering. It was a powerful message but he eventually lost the nomination to Senator John Kerry from Massachusetts and went on to become Kerry’s running mate. Kerry’s message wasn’t as strong and he was attacked unfairly by the Republican establishment and Bush was reelected. It was at the 2004 Democratic Convention that Barack Obama gave his famous “no red and blue America” speech, which placed him in the national spotlight.
The 2008 Democratic primary saw Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards as the major players. Edwards’ message hadn’t developed since four years earlier and he was sidelined by lots of hypocrisy issues (which became really serious after the campaign ended when his affair become public). As the race settled between Obama and Clinton, I continued to support Obama and was overjoyed when he went on to beat John McCain in November (in the midst of economic disruption). The 2012 race saw Obama-Biden ticket continue strong eventually overcoming the Romney-Ryan ticket in spite of major efforts by those on the right to find scandals where there weren’t any.
In the 2016 Democratic Primary, I was originally pulling for Martin O’Malley. He had been the governor of Maryland and the mayor of Baltimore. He brought a strong pragmatic governance streak but struggled to overcome some tough–on-crime stances he’d taken and to stand out in an unusual field. The presence of Hillary Clinton as the first female candidate and Bernie Sanders as the progressive candidate made O’Malley seem insignificant. I wound up supporting Clinton in spite of Sanders’ strong showing. In retrospect, there are many mistakes Clinton made in campaigning, in handling (not handling) the crises surrounding her, and in not building bridges to younger voters. And so, Trump gets elected in the second narrowest presidential election in recent memory.
That brings us to 2020. With such a large cast of candidates running there were many significant candidates to consider. While people like Harris and Klobuchar had my attention very early, that gave way to vacillating between Buttigieg and Warren. This is an example of my pragmatic streak coming forth. I want a president who knows how to govern and can make the checks and balances of our system work the way they are supposed to. Bernie Sanders’ analysis of contemporary issues was strong and largely correct, but the prognosis for how to implement those ideas seemed lacking to me.
So eventually, we wind up back in the situation where the former vice president becomes the presumptive nominee of the party. To be fair, the record for vice presidents running for president turns out to be one win and two losses. So why do people look to vice presidents as potential candidates? Some of that has to do with name recognition. People feel more secure with what they see as a known quantity. Some has to do with the ability to leverage past relationships in government and foreign policy for future benefit. One other factor to consider is the tendency for the modern electorate (especially those on social media) to play pundit roles, picking candidates based upon electoral strategy rather than governing ability.
To be sure, former vice president Biden has taken some shaky positions at various points over his career. We wish that he had been more careful in the way his desire for “getting things done” caused him to advocate positions that differed from a consistently principled stand. The sexual abuse allegation from 1993 is very troubling and requires a more forthright response. His tendency to get his points mangled is problematic as a campaigner.
It is also true that Bernie Sanders has significantly moved “the Overton window” over the last five years. While candidates aren’t talking medicare-for-all, there is more attention paid to health inequality than ever before. While other candidates may not attack “millionaires and billionaires” with the same fervor, economic inequality is on the table. The existential threat of climate change remains before us.
If there’s a consistent pattern throughout my voting history, it is this: I tend to be an idealist when it comes to primary elections and a pragmatist when it comes to the general. This is because the election isn’t the end of the process. Come January, the president has to be ready to govern.
In the 1972 movie The Candidate, Robert Redford upsets an incumbent senator from California. In the last scene of the movie, Redford’s character turns to his campaign manager and plaintively asks, “What do we do now?“
This is the question that wasn’t asked in January of 2017. It’s the question that hasn’t been asked throughout this pandemic. What we have instead is continual ideological campaigning. I honestly don’t believe that our governmental structures can sustain four more years of this administration’s approach to governing.
However you’re feeling today, you need to vote in November.