The first Democratic primary debates are tonight, and in the midst of a very very crowded field it’s worth asking: beyond “anyone who will win,” who are the stronger candidates and why? I want to focus particularly on the second aspect of that question: why are we drawn to certain candidates? In that context, I’d argue that we – as in, the electorate, when determining what candidate to vote for – focus too much on personality and not nearly enough on executive/administrative skill.

In any election, people typically can choose between an incumbent and a number of challengers. When it comes to the Democratic candidates for 2020, we’re only looking at challengers. People often take the present state of the economy or their overall living situation when considering the incumbent – blaming or passing the President in office, rightly or wrongly, for their current standard of living. But with only challengers in the field, I’d say that people are drawn to specific candidates for some combination of personality and policy.

The appeal of personality

The first one, personality, is the most significant, even for many policy wonks who’d like to think they are immune to it. Under the bucket of personality, I’d put things like how relatable a candidate is, trust, scandals, etc. Consider Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton. There were some meaningful policy differences between the two of them in 2008 – especially when it comes to foreign policy – but people fell in love with Obama because of what his personality represented. Were Obama’s policies all that much different than a John Kerry, Joe Biden, or Lincoln Chaffee? Obama was not a once-in-a-generation political talent because he somehow whipped up a portfolio of mind-blowing policies that no one had ever thought of. In fact, there was notably a huge overlap between the economic advisors during the Bill Clinton administration and Obama’s. Nor did people fall in love with Obama because of his incredible experience. He had spent a little time as a state legislator in Illinois and a couple years in the Senate before he ran for President. He was criticized during his 2008 run for having had little more career experience than “community organizer” under his belt.

With the obvious caveat that Donald Trump and Barack Obama are complete opposites in almost every meaningful way, one could argue that much of Obama’s initial appeal/criticism came from the same root of human motives as those for Donald Trump. I think people fell in love with Obama because he represented the America they aspired to have: he was the hope candidate, a multiracial cosmopolitan law professor who would bring back technocratic thinking to the Presidency after George Bush and project tolerant liberal values abroad. But to his critics, he was an out-of-touch elitist who was “weak” and had never experienced the real world. As one of my friends put it, there were a lot of people who loved or hated Obama for the same reason: he was a cool black guy.

The disdain for Trump goes deep and for many reasons. But I find his supporters are much more drawn to what his personality represents to them than any of his actual policies. The flip flops of Republican voters on policy preferences during his Presidency are noted and remarkable. Farewell to support for free trade, cutting deficits, or any semblance of free markets and individual liberty. Hypocrisy of elected officials aside, I think what drew Republican voters to him was the idea that he – believe it or not – represented the kind of dude they want in the White House. The same reasons that his critics can’t stand his personality – toxic masculinity combined with a desire to reject all technocratic advice and unashamedly bulldoze through anything close to norms – are the reasons his supporters love him. Trump is an alpha male. He cheats on his wife with porn stars. He says racist things – or “politically incorrect” depending on your viewpoint – unapologetically. He likes big strong tough American things like steel, coal, and #business.

When I think about which of the Democratic candidates I am drawn to, I must admit I fall into a similar framework of seeking out a candidate’s “vibe” more than anything else. As Ezra Klein spelled out in a couple podcast episodes he did, Democrats love the idea of “the professor” or the “educated multicultural person.” They’re itching to have an academic back in the White House so that reality can be as close to the West Wing as possible (something Emily VanDerWerff has also described in a podcast episode). When I look at the 23 (24? 25?) candidates vying for the nomination, many of their policies blend together. Yes, there’s a substantial difference between a Joe Biden and a Bernie Sanders. But what about between a Corey Booker or a Kamala Harris?

The reality is that we judge the value of these candidacies by their personality, their “vibe.” Ezra also point out in his interview with Pete Buttigieg how Mayor Pete seemed to strike at the heart of the West Wing-minded people of the Democratic party. The guy learned Norwegian so he could read a book he liked, for heaven’s sake. Outside of Biden and Sanders (and potentially Warren), few candidates have enough name recognition to really have convinced the electorate of their meaningful differences. Because of this, Kamala Harris is “the Senator who badgered Kavanaugh but also used to be an overzealous attorney.” Amy Klobuchar is “the nice Senator from Minnesota who throws her binders at staffers.” So which vibe do people most relate to? Which person do you see as someone you’d love to have represent you and America abroad?

My gut reaction – after of course “whoever will beat Trump” – is towards Buttigieg. I can’t give you firm answers about questions regarding his policies, his young age, or that he’s never been elected to statewide of Federal office. He just seems to have that vibe that I like. He was a Rhodes Scholar, he’s a midwesterner, and he spontaneously played a Spoon song on piano. I recognize that even as someone who loves reading about policy nuances and claims to value “substance” entirely over “style,” I still make my choice in a crowded field towards the guy whose #vibe I like the most.

Now maybe personality at some point manifests itself into actual substance. Could Obama’s likability have been a strategic asset abroad? Is Trump’s unpredictability and toughness actually going to get countries to the negotiating table? It’s possible, but it still needs to be put into the context of everything else.

Where is the place for policy?

As a generalization, the parties’ constituents and representatives can be divided into their “moderate”/”establishment” sections and their “populist” wings. Trump is the rightwing populist, maybe a Mitt Romney is the establishment Republican, Biden is the establishment Democrat, and Bernie is the populist lefty. There are definitely differences in the policies of Biden versus Bernie. In fact, even between Warren and Sanders – both people I would consider as being a part of the left-populist group – there are big policy differences. I think many primary voters will keep these in mind, but only as far as it extends to how it feeds into the personality/vibe. Warren and Sanders both want to burn the place down and take out Wall Street. Biden and Harris want to tinker with the 2015 system rather than throw out the baby with the bath water. There are policy-lovers that will look at specific policies once the crowded field narrows, but I still think that for the vast majority of the general primary voting population, personality wins out.

In the current state of affairs, it’s worth pondering how much policy preferences will matter, and in what ways. Obamacare passed with 60 Democrats in the Senate and is still being challenged legally in the courts. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think the ACA changed the previous system all that much compared to current 2020 proposals and still it is constantly being challenged. With Mitch McConnell running the Senate, or at the very best Democrats having a majority that doesn’t reach 60 votes, not many if any of the Democratic dream legislation will have a chance at passing.

Proposing Medicare for All or a Green New Deal may not pass now, but maybe it will shift the Overton window? Republican voters have suggested openness to expanding the social safety net, contingent on its branding. Could it be that entering these proposals into the national discussion will in itself advance their likelihood of passing down the line? I don’t discount it totally, but there’s so much uncertainty with that line of thinking. And blowback effects seem just as likely for radical legislation that could actually be counter-productive.

There are aspects where Presidential policy differences do matter of course, outside of Congressional representation. The Executive branch has huge control over regulation, as we have seen with Trump. As the arbiter of enforcing laws, the President can effectively choose how hard they will uphold the laws that Congress has passed. Where does each candidate stand on financial, environmental, and commercial regulation? Furthermore, the President appears to be able to unilaterally dictate foreign policy under the status quo. The differences on foreign policy between the primary candidates should thus be taken much more seriously. But with economic issues at the forefront, the only buzz I’m getting from many Democrats about foreign policy is “not as aggressive as Trump, and don’t be friends with North Korean dictators.”

Executive/administrative skill

The aspect of a candidacy that I don’t think gets nearly enough attention is the administrative skill level. There was some appeal to Trump for his supposed business acumen, but people don’t seem to take into account enough the fact that the President is the head of an Executive branch that employs millions of people. In fact one of Trump’s biggest incompetencies is his ability to effectively administrate all of those who technically report to him. His incompetence seems to be a blessing disguise for many of his critics, as his most disastrous policies often hit roadblocks and aren’t enacted because he’s so bad at the chain of command. This is where someone like Hillary Clinton would have really been exceptional. Her experience would have given her an unprecedented ability to manage the bureaucratic machine that makes up the Executive Branch. I also think that Obama was caught flat-footed in his first term, though eventually found his way in his second term very effectively.

Being President is tough and the oft-spoken cliche is that everyone has no experience being President until they’re elected. But there are also people who are quicker to learn and are quicker to apply their executive experience to the role. Governors – maybe mayors? – or people who have had executive experience are thus undervalued to me. Or at least trying to find out what their executive skills would be. Can you see Bernie being able to manage millions of people? I can see him coming up with a cohesive political philosophy and inspiring lots of people, but I can’t see him pulling the strings to get things done. Elizabeth Warren? Much more so. It’s hard to tell (for non-incumbents) how people will perform in this regard before they actually become President. But not enough voters/commentators are even asking the question.

495 days

As I write this, there are 495 days until the 2020 Presidential general election. The Democratic nominee will be decided 6 or so months before then. I’m eager to see how the debates and ensuing campaigning change my view of which candidates to favor. As the field narrows, I think the differences in policy, demeanor, and executive capabilities will become more clear. Until then, I’ll admittedly be over-relying on the perceived personalities of the candidates to make my evaluations.

I get it.

You found a candidate that agrees with your views and doesn’t carry the stinky baggage that political “insiders” seem to carry. When your candidate was eliminated, you were left with a binary choice that quite frankly does not excite you. But I beg of you: please do not sit this election out and refuse to vote for Hillary.

This will be the first year I am voting for President, though I have been a registered voter for two previous elections. My hesitation towards voting is still with me. I firmly believe that most people vote uninformed and that a reckless vote is worse than a non-vote. My decision to abstain from voting for the previous two Presidential elections most likely fits into a #NeverHillary mindset: both major party candidates included at least one thing in their platform I considered to be a deal-breaker. Add on the fact that the states I was registered to vote in weren’t even close to swing states, so I was pretty sure my vote would be a waste. Voting symbolically or to give a candidate moral support wasn’t in the cards because they both supported things I considered deal-breakers.

This time around, I can understand why Bernie-or-bust people are saying they won’t vote for Hillary. Decades in Washington have left her with suspicious relationships, more than a few regrettable past positions, and likely a foreign policy that seems reprehensible to you. But this time is much different. To people who defend their non-vote with a cry of her shortcomings being some sort of moral equivalency to Trump: are you kidding?

Unlike the Obama-Romney or Obama-McCain elections, a more-of-two-evils candidate actually threatens the future of the republic this election. Trump has already done damage to our credibility abroad and brought out of the woodwork people and views in America that a lot of us hoped were a relic of the 1950s. Since I’m targeting this post to Bernie supporters, I’m going to skip over any explanation for how bad and morally repugnant Trump is. The point is that, unlike a Mitt Romney or John McCain victory, putting Trump in the White House would do irreparable damage. You thought Bush was bad? He never threatened Federal judges or to default on Treasury debt. One could make the argument that the worst parts of a Bush Presidency are things that will take decades to recover from. But I’m convinced the country, and likely the world, would never recover fully from a Trump Presidency. Bush’s faults are miniscule compared to the damage Trump would do.

I recently spoke with a #NeverHillary Bernie supporter who welcomed the idea of a Trump Presidency because he thought it would speed up the process of getting to a Bernie utopia. Things would get so bad under Trump, the reasoning goes, that the country would have no choice but to turn to a politician like Bernie. This scorched-earth philosophy is misguided in mainly two ways. First, thinking economic/social/political catastrophe will end in your favored result is an insanely big risk to take. A quick gander at history shows that economic depressions and episodes of massive political carnage are just as likely to end up going to the extreme on the other side as the extreme to the side you favor. When the dust settles after the disaster of a Trump Presidency, who’s to say people won’t be even angrier and more drawn to identity politics and xenophobia than they are now?

The second way is that the country as we know it may not survive a Trump Presidency. The American experiment in the last few centuries is a pretty delicate thing. The Civil War showed, among other things, how a single-issue can divide the country apart and test the balances between states rights and the Federal government. A century and a half later, this divide is still around. The Cold War pitted centralized planning versus economic liberalism and the outcome was never a sure thing (my 8 months of living during a world with the Soviet Union were very formative on me). Every step forward in civil rights has been met with backlash and a question of how much freedom the public as a whole wants to grant people. a Trump Presidency could actually be the ultimate test.

The delicacy of liberalism is the rule, rather than the exception, throughout history. For all that Trump campaigns on, he never uses rhetoric based on the words “liberty” or “freedom.” We all have different definitions of what these words mean or to what extent we value liberty over other political goals. But Trump doesn’t value them at all. Censorship of the press, removal of judicial independence, religious litmus testing for not only migrants but also citizens…these are things that would threaten the underlying ethos of America and what I consider to be the political intellectual descendants of the Enlightenment. Trump would send us back to the Dark Ages.

When I think of the last eight or so years when I started to become focused on policy and developed a generally libertarian viewpoint, the political issues I vehemently disagreed with people on seem laughably minor compared to the issues this election. Fighting over the employment effects of a $9 versus $7.25 Federal minimum wage was an adorable quibble during a time when we could wake up knowing politicians weren’t going to say women who had abortions should be punished under the law. Arguing over how to price parking in cities or the efficacy of a 3-cent tax on carbonated beverages is embarrassingly trivial compared to the issues that Trump brings to the global political landscape.

I will say that, within a window of what we might call the status quo political landscape, Hillary will actually be a pretty damn good President. After decades of being in “the game,” she knows how to play it and get stuff done. I think Obama’s first term was filled with surprises of how realistic a President needs to be when working with an opposition Congress. Hillary is a seasoned vet in the landscape and will know how to work the system. My libertarian dreams of nearly-open borders and total drug legalization probably won’t happen under her. But under reasonable expectations, I think she has the ability to be a better two-term President than Obama.

Hillary has her faults, do not get me wrong. I still think a lot of her economic plans are foolish and misguided/ineffective efforts to help the poor. Her hawkishness on foreign policy makes me very uncomfortable. The e-mail stuff does not sit well. I still think there are a lot of squeamish parallels between the Underwoods and the Clintons. In most other elections, I could understand not wanting to endorse some of her baggage by refusing to vote for her. But this election is much different. A Trump victory is something we may not recover from.

So please, Berners, get out there and save the Republic.

As somebody who enjoys following politics, it’s weird to be out of the country for election season.  I was abroad for the 2008 election as well, so it’s actually been four years since I was in the states for a major election.  Anyway, I’ve been doing my best to follow political news on the internet to keep up with what’s going on.  In the course of my election reading over the past weekend, I came upon two instant-classic reason.tv videos.  First, needling smug attendees of the Rally to Restore Sanity:

And second, a hilarious lampooning of the bi-annual pundit freakout about the level of political discourse during elections: