The two leaders in all Democratic polls, by far, are two men from the Silent generation, whose youngest members (like Joe Biden) will turn 76 this year. They achieved this status by different routes, each of which says something about modern American politics.
In 1960, the last sitting Vice President to have won his party's nomination for President was Martin Van Buren, in 1836, and he was the only Vice President to have done so since the passage of the 12th amendment to the Constitution. Since then, five sitting or immediately former Vice Presidents, Richard Nixon (twice), Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, and Al Gore, have won their party's nomination for President, and Biden would become the seventh. Richard Nixon, who took office under a President with no political background, created the modern Vice Presidency, serving as the number one surrogate campaigner and link to the party faithful and donors. He was also the first Vice President of the television age, which gave him the national recognition that the vast majority of previous vice presidents never had. That combination of public visibility and private influence has obviously given holders of the office a huge head start when they decide to run for President, and Biden's numbers, and strength within the establishment, show that that advantage has not died out. Mike Pence, I suspect, will also exploit it either next year or, more likely, in 2024. Biden has another potential advantage. A provocative recent story in the New York Times argued persuasively that there is a good chance that the Democratic nomination for the first time since 1952, will not be decided on the first ballot, and superdelegates will vote in subsequent ballots, if there are any. Biden would be their favorite.
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has achieved the second spot in the polls by an opposite route--by emerging in 2016 as the outsider in the field, the status that won Donald Trump the nomination on the Republican side. It's sad, and a bit ironic, that he could not be nominated in 2016, since he is a more authentic outsider and authentic man than Trump, but much of his following evidently remains loyal. Sanders is nearly the last of a type of American Senator who played a much bigger role in our politics in the first half of the twentieth century. Writing their classic, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, during the Hoover Administration, Drew Pearson and Robert Allen devoted part of a chapter to a small group of "insurgent" Senators, including young Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, William Borah of Idaho, and George Norris of Nebraska, who believed strongly in effective democracy and economic justice, but who came from agrarian backgrounds and agrarian states, and had little talent for organization and no strong connection to either side of the struggle between capital and labor. Although Sanders hails, of course, from New York, he represents one of the most rural states in the nation, which has allowed him almost total independence in developing and presenting his views on just about every issue except gun rights. He is obviously his own man, and young people, in particular, seem to respond to him for that.
Behind these two come five Senators, mostly from relatively large and/or very urban states: my own Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamla Harris. Warren differs from the others both because of her age--she will turn 70 this year--and her focused, highly developed economic liberalism. She is my candidate, at the moment, because of her thoughtfulness and integrity, but like my father in 1960, when he originally favored Hubert Humphrey, expect to need another candidate by the time the race is over. Warren would be vulnerable against Trump because of her unfortunate decision to list herself as a Native American at Penn and Harvard Law schools--a decision, I feel certain, which had nothing to do with her being hired, but which she regarded as a favor to her Dean. She has not demonstrated the same appeal to younger voters at large as Sanders. (It is rather extraordinary that Warren is the only major candidate from the Boom generation in the race, even though they now are between 59 and 76 years old.) The other three are competing for the legacy of the last two Democratic candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Like both of them, they want to become the favorite of the nonwhitemale vote, but they seem certain to divide and weaken it in the primaries. One of the electoral traps of identity politics is this: they encourage a proliferation of candidates, one to match each visible identity. Last but hardly least come two wild cards who have never held statewide office. The first is Beto O'Rourke, who demonstrated broad appeal in his Texas Senate campaign, and, were he nominated, would follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, another politician who parlayed a losing Senate race into a presidential nomination two years later. (Few people realize, however, that Lincoln in 1858 won the Illinois popular vote against Stephen Douglas, but lost the election in the Illinois legislature.) The second is Pete Buttigieg, who is obviously very capable and intelligent and who is also attracting more attention because he is gay and married. One might argue that he, at the moment, comes closest to the status of Barack Obama in 2007, but he is younger than Obama, holds only a local office, and, like all the others but Sanders and Biden is not breaking into double digits in the polls. O'Rourke might have the widest appeal of any of the candidates in the general election, but he has to do a lot better to get there, based on today's polls.
These candidates, meanwhile, will be competing for votes from a Democratic electorate that is dominated, in many states, by minority voters and women, a good many of whom now feel entitled to a candidate who, in one of the many unfortunate phrases of our new public discourse, "looks like them." Failing that, they want any successful candidate to adopt one of their preferred positions, which, for black voters, now include reparations for slavery. Several of the candidates, including Warren and Harris, have given a guarded endorsement to the idea of reparations, without committing themselves to anything specific. It is sad, in my opinion, that many (though by no means all) of minority or female voters now focus more on the public visibility of their own demographic in high office, than on what a candidate could or will do for people of their economic status, regardless of race or gender. It is equally sad that many loyal base voters in the Democratic Party don't seem to understand that while no candidate can win without them, he or she can't win without a lot of other non-base votes, either. Those blind spots may help re-elect Donald Trump next year, but for the moment, we are obviously stuck with them.
All the Democratic candidates, meanwhile, will have to struggle with the practices of the modern mainstream media. Our msm is of course almost totally Democratic in orientation, but nonetheless carries on an endless campaign to uncover all the faults and vulnerabilities of Democratic candidates. The campaign has barely begun, but we are already reading that Joe Biden is too touchy, that Bernie Sanders's campaign failed to deal with sexual harassment issues in 2016, that Amy Klobuchar is an office tyrant, that Elizabeth Warren has an almost random element of native American ancestry, that Kamla Harris was too tough on crime as a prosecutor and Attorney General, that Beto O'Rourke married into a wealthy family, and that Pete Buttigieg controversially fired a black police chief. More such stories will inevitably follow, tarnishing whoever finally wins the prize.
The ideal Democratic candidate, in my opinion, would be a strong economic liberal with a national reputation and a relatively young age--no more, I would argue, than 60. I do not see such a candidate in the race. Let us turn now to another front in the struggle, the Congress.
The Democrats in the House have the opportunity, like the Democrats in 1958-60 or the Republicans for much of the Clinton Administration and the Obama Administration, to put their party forward as offering something new. They are torn, however, by the distraction to focus on investigating President Trump, to make the strongest possible case against him, if not to impeach him. That, I think, is evidently what the President hopes they will do, and I think he may be right. The House already passed a sweeping bill to reform voting and campaign finance--excellent ideas--but it has gotten almost no attention because of the furor over the Mueller report and other investigations. The House is also distracted by conflicts within the new majority involving newly elected candidates who represent relatively extreme views within the Democratic base. Meanwhile, the drumbeat of apparently good economic news is getting louder and louder, which is going to make it much harder for the Democrats to argue that the country really needs them in office in 2021.
Torn by generational and demographic conflicts and by their relentless self-criticism and jealousy, the Democrats lack loyalty and discipline. The Republicans do not. Politics is war by other means, and loyalty, organization and discipline count more in war than fighting for the right cause. Many unforeseen events on the economic, political, and personal front can utterly transform the electoral landscape during the next 18 months, but right now, the picture doesn't look particularly hopeful to me.