Sunday, June 16, 2019


The Democrats seem to have a pretty good shot at victory in the 2020 presidential contest. Since it's difficult to bothsides an election with only one winner, Frank Bruni is attempting the next-worst thing: He's crediting Trump with the state of the Democratic race.

The appropriate response to this is twofold: (1) not, not really, and (2) to the extent it's true, so what?

Bruni writes:
Every incumbent president looms large over the contest to determine his opponent, but the shadow cast by Trump is bloated beyond measure. He’s not just influencing the Democratic race. He’s perverting it....

He’s altering the standards by which candidates are judged. He’s warping the lens through which they’re viewed. Everything is a response to him, a reading of him, a repudiation of him. He’s the reference point, as omnipresent in Democrats’ motivations and calculations as he is on cable news. The Democrat who wins the party’s presidential nomination will be the Democrat who fits most felicitously into a Trump-stamped and Trump-ravaged landscape, and if that Democrat goes all the way, it will be a destiny decreed largely by Trump.
How so, Frank?
Trump, for example, gets credit for the Democratic primary’s defining aspect, which is the sheer number of candidates — 23. They assessed his underwhelming approval rating, factored in his combustibility and decided that if ever a sitting president looked vulnerable and if any year appeared ripe for a Democratic takeover, that president is Trump and that year is 2020.
So Trump's superpower is to be so unpopular that he attracted a field of possible challengers only somewhat larger than the Republican field in 2016? Wow, he really must have awesome mojo to suck that much!
The many long shots among them weren’t dissuaded by their odds, because Trump took an unconventional route to a victory that stunned him as much as it did anybody else. It suggested that the old rules were out the window and you never really know.
It's true that quite a few little-known, obscure Democrats believe they have a shot because a guy who was a celebrity for thirty years won the presidency in 2016. You can give Trump a lot of the blame for that -- or you can blame the candidates for misreading Trump's win. Fortunately, Democratic voters seems to have that problem under control:

But the congested field is suffocating qualified aspirants who would otherwise find oxygen.
Is it? Or are candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker this year's versions of Bill Richardson and pre-VP Joe Biden -- candidates with solid-seeming résumés who can never seem to get traction, and wouldn't have gotten it even in a more manageable field?
It’s putting an extra premium on viral moments and supersize conceits. It’s privileging celebrity. All of that will factor into who prevails, and all of that is because of Trump.
It's 2019. We all live on our phones. That would have been true even if the president were Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. Why give Trump the credit (or blame) for the importance of "viral moments" in politics? And what's going viral anyway? Elizabeth Warren's mad dash through a train station went viral for a day or so, but her position papers -- position papers! -- are enduringly viral. They're long strings of words! They're not Instagram videos. Beto O'Rourke's livestreamed dental work also went viral, but as an indicator of his seeming unseriousness.

And if the Democratic race so far is "privileging celebrity," how did the mayor of a midsize city in Indiana make it to the top tier? If Bruni's argument is, "Well, Pete Buttigieg is a celebrity now," that makes the entire discussion meaningless -- everyone who reaches the front of the pack in any contest is therefore, by definition, a celebrity, and therefore it's all an imitation of Trump. By that definition, uncharismatic Paul Tsongas challenging Bill Clinton in '92 was positively Trumpian.
... And every Democratic candidate’s theory of the race is a theory of Trump, reflecting his or her analysis of how Trump pulled off his astonishing upset.
Really? Bernie Sanders seems to be running exactly the same campaign he ran four years ago. Elizabeth Warren seems to be doing exactly the opposite of what Trump did -- she's thinking in depth. Pete Buttigieg is many things Trump isn't -- Midwestern, thoughtful, soft-spoken, young, gay, a military veteran -- which suggests that he's also trying to win by being exactly what Trump isn't.

But that's the problem with this kind of analysis: If you're doing something Trump did, Bruni gets to say, "Aha! It's all Trump's influence!" And if you do something that's 180 degrees different, Bruni gets to say, "Aha! They're all trying to be the anti-Trump!" Watch:
Did [Trump's victory] indeed rest on embittered and economically vulnerable white men in the Rust Belt? Then his challenger must be able to speak to that demographic group. That’s an argument made for and by Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Tim Ryan, Steve Bullock and John Hickenlooper....

Did Trump prevail in 2016 because too few young people, progressives and voters of color cast ballots? Then the key is a candidate who can supposedly energize one or more of those groups. Cue Harris, Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren.

Has Trump’s grossly misogynistic behavior and assault on reproductive rights set the stage for a woman-powered rebellion at the polls? Then Harris, Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand deserve serious consideration.

Was the lesson of Trump that you must be able to saturate the media, social and otherwise, and become a compulsively watchable character in a narrative of your own invention? Beto O’Rourke obviously thinks or at least thought so, and that’s partly why so many Democratic voters saw such promise in him.
And to the extent that candidates are running to undo what Trump and his fellow Republicans have done, well, so what? Isn't that what a president needs to try to do at this time?

In fact, the candidates don't just want to be anti-Trumps. They want to address climate change, economic inequality, the lack of affordable healthcare, and other problems that have been decades in the making.

Bruni finds Trump's celebrity overwhelming, but the Democratic candidates are thinking about large issues as much as about Trump. But glib pundits gotta be glib.

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