A telling quote from a Republican woman in South Carolina:
What does this voter mean by "real"? Pundits are using the label "authentic" to try to catch what people are seeking this year; many analyses take "real" to mean persons who bellow unvarnished opinions to segments of the electorate who feel unrepresented by Washington conventions. The Donald has proved so far that being outrageous and obnoxious evokes a positive response.
But I suspect that the "real" the South Carolina voter is seeking means something else, something more akin a candidate who crosses some unarticulated, but potent, standard that marks an aspirant as legitimate, as "Presidential." In my lifetime, at least two candidates have flunked the legitimacy test: Barry Goldwater who was seen as a right wing insurrectionist (and reveled in it) and George McGovern who was not only out of sync with the electorate, but also failed miserably at his convention and afterwards to demonstrate his competence to lead, no matter how well meaning he was. Both candidates suffered blowout defeats.
Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum contends the present campaign shows that neither party has more than a very shallow "bench" -- that is, a set of possible leaders who might jump the legitimacy hurdle.
Now it is possible that eight years of denying President Obama's legitimacy has largely erased that requirement from the Republican zeitgeist. That's what you get when you pander to racists, know-nothings, and blowhards.
But Drum is also right about the Democrats. Among people who would ever consider voting for a Democrat (and that's a majority right there), Hillary is automatically viewed as "Presidential timber" as the mildly sexist phrase used to say. We're so used to her having climbed that hill that we hardly notice what an unexpected triumph that is for a woman introduced to the limelight as a wife. Bernie is currently trying to claw his way past the legitimacy hurdle; he's got the support of one third of Dems and he's not disqualified, even amazingly by the "socialist" label, but he's not quite over the hump yet either. We'll see if he can get there. Martin O'Malley is invisible; Joe Biden would have been pre-qualified if he'd run, but he didn't.
It's not an edifying realization to see that this year only one clearly legitimate candidate has presented herself. I think it is worth pondering in particular why Democrats are showing such a "shallow bench."
- We're living through a not-yet-accomplished, but fraught, generational transition. Boomer politicians have not yet retired; much of Gen X came up conservative under Reagan and is a smaller, less influential, age cohort; and the Millennials haven't yet taken over. President Obama is an exception to this pattern, but barely.
- The Reagan years in a conservative wilderness shaped a generation of Democratic politicians who won carefully controlled, rigidly messaged, and above all non-threatening campaigns. They won not by promoting burning progressive conviction, but by projecting managerial competence and pragmatism. Those virtues played well until the mid-00s; but today are not what a plurality of Democrats want most from elected officials, though we still want some evidence of capacity.
- Democratic politicians with both competence and passion are also rare at the lower level of politics. In some states, Democrats simply aren't competitive. For example, it probably is more politically effective to organize in the streets for Moral Mondays in North Carolina, than to run for office in some gerrymandered district.
- Or let's look at the Democratic bench in my own very blue state, California. We were immensely fortunate to have a recycled and quirky re-tred to fill the Governor's office when the Dem majority really kicked in. This might have bought time for the emergence of successors for higher office, but only two -- Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom -- seem to have qualified themselves. (We'll ignore for the moment that I don't consider Newsom qualified for anything but to wear expensive suits; in the general public's eyes, he's qualified.) These two seem to have divided the plausible upward paths: Harris gets Barbara Boxer's Senate seat this year; Newsom runs for state governor and almost certainly wins in 2018. I don't see other state-level aspirants with much legitimacy emerging.
- How about lower levels of the Democratic political ladder? That's where bench replenishing starts. My own very progressive city put all the state figures I've mentioned on the political ladder, even if we don't much like them. We're been incredibly fortunate over the years to produce a few politicians who got principled things done, notably Congressman Phil Burton (winning Supplemental Social Security for the aged, blind, and disabled), Nancy Pelosi (putting some spine into Congressional Democrats), and state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (whose name is on most of the progressive legislation for which California is currently known.)
Awash in tech money, it is not at all clear that we are incubating worthy successors these days in San Francisco. Running for office is such a brutal experience and the money thrown against anyone who presents a threat to the plutocracy is so huge, it would be understandable if normal humans looked for a different career. We do have some up and comers making an attempt in November ... That's where these things start. Or maybe some other California area will have start throwing up leaders who can win legitimacy at the upper levels of politics.
- At every level, the money in campaigns matters. Unfettered political speech by the plutocrats makes it much harder for progressive Democrats to win and maintain both "authenticity" and "legitimacy", especially at lower levels. If they can't get on the ladder, they can't become our bench on the state and national scene.
- And just to conclude on a realistic note, people have probably always worried that our democratic polity is not producing worthy successors to idealized past leaders. We do after all reside inside the cult of the Founders! Maybe we're doing better than these musings suggest.