Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 January 2020

How to Pick a Dem

For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

In talking with fellow Democrats, I’ve noticed something disappointing. Some pretty sophisticated people take a surprisingly unsophisticated approach to picking a candidate for president. They focus on one or two aspects of a person’s policy or personality and judge him or her on it. If they like the one or two aspects, they might vote for her or him. If not, out he or she goes, without a further look. And what the media obsessed about most recently gets magnified wholly out of perspective.

You know what I mean. Sanders is too dogged and insistent, and he just dissed Biden unfairly. Warren is too schoolmarmish, and she groused about Bernie allegedly belittling a woman’s chance to win. Both are too “far left,” even though polls show a majority of the electorate wants most of what they’re selling. Buttegieg is too young and inexperienced, and anyway no one who’s openly gay can be elected president. Biden is too old and makes too many gaffes.

In the last two days, I’ve talked to three highly intelligent people who can’t stand Sanders pointing his fingers during debates—a frequent gesture on his part. All three sincerely believe he can’t ever win, in large measure because of that.

Now you might think like that about somebody that you met for the first time at a dinner party and never expect to see again. But you certainly wouldn’t do that with a prospective spouse. Let’s have a show of hands: how many readers were at first put off by the person they eventually married, and are now deeply in love? And you certainly wouldn’t do that with a co-worker, with whom—though no fault of either or you—you have to cooperate to achieve something, if only to keep your job.

So is there a better way to evaluate candidates for our supreme leader?

The Washington Post has taken a crack at it. After receiving answers from the leading Democratic candidates to an 85-question survey, it boiled their answers down to twenty issues about which voters seem to care most.

The resulting questionnaire is available on line. It’s binary (yes-no) on some issues but nuanced on others. For example, it asks whether government health insurance (Medicare or Medicaid) should “should cover everyone,” “should be an option for everyone,” or “should not be available to everyone.” It asks whether the government should “expand,” “pause the expansion of,” or “phase out” nuclear power.

You can take the questionnaire in about five minutes and find out which of the leading Democratic candidates best fits your preferred policy profile. I did, and the results were sobering. My enthusiasm for Warren had been flagging due to her insistance on “Medicare for All,” on which I just changed my mind, and her tiff with Sanders. But in all she matched my policy preferences on fourteen out of twenty issues, leading the rest of the pack by at least four.

What really surprised me was the next tranche. Based on my impressionistic view of the nation’s needs, I had been considering only Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg, in that order. But on the questionnaire for me, Yang came next, with ten policy matches. Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Sanders and Steyer were all tied for third place, with nine each. Who would’a thunk it? Yang and the two billionaires were right up there with the pols, and Yang, with less money and zero political experience, ahead of all but Warren.

Of course experience matters. Of those five second- and third-place finishers, Steyer and Yang have absolutely no political experience, and Bloomberg and Buggigieg have none above the city level. Only Warren and Sanders have national political experience.

Age matters, too. I know because I’m 74. I’m not bad at self-evaluation, and I can tell you that my stamina, once steel-trap memory, and even my cognition are not what they used to be—even a few years ago. Even if I had political talent and the bottomless stamina and patience needed to say the same thing over and over again, I would no more think of running for president (or even mayor) at my age than I would of trying out for a spot on a professional football team.

So how do I put this all together? I want to see all the figures on a table or spreadsheet and meld them somehow. Here’s how that spreadsheet looks for me, with the candidates ranked according to the number (out of 20) of matches to my preferred policies on the Washington Post’s questionnaire, plus their local and national experience, age and wealth:

Leading Dems’ Matching of My Policy Preferences,
Plus Experience, Age and Wealth

CandidatePolicy Matches
of 20 on WaPo Quiz
Years of
Local Exp.
Years of
Nat’l Exp.

* As of inauguration, if elected president

While my own results on the Washington Post policy questionnaire were surprising in several respects, in the end they confirmed my general judgment. Warren matched my policy preferences 40% better than the next-best match, Yang, who has no political experience.

While I hesitate to tar him with the comparison, that puts Yang in the same experience class with Trump. And Trump, in my view, suffers not only from being half-crazy and unfit for any political office, but also from failing to understand how hard it is to run a nation of 328 million people, as compared to running a business with fewer than 500 employees.

Of the four tied for third place in my questionnaire, only Sanders and Buttigieg meet my general criteria. I don’t think Bloomberg or Steyer, as self-made billionaires, could cope with the inertia and divisiveness of our age, especially after having spent most of their careers running businesses in which they could hire and fire underlings at will. That’s not how government works, with its three separate branches. Steyer has no experience in political office at all, and Bloomberg would be tied for Sanders as the oldest on inauguration, but without Sanders’ long political experience at both local and national levels. Age and strategic flexibility are not common companions.

Biden would be only one year younger, and he doesn’t speak English especially well. More to the point, in matching only 6 out of twenty of my preferred policy choices, he’s simply not progressive enough for me. The nation has lost ground steadily on progress, empathy and social cohesiveness since Ronald Reagan taught us all to be selfish. I want our next president to reverse course and maybe even help us catch up with the better developed nations.

So while I would vote for any Democrat against Trump, I don’t see Biden providing a big advantage in the seven key Electoral-College states, except perhaps in Pennsylvania. If I were to choose based entirely on “electability” in those states, I would pick Klobuchar, who’s younger and slightly more progressive and (best of all) embodies the female virtue of empathy which, after four years of Trump, we all desperately need.

Of course this analysis will vary from voter to voter, along with how they fill out the questionnaire. But I hope that most Dems will start with the Washington Post’s questionnaire on their own personal policy preferences, and then fold in age and experience as I did. Only by doing something like this can voters make a complete, semi-quantitative analysis, which this critical election demands.

As for being a billionaire, I don’t see it as an advantage in the White house. Perhaps billionaires achieve that status by being smarter than the rest of us. But our capitalist system tends to reward impatience, overweening ambition and crushing others, including by sexual and economic predation. Our politics doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t.

Bloomberg has been doing some good with his billions by running hard-hitting media ads showing Trump as the fraud, liar and in inhuman monster that he is. While Bloomberg’s ads tout his own candidacy, they are in many respects similar to ads that would run in the general election campaign.

So Bloomberg is bringing the fight to Trump early, and he has the money to crush Trump in this manner. What Steyer is doing his own billions, besides stroking his own ego, is unclear to me. Perhaps he just needs better media and political consultants. Both men, I think, could do more to invest in organizations like Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight Action and the independent Black Voters Matter, which improve our democracy by helping more citizens vote.

At the end of the day, I don’t think the electorate is ready for a billionaire president, let alone in the seven critical Electoral-College states. Trump is president because too many people in those states didn’t want billionaires buying and controlling pols, and they hoped to fight fire with fire. Good luck with that!

Endnote: A Warren/Abrams Ticket? I remain convinced that any Dem could improve her or his chances of surviving the circular firing squad by giving the public some idea of his or her team as president before the general election. That would mean naming a running mate and key Cabinet members, or at least providing short lists, during the primary campaign.

It now seems clear, for various reasons, that Sanders probably won’t be on any of Warren’s short lists, and maybe vice versa. So Warren should consider naming Stacey Abrams as a possible running mate and doing so early.

Abrams would make a superb running mate. She is super-bright and a superior communicator, able to express complex ideas in simple language, just like Warren. Abrams graduated from Yale Law School—perhaps the nation’s most selective—and so has a similar legal academic background. She could meet Warren on the same intellectual ground. (In contrast, Sanders has no post-graduate education.)

But all this would be just the beginning of Abrams’ advantages. She has the executive experience that Warren lacks. Abrams has worked in the youth services department of the office of Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, has earned a master’s degree in public affairs, and has served as a tax attorney working with non-profit clients and a founder and/or senior executive in a financial services firm, a company that makes beverages for infants and toddlers, a legal consulting firm, and now Fair Fight Action, the voter-empowerment organization.

The word in Democratic circles is that Abrams is a no-nonsense, intensely practical executive who has advanced the mission of every organization in which she has worked, or which she helped lead. But that’s still not all. As Warren’s running mate, Abrams could cancel or reverse African-Americans’ supposed preference for Joe Biden. She would augment, if not entrench, Warren’s advantage with the biggest so-called voting “bloc” in our nation: females. And best of all, she would not be distracted by any other public office, even her leadership of Fair Fight Action—which she could delegate and which in any event would enhance her and Warren’s campaign.

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