It has been a long time since I have tackled the 2016 election, and I do so with a certain degree of reluctance. Talking about modern politics in public is something I don’t do very easily unless I am with a very small, very trusted group of friends, usually of similar temperament. Sometimes, contemporary political situations made me very anxious, trigger my recurring problem of nervous tics, cost me sleep, or compel me to become more withdrawn and avoid social situations where talk of the election might come up. I am a historian of politics and religion who hates talking about politics and religion. It’s a paradox, but that’s my life.
So it is with this reluctance and hesitance that I find myself in a rare situation: not knowing which candidate to support. I know which ones I won’t be supporting. I won’t be supporting any of the Republicans, for example. If their party still had leaders of character and perception like Mark Hatfield or Charles Percy I’d give it some careful consideration, but that ship sailed a long time ago. And I know which Democrats I won’t be supporting. Jim Webb has devolved from a cagey Iraq War dissident to an angry misogynist defending the honor of the Confederate flag. No thank you. Martin O’Malley inaugurated some solid reforms in Maryland, including necessary gun-control measures, but Baltimore’s slow smoldering into a racially charged pressure cooker, and O’Malley’s inability to detect that this was even a problem during his eight years as governor, disqualify him from serious consideration. Lincoln Chafee? I like him a lot, and his memoir Against the Tide was one of my favorite senatorial autobiographies, but let’s get real.
This leaves us with two candidates who are running, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and one who ~might~ run, Joe Biden. As I consider my choices, I find myself weighing a complex mixture of qualifications, temperament, character, chance of success, and the long-term consequences their candidacy might have on the fortunes of American progressivism.
Every online test I’ve taken that shows which candidate you are most in agreement with generated one consistent result: my views on the issues are closest to Bernie Sanders. We share a similar long-term hope for the United States: we want to see it become a social democratic state more aligned with the Scandinavian countries. We both interpret the major problem of the last generation or so of American life is a massive maldistribution of wealth in favor of higher earners, and a deterioration of the average American’s spending power and social safety net. He envisions an America where health care, education, and a clean environment are rights, rather than carefully hoarded privileges. So do I.
In many respects, he reminds me of George McGovern (that’s a good thing, by the way), a man I have spent nearly 10 years studying. Like McGovern, he is seen as far too left-wing, even for rank-and-file Democrats, with a fierce antiwar streak, and a finger-pointing, no-holds-barred approach that reminds one of an Old Testament prophet haranguing a wayward people. Their supporters share plenty of similarities, too. Both had a strong contingent of mobilized grassroots supporters using innovative new methods to reach voters, but are distrusted by party leadership. And each of them faced an establishment nominee-in-waiting: McGovern had Ed Muskie, Sanders has Clinton.
You might think all of this would mean Sanders is a slam-dunk choice for me, but he isn’t. One lesson I learned from McGovern is that someone can have the same position as yourself on every major issue and still not be the best candidate. As much as I admire McGovern’s visceral hatred of the Vietnam War and the carnage it caused, I am not yet completely convinced he would have made a very good president. Performing this challenging job successfully requires more than avowing the correct position. George had virtually no executive ability; he refused to deal with administrative details during the two years he was in charge of the Food for Peace program in the Kennedy presidency, and in his retirement, he managed a Connecticut hotel so poorly that it folded in a couple of years. McGovern couldn’t run anything with visible competence. While his passion and his advocacy and his moral vision made him an exceptional senator, I doubt very much that he would have been an effective president. If I could change one presidential outcome of the 20th century, I’d probably take Hubert Humphrey in 1968 or Walter Mondale in 1984– both are less purely progressive, but both were significantly better managers who could have shepherded their agenda through a skeptical Congress. Frankly, I am not convinced how well Bernie Sanders would do once he had to stop campaigning and start governing. Watching President Obama these last seven years reminded me that executive experience is not unimportant, and Sanders hasn’t run anything more than the city of Burlington, a small and in many ways deeply idiosyncratic city that might be called the Wasilla of the northeast. And, of course, like McGovern, he would start the general election as the heavy underdog; and all the vision in the world can’t help if you are unable to win. It might be best for Sanders to remain the “conscience of the Senate” and advocate from that office, rather than the presidency.
So what about Hillary, then? In 2008, I watched every debate from both major parties, and while I started out quite anti-Hillary, she slowly wore me down. Her performances at almost every debate were careful, insightful, and knowledgable. She was clearly competent, and while she stayed in the race long after it stopped being possible for her to win, she was ultimately gracious in defeat, and gave an outstanding convention speech for Obama. She might also be the most broadly qualified candidate in recent memory. She gained a knowledge of how the White House works as the most politically engaged First Lady in American history. Although I considered her a carpetbagger when she became my senator in 2001, Hillary did a surprisingly great job, spending plenty of time doing constituent outreach, even in hostile Fulton and Hamilton counties. And finally, she has the foreign relations chops from 4 years as Secretary of State, brokering the opening-up of Myanmar, facilitating trade agreements, and working as a roving ambassador for women’s and children’s rights.
The rap against Hillary has always been in her persona, and how she carries herself. She often comes across as shrill, imperious, and calculating in a country that generally wants warmer, affable candidates with a self-depricating sense of humor and a natural flair with the common touch. She’ll never have her husband’s charisma, but she does have a focus and an internal discipline that always eluded the first President Clinton. And of course, there is the ongoing, unfolding email scandal. In the grand scheme of things, I am not convinced that this is much more than a cooked-up faux scandal. It’s the kind of thing where you have to be told it’s a scandal in order to perceive it as such. Let’s be honest, how many of us would have thought before all this broke that it would be that troubling for a cabinet member to receive and send emails on her own terms? If you are a Republican and someone told you Condi Rice used a private email server under analogous circumstances, would you have been that upset? Given the rules that existed at the time, the private email server issue was, at worst, an injudicious choice out of step with the Obama administration’s “best practices” policies. But there is not very much that I find unethical, and certainly nothing illegal, about it. Here’s the thing: you can’t serve in politics without making mistakes, even big mistakes. But you learn from them; you cannot be an effective leader without them. What scares me is that the latest polls show Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina collectively polling about 54% of the Republican vote. To put this differently, over half of Republicans’ first choice for president has never served in a political office before. Yikes.
But maybe my biggest reason for looking more closely at Clinton comes from a spiritual and ethical place, as strange as this might see at first. In my own spirituality, I am a proud, social-gospel progressive Christian. I see the gospels as not only pointing the way toward greater communion with God, but also a greater sense of interpersonal responsibility toward each other. The Christ I encounter in the New Testament said not a single word about abortion or same-sex marriage or illegal immigration, but weighed in heavily against the larger social sins of poverty, neglect, and hunger. As she told one crowd recently, “”I have always cherished the Methodist Church because it gave us the great gift of personal salvation but also the great obligation of social gospel…and I took that very seriously and have tried, tried to be guided in my own life ever since as an advocate for children and families, for women and men around the world who are oppressed and persecuted, denied their human rights and human dignity.” Sanders, while Jewish in background, is in some ways the most secular presidential candidate in living memory. As much as Sanders is upset about plutocratic politics in the U.S., it comes almost wholly from economic determinism and class politics, divorced from any real ethical or spiritual concern.
However, Clinton is also decidedly hawkish. She voted to authorize the Iraq War, which Sanders opposed from the very beginning. While supportive of the recent accords with Iran, her language is decidedly more bellicose than President Obama’s. I cherish peace and abhor unnecessary war. But I remember that even McGovern voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that inaugurated the Vietnam War. Again, people make mistakes, the question is what they take away from them, and how it transforms them.
Finally, we arrive at the man who waits in the wings, Joe Biden. I actually supported Joe Biden during his run for the Democratic nomination in 2008. If you go back to my college newspaper archives, you might even find a guest editorial I wrote called “Don’t You Be Shy Then: Vote for Joe Biden.” During the Democratic debates during that primary season, Biden was always the most collected, the most knowledgable, and self-controlled candidate in a way that belied his reputation for gaffes. It’s actually comical to look back and watch every other candidate say “I agree with what Joe said,” and “Joe has the right idea.” But then-Senator Biden didn’t win. With little cash and coming from a small state, he just couldn’t match the expensive, high-octane campaigns run by Clinton and Obama.
Since then, Biden has continued to impress me. While he still does foolish things like put his arm around dignitaries’ wives in public, I think he exceeded most peoples’ expectations. And given his G.O.P. opponents, Biden’s foot-in-mouth disease is much less of a liability. Biden’s gaffes tend to unintentionally show respect for people. When he said, “you can’t walk into a 7-11 without an Indian guy running the place,” it was an inartful way of showing the work-ethic and entrepreneurship of the South Asian community in America. Compare that to mean-spirited and patently dishonest comments by Trump about Mexico sending rapists over the border, or Jeb Bush talking about anchor babies as “frankly more related to Asian people.” He’s been an excellent vice-president; in fact, I think he was one of the three best in American history, alongside Walter Mondale and, believe it or not, Eisenhower-era Nixon. Biden has enjoyed a warm and collaborative relationship with Congress where Obama’s has been distance, cold and combative. Even moreso, he has decades of experience that we dismiss at our peril: 36 years as a senator (including time as the chair of the Foreign Relations committee) and eight as vice-president.
More than that, Biden has an ideal temperament for the office. He is a reluctant candidate right now: ambitious, but not craving power. In a Lincolnesque way, his life is defined by working through tragedy, via the loss of his wife and daughter as a young senator-elect, and the recent loss of his son. While Hillary comes across as distant from everyday Americans’ concerns (having not, for example, driven her own car in decades), Biden is still very much the working-class Irish guy who commuted home to Delaware on Amtrak. He communicates in a way that ordinary Americans resonate with, and his University of Delaware/Syracuse University education is a refreshing change from the obnoxious Ivy League dominance enjoyed by the upper echelons of American power for decades. While President Biden would be 74 on Inauguration Day, 2017, the oldest ever sworn into office, I have been, in the last few years, constantly gobsmacked at the amazing things older people can do. I am reminded of my dear friend Neil, who taught marketing classes in Singapore and even visited North Korea (!) in his early 80s with more stamina and vigor than I had at 30. With a clean bill of health, there is nothing to suggest Biden couldn’t serve as ably as anyone.
Moreover, Biden can help the Democrats with their single biggest electoral problem: the hemorrhaging of working-class white voters from their ranks. As a scrappy Scranton kid who still speaks that language and still understands that perspective, Biden could stem the tide with that demographic while continuing to improve strong performances with female, Hispanic, and Asian-American voters that will be the bedrock of any successful Democratic coalition. I’ve seen cases where my brother walked by while I watched Biden on Meet the Press and say something like, “that’s the first time I’ve seen a politician explain that in a way that makes sense.”
All this is to say: I’m still of a divided mind, especially if Joe Biden gets in the race. With that in mind, I hope that any reader will reconsider if they think the two major parties are just the same: they’re not. One party has candidates that stand for an increase in the minimum wage, an acceptance of global warming, greater college affordability, and a robust health care system that doesn’t leave the poorest and the sickest behind. The other does not. So, if you are cynical toward the political system as it stands today, you’ve every right to feel that way, but I hope that your cynicism drives you toward a greater engagement and a greater motivation to get involved personally in facilitating a change and demanding a government responsive to your needs, rather than withdrawing in disgust. While I have trouble choosing between canny but surprisingly spiritual Clinton, the social democratic ethos of Sanders, and the authentic, affable, and overqualified everyman of Biden, I look forward to making a sound decision that I can stand behind in the months ahead.