Back in mid-December, before setting out on his vision-quest road trip, Beto O’Rourke held one last town hall as El Paso’s three-term congressman. By then, he had already seen himself rapidly become the Democratic establishment’s dream candidate for president after narrowly losing his U.S. Senate challenge to Ted Cruz — “He’s Barack Obama, but white,” one big donor gushed to Politico. And then, just as quickly, he’d watched his voting record (more conservative than many Democrats) and “bipartisan” rhetoric undergo a level of harsh scrutiny he hadn’t experienced while running in Texas. So he couldn’t have been surprised at the question a reporter posed that day: Are you a progressive?
“I don’t know,” O’Rourke said. Given that “progressive” is a label every bit as pliable and acceptable for a Democrat as “conservative” is on the other side, this seemed jarringly weird to folks who hadn’t paid close attention to O’Rourke’s campaign message (as opposed to his campaigning style). “I’m not big on labels,” he went on to explain for the nth time. “I don’t get all fired up about party or classifying or defining people based on a label or a group. I’m for everyone.”
While that sort of talk sets off gag reflexes on the rising left, it’s precisely the kind of “big-tent” rhetoric that makes mainstream pundits, Clintonites and big-money bundlers tout a candidate as “electable.” A healer, not a divider! No red states or blue states! No labels! Stronger together! You know the drill. And while Beto’s answers were characteristically vague, they were also clarifying: If he ran for president, freed from the constraints of Texas politics, he wasn’t planning to run to the left. He would stake his chances, as he did against Cruz, on charisma, social-media savvy and “electability.”
O’Rourke, who just announced, will have some stiff competition for the coveted “most electable Democrat” title — namely, Joe Biden, based on the unsubtle hints the former vice president dropped on Tuesday about an eminent announcement. While O’Rourke casts himself in the Obama 2008 mold, the charming young unicorn who can heal the nation’s political and cultural divides, Biden represents an old-school idea of electability — the kind of Democrat who calls Vice President Mike Pence a “decent guy,” lauds his longtime relationships in Washington with conservative Republicans and gets red-faced when lefties call him on it. “Mean pettiness has overtaken our politics,” Biden said on Tuesday, after he’d been forced to backtrack on his praise for Pence. “If you notice, I get criticized for saying anything nice about a Republican. Folks, that’s not who we are.”
In their different ways, Biden and Beto promise a return to bipartisanship — a notion that even New York columnist Jonathan Chait, himself no raging lefty, calls “harebrained” and “fantastical.” But there is a powerful pull to the idea of electability that comes with such airy talk of bringing people together to “get stuff done,” as Beto likes to say. And that’s especially true for 2020, when Democrats are understandably desperate to dethrone Donald Trump. Earlier this year, a Monmouth poll found that 56 percent of likely Democratic voters said they prized electability over all else — and would vote for a candidate who disagreed with them “on most issues” if she or he seemed best-suited to oust Trump. That stunned even the pollsters. “In prior elections, voters from both parties consistently prioritized shared values over electability when selecting a nominee,” said poll director Patrick Murray. “It looks like Democrats may be willing to flip that equation in 2020.”
On the surface, this makes a sliver of sense. It is imperative that Trump and Trumpism be fumigated from our political system before the cockroaches are all that’s left. Looking for the safest bet to win a general election sounds like solid, pragmatic thinking. Until you take a look at the track record of “electable” presidential nominees — including Hillary Clinton in 2016, of course, whom George Will so aptly called “the only biped in the country who could have lost an election to Donald J. Trump.” In 1984, Democrats chose deficit hawk Walter Mondale over “risky” Gary Hart; in 1988, it was “practical” Michael Dukakis over Jesse Jackson; in 2000, Al Gore was the overwhelming choice for those who prized winning over all else.
The closest analogy to 2020 came in 2004 — the last time Democrats were confronting an unpopular, democracy-destroying Republican incumbent. The party had a big field that year, with two lesser-known candidates emerging from the pack — Howard Dean, Iraq War opponent and innovator of digital fundraising, and John Edwards, the young progressive populist who hadn’t yet become a National Enquirer poster boy. Pundits and party bosses were full of forebodings about those guys’ ability to win in November — and the different challenges they presented to the status quo — and played effectively on Democrats’ fear of selecting someone who might lose to George W. Bush.
Luckily, voters were assured, the Democrats had a failsafe option: John Kerry, the ideologically incoherent senator who’d begun as the favorite but lagged in the polls throughout 2003. Kerry was a war hero who “looked presidential,” oozed “gravitas” and represented a return to political “normalcy.” A sure winner! And when Iowa and New Hampshire rolled around, nervous Democrats suddenly flocked to him and abandoned the “risky” candidates who actually fired them up. “Dated Dean, Married Kerry” became a popular Democratic bumper sticker — a proud declaration of pragmatism over idealism. We know how that worked out. Again.
The nominees who actually tend to win general elections are precisely the ones who generate worries about their electability. That’s been true for 40 years on both sides of the aisle. Jimmy Carter was an obscure, one-term governor with a jones for Jesus. Ronald Reagan was too far right. Bill Clinton was a small-state governor with “character issues” a mile wide. Barack Obama was black. Trump was Trump.
What does this tell us? That the whole concept of electability is a sham. A ruse. Pure nonsense. Pick your term. But it’s bullshit with a serious political purpose, as Matt Taibbi has pointed out: “The role of ‘electability’ has always been to convince voters to pick someone other than the candidate they prefer. The metric pundits usually employ is, ‘Which Democrat could most easily pass for a Republican?’ and vice-versa.”
If that were actually a formula for winning elections, it might make sense that Democrats obsess like crazy over identifying the “most electable” choice for 2020. But the opposite is true: When parties tap the candidates who engage and enthuse them the most, both in terms of style and substance, they elect presidents. When they pay heed to the nattering nabobs of electability, and go with perceptions of “who’s most likely to win,” they lose.
It’s conceivable, of course, that 2020 could prove an exception to the rule of recent history; nobody breaks precedents quite like Trump. Maybe someone with Beto or Cory Booker’s ideological fuzziness, Biden or John Hickenlooper’s Lite Republicanism, or Amy Klobuchar’s Midwestern moderation could break the historical pattern and prevail. But Democrats, in their determination to snuff out Trump, would be wise to bear in mind that the safest choices tend to make the lamest nominees.