Monday, March 25, 2019

Democrats, democracy
and the shock of the new

THE PROCESS of making a magazine cover doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an endeavor of weeks and sometimes months in preparation, the result of an army of creatives marching, for a minute, in exactly the same direction.

By that fact, then, there was no reason to be coy about whether or not Robert Francis O’Rourke of Texas was going to seek the presidency. A publisher like Vanity Fair doesn’t commit to a cover story (and Annie Liebovitz taking the photos!) about someone just pulling his chin about the presidency — like so many in the emerging 2020 cycle. You’re in or you’re out. And O’Rourke’s been in since before that VF cover was published; there was no other reason to put him there.

And in that magazine profile, the phenom Beto O’Rourke set the table, and the bar, for every Democrat who’s serious about winning next year. “I think that’s the beauty of elections: You can’t hide from who you are,” he told Joe Hagan of Vanity Fair. “The more honestly and directly you communicate to people why you’re doing this, the way in which you want to serve them, I just think that the better, more informed decision that they can make.”

Beto, who formally announced on Thursday, March 14, is one of the latest entrants into the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination. His talent for orchestrating the slow rollout of something apparently inevitable has been repeated by others who’ve decided, before and since, to seek the nomination.

That’s nothing new; every four years, it seems, we get an ever-increasing field of aspirants for the Oval Office. But the would-be Class of 2020 is another animal entirely. For one thing, and for the first time, the current field of 13 Democratic candidates is almost as demographically diverse as America itself.

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The traditional white-male recipe of presidential contender shares countertop space with Asian, African American, Latino candidate flavors, male and female alike. One of the 2020 campaign’s early stars is the gay mayor of an Indiana city. With one notable exception, the current crop is dramatically younger than the candidates of recent years.

Most of these 13 candidates represent a true generational shift in the Democratic party identity. They could be the vanguard of the party’s future if — if the youngblood Democrats don’t get hoist internally on the petard meant for their interparty adversaries: building the litmus tests that can divide a party from within.

Maybe the ones who got in early knew, or sensed, what was coming, from the shape of the times and the perilous arc of the current presidency. The earliest adopters jumped in months ago, and even further back than that. Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney came out early in July 2017. New York businessman Andrew Yang announced on Nov. 6.

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OTHERS, ALMOST certain long shots, started the new year running, or pulling their chins about running. Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard announced her candidacy on Jan. 11. Pete Buttigieg, the millennial mayor of South Bend, Ind., came out on Jan. 23. Spiritual author Marianne Williamson, a confidante of Oprah Winfrey, announced on Jan. 29.

But rightly or wrongly, those candidacies are seen as outliers, in the early going, anyway. Since Julian Castro, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary, joined the race, on Jan. 12, the trickle of Democratic contenders with more gravitas (read: fundraising clout and/or political experience) became a flood:

California Sen. Kamala Harris joined the race with a high-profile, high-energy launch in Oakland on Jan. 28. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker jumped into the race on Friday, Feb. 1, with a video sent to supporters and the media. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren jumped in on Feb. 9. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced her candidacy in a raging snowstorm on Feb. 10.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders started his campaign on Feb. 19. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee entered the race on March 1. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper followed suit on March 4. Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Fla., announced formation of an exploratory committee on March 13. And New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand formally began her quest for the White House, announcing on March 17 and officially kicking off her campaign in a March 24 campaign event as bold and optically rich as you could ask for: In front of Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan.

A survey of other possible contenders is about as long as the one for those who have declared: Former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams; Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; former Secretary of State John Kerry; former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe; California Rep. Eric Swalwell; Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton; Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan ...

... and oh yeah, there's also some guy named Joe Biden.

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START GETTING used to it right now: the phrase “2020 vision” will get thrown around a lot next year, and in a context that has nothing to do with ophthalmology. For Democrats, the vision thing will be very real, and multifaceted.

Almost to a person, the emerging Democratic field is painting in very broad strokes right now, and there's nothing wrong with that ... right now. Much of what's propelling O'Rourke, Booker, Harris and Sanders to the top of the pops is a willingness to daringly, and maybe even impossibly, go outside the lines on policy prescriptions.

With such a big field of early contenders, the very idea of what makes a Democrat, what (beyond slogans and stereotypes) identifies a Democrat to the American electorate is undergoing several elastic interpretations — every one of them part of what makes this country what it is.

And there’s the rub: not everybody's gonna get to drop the mic. The process by which the Democrats perform this bloodsport surgery is never pretty, and thinning the herd certainly never is. The battle for the nomination will see to that.

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But this election season, the Democrats have the advantage of wielding, in a political context, what the renowned art critic Robert Hughes once called “the shock of the new” — his phrase that contextualizes the evolution and power of contemporary art, its velocity into the culture, and its reach and impact on our world.

The panoramic demographics of the new class of candidates, and the boldness of their convictions, impart much the same kind of frisson, the same jolt, to the political realm. The new wave of Democratic presidential contenders is, to some degree, a direct result of the blue wave of the 2018 midterm elections.

The forthright embrace of Democratic social and economic values we saw embodied in the campaigns of Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, what we see distilled in Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib is finding its way into the campaigns of Sanders, Harris, Booker, and Warren, and others now finding their true, full populist voices.

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YOU CAN’T accuse the Democrats of playing small ball. O’Rourke set the terms of engagement in Vanity Fair; so did Booker at a recent town hall event.

“We are better when we help each other,” he said. “I believe that we can build a country where no one is forgotten, no one is left behind; where parents can put food on the table; where there are good paying jobs with good benefits in every neighborhood; where our criminal justice system keeps us safe, instead of shuffling more children into cages and coffins; where we see the faces of our leaders on television and feel pride, not shame.”

One of the sweetly grand certainties of the 2020 campaign: Unlike most of the presidential campaigns in any of our lifetimes, the future of the serious bid for the presidency of the United States will be not just polychromatic — Harris’ and Booker’s campaigns stand on the shoulders of antecedent giants, from Shirley Chisholm to Jesse Jackson to Barack Obama — but also ... well, what would the word be — poly-experiential?

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Because that’s what it is on the Democrats’ side of the aisle: more women, more younger members, more members of color. For the first time in a long time, the Democrats are interesting again: hungrier, a bit angrier when it’s required, and at times fearlessly foolish. Some of that will change; the young guns of the Democratic House will learn the law and the rules, like all of those who came before them. And in that process — knowing what to do and what never to do — they’ll have had a good teacher in the presidential asterisk occupying the Oval Office.

In Washington, the shock of the new takes its sweet time, but it does show up, and when it does, we never look back. That’s slowly happening again.

A new Morning Consult poll found approval for President* Trump in GOP bellwether state Ohio down 19 percent since 2017. At the Five Thirty Eight website, a poll of polls — YouGov, Rasmussen, HarrisX — discovered a nearly 10-point difference, a mood swing if you like, in approval / disapproval ratings. People disapproved of Trump by 52 percent; Trump’s champions gave him 42 percent in support.

These aren’t outliers. They reflect the ways in which, little by little, an abiding fact of American identity is coming into play. Donald Trump doesn’t move us like before. The shock of the old never trumps the shock of the new.

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WHY? SIMPLY PUT, we’re getting tired of The Don™. His angry orange madman shtick is getting old, and we know it and so does he. We can’t say that out loud because we don’t need the aggravation from neighbors and complete strangers, but it’s true: Donald Trump has worn out a welcome that was never a real, proper welcome in the first place.

He’s gotten predictable in doing what he believes is unpredictable. We know his every move; we can forecast every tic and twitch, and two years in, deep down we can tell: This is as good as it’s gonna get.

Whether the Democrats can move the needle enough — combating their own perverse appetite for self-destruction and overreach with an engaging, credible, palatably principled bid for the White House — remains to be seen. But it’ll be fun to watch what happens.

Is everybody in? The circus is about to begin.

Image credits: Beto Vanity Fair cover: © 2018 Vanity Fair. © 2018 Annie Liebovitz. Yang: tk. Buttigieg: tk. Booker: CNN. Shock of the New cover: Thames & Hudson 1980, 2004. Trump side-eye: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

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