Coming on the heels of the death of former President George H.W. Bush, a piece in The Wall Street Journal declaring that “Iowa Democrats Say They Want Generational Change” seems appropriate.
Bush was arguably the most prepared man to become president, and then, as president, oversaw the end of the Cold War and a successful removal of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. His reward for all of this success was losing reelection to a young governor bringing (you guessed it) generational change. (The poor timing of an economic recession didn’t help matters.)
If Democrats are looking for a magic formula to win back the White House, there are worse ideas than to go back to this well one more time. Unlike Republicans, who chose a 70-year-old mogul over experienced younger candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, Democrats like to nominate young presidential candidates. More importantly, their efforts to bring generational change to the White House tend to win (Clinton, John Kennedy, and Barack Obama).
Now, I must confess that, as a conservative-leaning columnist, I value wisdom and experience above youthful energy. I think, for example, that America would have been better off giving George H.W. Bush a second term. I think there is something to be said for a gerontocracy, like the one favored by the ancient Greeks. But I also realize that this is a wildly unpopular point of view—which explains why I have been a booster of young conservatives.
You can’t govern if you don’t win, and the question at hand is what kind of Democrat can win back the White House. Unlike electing a speaker of the House (where I argue an experienced pol like Nancy Pelosi is the way to go), our 21st-century media environment favors a party standard-bearer who is fresh-faced. Democrats have a history of winning with fresh faces, and—say what you will about Donald Trump—his face is no longer the freshest.
I think the timing is ripe for another campaign that is (to borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton) a “bridge to the future, not the past.” And here is why. Baby Boomers have held onto power for far longer than normal because of their sheer numbers. We can debate whether Obama is a Gen-Xer or a Baby Boomer (the standard definition of Boomer is born up thru ’64, and he was born in ’61), but, by my count, Boomers have been in charge since Clinton defeated Bush in 1992. My point being that the urge to pass the torch to a new generation has been pent up for a while. What is more, coming on the heels of a Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump election cycle, the public wasn’t even given the option of making this option.
Speaking of Trump, it occurs to me that this is exactly the way to defeat him. Elections are always about choices, and the person who succeeds an incumbent president is often his polar opposite. But what does that mean? An African-American woman? A boring Midwesterner? Someone who has been in the U.S. Senate for 30 years?
The problem with running against Trump is that he destroys everything in his path. He destroys you if you get in the mud and try to fight with him, and he destroys you if you try to avoid fighting with him and stay above the fray. You can’t beat him by playing rougher or dirtier than he does, and you probably can’t beat him by trying to run as a civil “virtue-signaling” goody two-shoes, either.
Therefore, I think the key is not to make that the defining choice. Let’s be honest, almost anyone who runs against him (minus, maybe, Hillary) will best him—almost by default—on honesty and character. But that’s not enough to win an election. Experience has shown that decency, experience, and sacrifice aren’t enough (again, Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush). This is bad news for older candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden, who recently boasted that he is “the most qualified person in the country to be president.”
Again, if being qualified mattered, Bush would have beaten Clinton, Gore would have defeated Dubya, and Hillary Clinton would have defeated Trump (OK, she won the popular vote). Regardless, it’s hard to say that someone who has been president for four years isn’t qualified. The bottom line is that this isn’t a winning message. The one area where I think you might be able to find a winning contrast (and drive Trump crazy in the process) is when it comes to generational change. To basically say, “OK, old man. You’re out of touch. You don’t get it. You’re yesterday’s news. It’s time to retire.” Trump might be OK with being the rascal and the scoundrel—but will he accept being called a grandpa?
If people vote for the opposite of the last guy, and if Trump was the opposite of Obama, then it stands to reason that Obama would be the opposite of Trump. Or, in this case, an Obama-like candidate. Obama, of course, seemed young and cool, but he also seemed decent and inspirational (and non-threatening). Trump was able to mock and outmaneuver politicians like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. But how would he have fared in an election against Obama? Could Obama have “out-cooled” him and won a third term (if the constitution permitted it)? I suspect he would have.
Again, I strongly emphasize virtues like experience and wisdom. But consider what we have seen with our last two presidents. Barack Obama was in the U.S. Senate for a cup of coffee before he began running for president. He won. Likewise, Donald Trump had never been elected to anything (nor was he a high-ranking military officer), yet he also won.
Generational change requires a truly fresh face who is exciting and inspirational—someone who can win with millennials and minorities, but also suburban soccer moms—which leads me to what is surely an un-conservative denouement.
It’s not just about being young, it’s also about being new and authentic. Despite having only served in the U.S. Senate a short time, politicians like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris already have been co-opted by the system. As astounding as it might sound, they aren’t fresh enough to pull off the kind of contrast that is necessary.
Democrats could do a lot worse than to nominate Beto O’Rourke, who lost a bid for U.S. Senate to Ted Cruz this year. The idea of nominating someone who lost sounds crazy, but these are the new rules (or the old rules, if you want to go all the way back to Abraham Lincoln). However, the Beto idea has been bandied around so much that it is almost clichéd.
Here is a new idea: Democrats should consider nominating Krysten Sinema. This young (42), attractive, bespectacled, openly bisexual woman started out on the left and effectively moved to the center to win a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. Her victory over Martha McSally, the first female combat pilot, was impressive. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who is more completely the opposite of Trump than is Sinema.