Elections

For the Democrats, It’s Winnowing Time

Former vice president Joe Biden at a campaign stop in Londonderry, N.H., July 13, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The Democratic field is well on its way to contraction.

Winnow: verb. To expose (grain or other substances) to the wind or to a current of air so that the lighter particles (as chaff or other refuse matter) are separated or blown away.
— Oxford English Dictionary

It is time to dust off this marvelously appropriate verb for its quadrennial use to describe the thinning of a field of presidential aspirants. After two rounds of quasi-debates — “ten-participant debate” is a quasi-oxymoron — the Democratic field is well on its way to contraction.

Joe Biden survived his second debate, but did not dispel the impression that the brittleness of his candidacy is more important than his double-digit lead in a field the congestion of which is, for now, his friend. He has never been the Democrats’s Demosthenes. Now, however, when he commits the sort of verbal fender-benders that have long characterized him, or when he has a normal hesitancy reaching for the mot juste or an elusive fact, many people will wonder whether he is showing his age, 76.

Biden’s neon smile is a nice contrast with the snarl that defines the leader of the other party, but Democrats must consider this: If they nominate Biden, they will be hostages to his health, and if he catches a cold or develops a cough in October 2020, the electorate might get chills.

There is not room for both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the lane reserved for those who think, eccentrically, that the government is a tool of rapacious factions and that the government should be made much more powerful. If Warren can be more of a happy warrior, and less of the faculty-club know-it-all scold who showed up in Detroit, she should send Sanders packing. Florid, arm-waving, shouting Sanders (Representative Tim Ryan to Sanders Tuesday night: “You don’t have to yell”) will become president only if Americans do something they have not done since they reelected Andrew Jackson in 1832 — vote for a thoroughly angry man.

Did they do this in 2016? No, Trump’s anger shtick was performance art. Genuine political anger presupposes genuine political convictions. It is as mistaken to accuse Trump of anything other than synthetic anger as it is to accuse him of racism. He is not complicated enough for either.

Regarding John Delaney, Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper, and some others who are still a far cry from double digits in polls, remember this: In January 1972, South Dakota Senator George McGovern’s support was around 3 percent, which means he was within the margin of error of zero. Six months later he clinched the nomination.

Many Democrats, who understand that their policies will remain mere aspirations if Republicans retain control of the Senate, are exasperated that three of their aspiring presidents are not seeking Senate seats next year. Hickenlooper, a former two-term Colorado governor, could be trying to deny a second term to Senator Cory Gardner, the most vulnerable Republican incumbent. Bullock, having won Montana’s governorship twice in a state Trump carried by 20.6 points, would be a strong opponent against Senator Steve Daines. But Hickenlooper and Bullock probably know that former governors, having had the exhilarating experience of wielding executive power, often are unhappy senators. Today, senators who are contented with their roles in a body that is both turgid and paralyzed are apt to be regrettable because they are in politics only for status — to be something, not to do something.

Some Democrats wish that former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke would run against three-term incumbent Senator John Cornyn, but O’Rourke, the incredibly shrinking candidate, always has been a figment of his and others’ imaginations. In 2018, $80 million bought for him a somewhat close — 2.6 points — loss against Senator Ted Cruz. In that year, when Donald Trump was not on the ballot, some voters whose political interests span the spectrum from Trump to Trump, stayed home. Many of them probably will reappear when their messiah re-summons them. Although Cornyn’s approval rating is not markedly better than Cruz’s was, some of those who disapprove of Cornyn are more-conservative Republicans who will neither stay home nor vote for a Democrat next year.

This might be 2020’s decisive paradox: The safer that continuing Republican control of the Senate seems on Election Day, the better are the Democrats’ chances of winning the White House. Many voters, perhaps a decisive number, will be willing to put a progressive in the presidency if, but only if, they know that they can count on that which they too often deplore: gridlock.

© 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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