One of the great zingers in US political history was ultimately a failure. In 1988, Dan Quayle, all thumbs as a politician, was indeed "no Jack Kennedy". But the line that so lanced him during a televised debate did not stop him being elected vice-president a month later. It is almost as though a mythologised leader from the past is no kind of useful comparator.
A whole field of Democrats is being Quayled as I write – and by their own. They are being held to an impossible and irrelevant standard as they run for president in 2020. I need not name the standard in question, for you can almost hear each candidate being scolded that he or she is “no Barack Obama”.
This week, a grateful America has been told to anticipate late presidential bids from the reluctant but civic-minded. Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, and Deval Patrick, who once governed the state of Massachusetts, are among them. Each man taps into a vein of doubt among a certain class of Democrat – rich donors, the media – about the current options.
These are variously too old (Joe Biden), too young (Pete Buttigieg), too extreme (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders) and too obscure (Amy Klobuchar). The hopefuls have "wilted upon inspection", writes Andrew Sullivan, a conservative who longs to be rid of President Donald Trump.
The challenge is to reconcile this despair with the evidence. In a poll by ABC News and the Washington Post last week, Warren, Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg each led Trump by double digits. No doubt, voters say all sorts of things a year out from an election. There will not be a 17-point rout next November. Democrats are a rash healthcare plan or some strident identity politics away from losing a winnable election altogether. But nor, on the evidence, is this a party in screaming need of a deus ex machina.
Sap the energy
Democrats must face up to the truth, no matter how pleasant it is. They have a serviceable array of candidates to choose from. It does not contain a person of elemental magnetism but nor do most primary contests in US history. Barring the sudden availability of one, the worst thing they could do is clog an already exhausting race with newcomers who will sap the energy and resources of the leading few.
The party’s rank and file appear to understand this well enough. An October survey by HuffPost and YouGov found that 83 per cent of them are satisfied with the field. It is a small but influential group of liberals at the nexus of money and media who pine in this undignified way for a hero at the end of the night.
It is tempting to put this down to “motivated reasoning”. When rich Democrats say that Warren is too left wing to win, what they tend to mean is that they would rather she didn’t. Such is the Pundit’s Fallacy: the belief that one’s ideological preferences also happen to be the most fruitful electoral strategy. But if this were all that was going on, they would just combine their resources behind Biden or one of the other available moderates. Instead, they look outside the field for some kind of deliverance.
The problem, I fear, is the vastness of Obama’s shadow. The Democrats’ last president has warped their expectations of politics. Some have come to regard a once-per-generation talent as the standard by which presidential hopefuls must be judged.
But it is not normal to have an orator of the highest class with measured views (in 2007, Obama attacked Hillary Clinton from the right on healthcare) and no blemish outside a very late 20th-century brush with cocaine. It is not normal to be enthusiastic about a politician. Choosing between flawed options is the natural state of democracy.
Looking back, it was unhealthy that a leader who had been dead for 25 years was still a reference point for liberals in 1988. Such introspection and retrospection explain their years out of office. Through no fault of Obama’s, it is happening again. Last weekend, Buttigieg was misquoted as impugning his work as president. The record was swiftly corrected but the intervening hubbub spoke to the preciousness around his legacy. The number of people who “worked on the Obama campaign” seems to go up each year, like the number who saw the Sex Pistols play the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976.
Some who cherished 2008 are starting to regard that exceptional moment as their regular due. It is addling their judgment. In experience, intellect and ideological range, the Democrats’ field holds up against those of the past. The party stands to harm mainly itself by believing otherwise. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019