How to pick a president

Welcome to the free weekly edition of Popular Information, a newsletter with original research and fresh insight into the political news that matters most — written by me, Judd Legum.

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How to pick a president

Welcome to 2019! Yes, it's the start of a new year. But it's also the start of a critical 18 months in American politics. During this time, Democrats will select their nominee to take on Donald Trump in 2020.

The first major candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, didn't even wait until 2019 to declare. But there are dozens of other serious contenders contemplating a run. Likely entrants include several of Warren's colleagues in the Senate (Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand), the former Vice President (Joe Biden), a rising star in the House (Beto O'Rourke), current and former governors (Steve Bullock, Terry McAuliffe), Obama administration alumni (Julián Castro, Eric Holder), a couple of billionaires (Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer), and a bunch of other folks.

Faced with such a large and diverse field, how are Democratic primary voters supposed to decide? I presented that question to some smart people from across the ideological spectrum.

There are both common themes and significant disagreement within the group. I don't agree with all of their answers. But I hope their perspectives help you start thinking about your priorities.

Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All:

The Republican Party is quite authentic. It advertises itself as a party of big business. It is led by a big, if failed, businessman. It openly takes direction from big business leaders on issues from climate to health. I think this coziness has been catastrophic for America and the world, but at least the party walks its talk. It is undeniably the party of capital in American life. It is what it says it is.

The Democrats have an opportunity to be not that. To be the party of workers, of regular people, of the job havers rather than job creators. A party for people with multiple jobs, not multiple homes; a party of carried boxes, not carried interest. And Democrats have been wobbly on whether they wish to seize this opportunity. To get clearer on this question,  they should, I believe, look with special favor on candidates with a net worth of less than a million dollars. On candidates who have never worked on Wall Street or in corporate law. On candidates who have raised most of their money from small donors, and none of it from predatory industries. On candidates with no more familial or professional connection to billionaires than the average American does. On candidates who have organizing and community-level work in their DNA. On candidates who don’t speak about “the people” while cavorting at plutocrats’ weddings and taking speaking fees from institutions that have helped destroy the American dream. On candidates whose lives and daily calendars have been filled with the kinds of ordinary Americans they seek to help. On candidates who are real.

David Leonhardt, op-ed columnist at The New York Times:

I'd offer two pieces of advice to Democratic voters trying to pick a presidential candidate. First, think for yourself. Don't try to figure out what kind of candidate some other hypothetical voter -- a swing voter, say -- is likely to want. Think about which candidate excites you.

The strongest presidential candidates usually are more than the sum of their demographic traits and resume lines. In the 2016 primaries, Donald Trump sure didn't seem like the most electable Republican candidate -- but he won. In 2008, a first-term African-American senator with the middle name Hussein didn't seem like the most electable Democrat -- but he won. If you find someone who legitimately excites you this year, there's a very good chance that candidate will also excite other voters.

My second piece of advice is to choose a candidate who seems to understand the appeal of economic populism right now. A substantial majority of Americans favor a populist agenda -- higher taxes on the rich, better federal health insurance, more government action to create good-paying jobs and so on. (I go into more details on public opinion here.) The Democrats did so well in the midterms partly because of the populist campaign many of them ran, and I think their best chance of winning in 2020 involves a campaign centered on fighting for working families.

The good news is that these two pieces of advice probably don't conflict. Most of the potential Democratic candidates have the ability to run a populist campaign. In the coming months, we'll find out which ones do so.

Asha Rangappa, CNN analyst, and former FBI special agent:

We are experiencing a breakdown in civil society that can have long-term implications on our democracy if it is not addressed immediately. A Democratic candidate should be one who believes repairing that is a priority. That means someone who has demonstrated experience in government service (so not Oprah -- sorry folks) and a commitment to fundamental democratic values like the rule of law, separation of powers, the right to protest, a free press, and transparency and accountability by public officials. In addition, any candidate should be able to articulate -- with specificity -- how they will defend the United States from attacks by foreign actors on our election process and infrastructure. Policy positions are important, but they don't mean anything if we can't return to the basic norms of democracy and restore Americans' faith in our institutions and each other.

Shaun King, columnist at The Intercept, and founder of The North Star:

Choose for yourself. Evaluate character. Decide 5-10 policies that really, really matter to you and see what each candidate thinks about those policies and how they’ve actually fought for them. Plan on allowing each candidate to only meet about 80-90% of what matters to you. We don’t have any perfect people. Not you. Not me. Not these leaders. But we do have some great options.

Dan Pfeiffer, co-host of Pod Save America, and former communications director for Barack Obama:

1. Pick the Best President: The first one seems obvious, but it's pretty clear that the Republicans did not consider that question in 2016 and we have been suffering the consequences ever since. Being a good president is about a lot more than having the “right” resume and experience

2. Don’t try to reverse engineer electability: If the elections of the African American guy with the middle name Hussein two years removed from the state senate and the racist reality TV star have taught us anything, it’s that traditional definitions of electability are dead.

3. Enthusiasm Matters: Pick the candidate that is most inspiring to you. You will like your choice more and the more inspirational candidates are the best candidates since the formula for Democratic success at the ballot box depends on inspiring new and less frequent voters to turn out.

4. Replacement instead of Replica: There is going to be a parade of the dumbest people in America (most of who work for the media) telling Democrats that we need someone like Trump – brash, a fighter, a tweeter etc. That is idiocy, don’t listen to them. Democrats won’t turn out for Trump-lite. David Axelrod always used to say that when replacing a sitting President voters look for the replacement, not the replica.

Heather Boushey, Executive Director and Chief Economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth:

The most important issue people will be looking for in our elected leaders is those that are committed to having an economy where gains are strong, stable, *and* broadly shared. For too long, policymakers have made choices that mean that only those at the very top of the income ladder benefit from economic growth. Voters will be looking for leaders who understand that the economy must work for the many, not just the wealthy because they see how important this is for families, the economy, and our democracy. There is growing evidence that as the wealthy take home a larger share of the economic gains, they are using their economic power to subvert both our political system and the market itself, too often affecting political and social outcomes to benefit themselves, not our country more generally. We need policymakers who understand it’s their job to act as a balance against the growing economic and political power of increasingly concentrated wealth.

Ron Klain, former Chief of Staff to Vice President Joe Biden and Ebola czar:

First, the most important quality in any potential nominee is his/her ability to defeat Trump, who poses a profound threat to our country and our democracy. The problem is that it may not be entirely obvious, ex ante, which candidate is best suited for that task. Pundit analysis and theater-criticism-style reviews of the candidates is a poor way to sort this out.  Watching the candidates perform over the long and trying process of the primary campaign is much more likely to be a reliable indicator.

Second, I am equally opposed to ruling out candidates because they are older, white or male (or any combination of the above) as I am opposed to those who say we should seek out a “safe” white male nominee.  Our best candidate in 2020 may be male or female, older or younger, white or black or Hispanic.

Finally, the critical question for progressive change is not the specifics or purity of a candidate’s plans in health care or opportunity or security, but rather, their commitment to and prospects for holding the Democratic majority in the House and winning one in the Senate.  We have only had a Democratic President, House, and Senate for two of the past 25 years, and those are the two years where we made the most progress on health care, economic opportunity for all, climate change, and sound regulation.

Cenk Uygur, Host of the Young Turks:

Look at the candidates' policy positions — and what they chose to prioritize and fight for — throughout their careers. I'm a progressive, so there are a couple of obvious picks for me. But I remember a woman we interviewed in 2016 who was a Hillary Clinton supporter who said, "I don't want a revolution. I just want a good candidate." Fair enough, if you want small, incremental change you will have plenty of choices in this primary.

Almost everyone on television believes in alternative facts — where establishment Democrats do better in general elections than progressives. This despite the fact that Hillary Clinton lost to the worst presidential candidate in American history. Senate Democrats who ran on establishment positions got wiped off the map. How many elections can they lose before people acknowledge the establishment does not have a winning strategy? Progressive policy positions range from 60-80% popularity on almost every issue, and yet the media keeps telling you they are fringe. If you want to beat the Republicans, vote for a candidate who is actually opposed to them!

Shannon Watts, Founder of Moms Demand Action

My framework for assessing presidential candidates is simple: Are they gun sense candidates? In other words, do they oppose the NRA’s dangerous agenda, and do they support common-sense gun laws like a background check on every gun sale? Over the past six years, Democrats who don’t support gun safety over gun manufacturers have become a rarity in state houses and Congress alike. I can’t think of a single potential Democratic nominee in 2020 who hasn’t already signaled their support for stronger gun laws. I’ll be watching to see which candidates make it a key part of their policy platform like Hillary Clinton did in the last election cycle. Gun safety can’t just be a pet issue — it must be a priority.

Amanda Marcotte, politics writer at Salon:

Instead of obsessing about the ultimately unknowable quality of "electability," I would recommend Democratic primary voters get back to basics and ask this simple question: Who would make the best president?

Having attractive policy ideas is a big part of this, but it's far from the only consideration. Congress ultimately decides what bills will be passed, after all. The quality that is most important — and most overlooked — in a president is how well they understand the business of running the enormous federal bureaucracy, and what levers they can pull to promote progressive goals outside of passing new bills. Trump has done a lot of damage to agencies like the EPA and the HHS, so ideally the next Democratic candidate will be someone who is ready to move swiftly to return those agencies to their jobs of protecting the health and wellbeing of Americans. It's not a sexy issue, but it's more important than nearly anything else a president will do.

What are you looking for in a presidential candidate? Send your thoughts to judd@popular.info. I'll include some of your responses in a future issue.


Government shutdown: Day 12

The partial government shutdown has reached its 12th day -- with no end in sight. Trump says he won't approve a funding bill for nine federal agencies unless it's paired with at least $5 billion in funding for a border wall. Democrats, who are slated to take control of the House on Thursday, say they won't approve the funds for Trump's wall. Notably, Trump was unable to secure funding for his wall in the two years that Republicans controlled the House and the Senate.

Why is Trump picking this fight? In a leaked transcript from a call with the president of Mexico in 2017, Trump said it was about politics.

We cannot say that anymore because if you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that… Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important [sic] talk about.

Perception is reality

Trump is requesting $5 billion in funding for the wall. But, according to his administration's own estimates, the wall would cost over $21 billion. A report from Senate Democrats says the actual cost could be over $70 billion.

Trump isn't asking for the funds he needs to build a wall across the southern border. He is asking for the funds he needs to say he is building a wall across the southern border. $5 billion won't pay for the wall he promised, but it's more than enough for some impressive photo-ops.

The fake border crisis

Trump argues the wall is necessary because there is a crisis. Undocumented immigrants, Trump says, are flooding across the southern border, bringing crimes and drugs. But illegal border crossings have been steadily declining for a couple of decades, without a wall.

The real impact on federal workers

While the border crisis is fake, the impact of the shutdown on hundreds of thousands of federal workers is real. Those workers just got paid for the last work period before the shutdown. But their next check is due on January 11. If the shutdown continues, they will not be paid. (Thousands of "essential" employees will have to work without pay.)

The Trump administration released guidance last week suggesting that government workers offer to perform maintenance duties instead of paying rent.  

An extended shutdown could damage the overall economy by "dampening federal workers’ productivity, temporarily halting their paychecks, closing national parks, suspending federal funding for loans and delaying tax refunds."

What's next?

Trump invited Congressional leaders of both parties to the White House on Wednesday for a "briefing" on the wall.


Thanks for reading!

Popular Information made waves in 2018, which I detailed here. But we are just getting started.

You can support independent, accountability journalism by becoming a paid subscriber. Get Popular Information four days a week for all of 2019 for just $50.

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Send your feedback to judd@popular.info