More thoughts on the Democratic Primary and today’s Zeitgeist

I just saw a tweet by Vox journalist Aaron Rupar discussing the controversy surrounding the release of Bernie Sanders’ health records. And it led me to a series of conclusions and thoughts I wanted to run by you.

Here’s the tweet – click on the link to see the video:

The comments that followed were interesting, as they were very polarized on whether Gray’s comments were on the mark. But, they were also polarized on whether Sanders’ age matters at all. And it got me to thinking about the current crop of Democratic Primary contestants. They all have ‘flaws’ when you compare them to the quintessential Presidential candidate of old. The same goes for Trump as well

The flaws

Here’s what I’m talking about. Yesterday, the NBC News/WSJ poll came out. And the headline was about the lead Sanders has now opened up: NBC News/WSJ poll: Sanders opens up double-digit national lead in primary race as well as how Joe Biden has imploded. But, one section on the negatives – or the candidates’ flaws  caught my eye. Here’s how NBC describes them:

The NBC News/WSJ poll also asked voters about seven different descriptions for presidential candidates. The most unpopular:

  • A combined 67 percent say they have reservations or are “very uncomfortable” with a candidate being a socialist.
  • Fifty-seven percent have reservations/are very uncomfortable with someone who had a heart attack in the last year.
  • Fifty-three percent have reservations/are very uncomfortable with someone who’s older than 75.
  • Forty-one percent have reservations/are very uncomfortable with someone who self-funds their campaign with hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • And a combined 40 percent have reservations/are very uncomfortable with a candidate who is younger than 40.

By contrast, just 27 percent of all voters say they have reservations or are very uncomfortable with a presidential candidate who is gay or lesbian.

And only 14 percent say they’re bothered by a candidate being a woman.

When identified by name, 47 percent of all voters say they are “very uncomfortable” with Trump on the ballot in 2020; 44 percent say the same about Sanders; 41 percent say that about Warren; and 39 percent say it about Biden.

If you go through the list of top five negatives, Sanders fits the bill on numbers one, two, and three. Bloomberg fits the bill on numbers three and four plus he has also had a heart attack, just not recently). Biden fits the bill on number three. At 70, Warren is arguably close on number three, since she would be the second oldest President behind Trump, if elected. Steyer fits the bill on number four. And Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg fit the bill on number five. The only candidate who misses these negatives is Amy Klobuchar.

The ‘quintessential’ candidate

None of the current crop of candidates for President fits the bll as the quintessential President.

Here’s a list of Presidential candidates from the main parties.If you go back to, say, Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. You’ll find people over the age of 40, who were either Senator, Vice President, or Governor, with at least eight years of experience in those offices plus in the House of Representatives. Every single candidate I looked at had those qualifications until 2008 where Obama lacked the experience and 2012, when both Obama and Romney failed to meet that threshold. Clinton met the threshold in 2016, whereas Trump famously didn’t as he had never held public office or been in the military.

When I think of age, I think of the old “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” campaign of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler in 1840 because Harrison was a Presidential nominee who was pilloried for being too old. And, as I remember it in history class, decided to forego an overcoat during Inauguration to show how strong and virile he still was. He developed pneumonia and became the first President to die in office at age 68. He also served the shortest term in US history (and started the morbid trend of President elected every 20 years dying in office, a trend Reagan broke when he survived the Hinkley assassination attempt).

So, it took until 1980, with Reagan, before the US elected a man older than Harrison to serve as President. And when we subsequently learned that Reagan developed Alzheimer’s disease, the angst about electing an older President continued. Younger Presidents were also a concern even though under law the President could be as young as 35. Theodore Roosevelt was 42 and Kennedy was 43. Their youth was not seen as a plus, with Roosevelt only getting into office because Vice President Garret Hobart died of heart failure and President McKinley was assassinated. Clinton, at 46, was seen as perhaps too young as well. But, he overcame that problem in part because of George H.W. Bush seeming out of touch – famously visiting a supermarket and marveling over the ‘old tech’ scanner machines they had to check groceries.

I’d sum it up this way: the quintessential US President has been a (white Anglo-Saxon) between the ages of 40 and 65 with at least eight years of service as General in the military or as a Vice President, Senator, Congressman, or state Governor. 

Yet, we elected Trump in 2016 anyway despite having none of those qualifications. Why? I think it’s the same reason we nominated Obama and Romney in 2012 and that we have a crop of candidates today who don’t fit that bill: Americans want change.

The center won’t hold

Now, you could argue that the current crop of candidates represents the diversity and inclusion of the US that didn’t exist before. And everyone remembers Obama as the change agent of 2008, with Romney as the stock establishment Republican in 2012. So, it was surprising for me to check Romney’s credentials and realize he had a very thin resume regarding public office, with only four years as Governor of Massachusetts. You could argue, then, that both Romney and Obama were outside the mold of the quintessential President, Obama winning because he was further from that mold. Trump merely continued the trend.

So, when you look at today’s crop of candidates, you might think that a guy like John Hickenlooper or Michael Bennet would have gotten a look. They are quintessential Presidential material of the bygone era. But, they didn’t get any traction. Until recently, Amy Klobuchar, who ticks all the boxes, didn’t get a look either. Why? In part, it’s the Biden effect, with Joe Biden sucking all the air out of the room for centrists, just as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. But, I believe it’s also because the ‘Quintessential President’ is a figure of the pre-2008 era. If you don’t have change agent bonafides, you won’t get any traction.

That’s my take here: the zeitgeist today is about change. And to be seen as a candidate of change, you have to look and act the part. Donald Trump fits the bill. And Bernie Sanders does too. That’s why he now leads the polls.

Your comments are appreciated.

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