Note to Democrats: As you begin the holiday shopping phase of the primary campaign, searching for someone who can eject Donald Trump from the White House, please keep in mind that there is no perfect candidate. Not this year, not ever. Whoever is sitting in the last remaining seat when the music finally stops will be an imperfect vessel for the mission. This does not mean they cannot get the job done — far from it, considering Trump’s own weaknesses — but Democrats are nervous. They want a candidate who is as close as possible to a sure thing, because they know they only have one shot to get this right.
That’s why, perhaps more than in past years, primary voters are more focused on candidate shortcomings than strengths. Bernie Sanders is too radical, too old and yells at voters. Elizabeth Warren can never sell Medicare for All, will lose votes because she is a woman and will scare off moderates. Joe Biden is too unfocused to instill confidence, unable to rally young voters, has antiquated ideas about gender and race, and is too aligned with the status quo to be a convincing change agent. And these are the candidates who aren’t struggling to get above five percent in the polls.
Fear of getting it wrong can explain the recent, sudden rise of Mayor Pete, whose fortunes have grown as Warren’s have waned. The Buttigieg candidacy is a comfortable place for voters to park while they sort out their concerns about Sanders, Warren and Biden, because in a political environment driven by the fear of getting it wrong, Mayor Pete seems to have a little something for every nervous Democrat. Worried about nominating a woman? He’s male. Worried about nominating a person of color? He’s white. But you still want diversity on the ticket? He’s gay and married. Worried about a Jewish nominee? He’s Christian — and religious — but liberal! Worried about nominating someone who can be pigeonholed as a coastal elite? He’s from Indiana. Worried about nominating someone with a long legislative record in Washington? He’s a small town mayor with limited experience. Worried about age? He sneaks in just over the constitutional eligibility limit. Military experience? Check. Intelligence work? Check. Intelligent? He’s a Rhodes Scholar via Harvard. But did I mention he’s from Indiana? As resumes go, it’s as though Mayor Pete was formed in a petri dish.
His appeal is further enhanced because he has not been vetted like Biden, Warren and Sanders — yet. With the inevitable scrutiny that comes from entering the upper echelon of candidates, attention will eventually shift to his record and ideas, to who he is rather than what he is not. Perhaps he will withstand the scrutiny and consolidate his support, which at the moment is soft and concentrated in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Perhaps he will be able to make inroads into communities of color that will be essential to winning the nomination and where his support remains close to zero. Or perhaps he will remain a placeholder until voters work through their feelings about the other imperfect options.
As this process plays out in the two-plus months remaining before the voting begins, it will be worth remembering that every person ever nominated for the office came with question-marks. Barack Obama had to convince people that America was ready to breach a racial barrier no other nominee had ever attempted to break. Relatable but shallow, George W. Bush battled his mirror-image opponent Al Gore to a tie. Bill Clinton had more baggage than you could fit in an overhead compartment. George H.W. Bush lacked what he called “the vision thing” and Ronald Reagan was viewed as radical in his own right, as well as intellectually challenged and trigger-happy. Don’t get me started on Donald Trump.
Democrats would be wise to remember this history as they search for a nominee. They would be equally wise to recognize that the Democratic field is one of the deepest ever to contest a nomination, and to focus on the strengths of the candidates rather than their perceived shortcomings. Instead of worrying about what they believe other voters will accept in a candidate, voters would do well to support the candidates who speak to them. There is a lot of talent on that debate stage, and anyone capable of weaving together the diverse interests of the Democratic electorate to assemble a coalition broad enough to get the nomination will be in a position to win next November. They will not be a perfect candidate, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good — and good is good enough.