So You Want To Be POTUS?
Avoid the disasters that long presidential campaigns produce
Checking my Instagram a few evenings ago, I saw that Senator Elizabeth Warren was live. I clicked. In a grainy video, I saw her striding out onto a marble plaza talking to an aide, her blunt cut blond hair swinging slightly as she strode into the darkness. The sound of protesters came into view. As the hand-held cell phone camera jerked around, Warren waded into the cheering crowd and began to declaim in her reedy, law-professor voice.
So it begins, I thought: game on. She’s really running this time. My heart went pit-a-pat, just like in the song.
Indeed, two days later, the New York Times ran a story speculating that Warren, former Vice President Joseph Biden, Jr., and Senators Corey Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California are making all the moves that signal a presidential run (renting storefronts in Iowa if you are an East Coast or California Senator is a serious tell).
“All five have been traveling the country, raising money for Democrats and gauging the appeal of their personalities and favorite themes,” Times political reporters Jonathan Burns and Alexander Martin wrote. “As a group, they are a strikingly heterogeneous array of rivals for Mr. Trump, embodying the Democratic Party’s options for defining itself: They are distinguished by gender and race, span three decades in age and traverse the ideological and tonal spectrum between combative Democratic socialism and consensus-minded incrementalism.”
You want choices, America? We’ll give you choices. Now maybe you can try to choose this time without burning the whole Democratic Party down. Furthermore, a confidential Public Seminar source inside a certain governor’s office says that he is staffing up for a 2020 run. (Stay tuned to this page for more on this one.)
My greatest fear is that none of these potential candidates will be able to keep a lid on their desire to campaign prior to the fall election season, a crucial time for Democratic voters to focus on taking back the House of Representatives. There are lesser offices than President to be filled, and pointless debates about whether Joe and Bernie are too old and too white, whether Kamala and Corey are too inexperienced, or whether Elizabeth is too polarizing, or a (can I say it?) YUGE distraction from that essential project.
On the other hand, it would be nice to have some leadership going into the fall elections too. If the five or more eager beaver Democrats can avoid kneecapping each other and can placate the “Hillary or Bust” crowd that is still quite active on Facebook, having them all travel around the country mobilizing the electorate could be A Good Thing.
Yet part of the problem with our “presidentials,” as campaign consultants call the process of trying to win the top office in the land, is that they start so gosh-darned early, and this cycle they are starting earlier than ever. (Learning terms like “gosh darned” is key to attending events in Iowa and New Hampshire, while smiling broadly at any suggestion that you might be running for president.)
This longer campaign timeline is difficult in many ways — money, exhaustion, and weight gain from foods you would never eat in real life are a few. Worst, perhaps, it gives candidates lots of time to make mistakes, and it gives the Trump re-election team even more time to build damaging dossiers (otherwise known as “oppo” research) on whoever emerges from the scrum in the summer of 2020.
This is called being overexposed. Arguably, one of Hillary Clinton’s greatest vulnerabilities as a candidate in both 2008 and 2016 was that she had been on the political scene for so long that she was, as they say in porn “shot out.” It wasn’t that we didn’t know enough about her: we knew too much, including lots of stuff that wasn’t even true, and we had had almost three decades to decide whether we “liked” her. Yes, Hillary had tons of accomplishments, but in addition to the click-bait fake news ginned up by right-wing conspiracists, she was carrying an overwhelming amount of political baggage.
Clinton was possibly the most beaten-up presidential candidate, and the object of the most conspiracy theories, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sneeringly nicknamed “Rosenveldt” by those who believed he was at the head of a secret, international Jewish conspiracy. According to anthropologist Patricia Turner, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was also rumored to have been the inspiration for “Eleanor Roosevelt clubs,” in which fictional African-American domestic workers rudely demanded deference from white women.
Yet, an even not-so-close examination of Clinton’s two campaigns also reveals a series of utterly avoidable gaffes. So, without further ado, here are four suggestions for the contestants gearing up for the national beauty contest that will be the 2020 Democratic nomination.
First: Do not claim to have been shot at, even if you have been. One of the more avoidable gaffes in the 2008 primary campaign against Barack Obama was Clinton’s recollection that, as First Lady in 1996, she and her staff had landed “under sniper fire” in war-torn Bosnia. “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport,” she amplified, “but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column awarded this happy memory four Pinocchios, and supplied a video of Clinton embracing Bosnian children sent to greet her at Tuzla, said to have been one of the safest and most secure airports in the region at the time.
What was the damage? It left the false impression that Clinton was a gratuitous liar for one, since being shot at would be a highly memorable experience, but not being shot at isn’t. More importantly, it distracted attention from Clinton’s excellent intellect and the experience she had amassed as a Senator. To quote one YouTube commenter: “What does Hillary’s foreign policy experience amount to? Imaginary sniper fire.”
The gaffe — as all of them do now — also provided endless fodder for a new genre of political commentary, now well established in late night cable, radio and podcasts, performed by comedians. As Paula Poundstone, a regular on NPR’s game show “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me,” deadpanned: “Hillary just forgot that when the snipers started firing she was in Philadelphia at the time,” an allusion to an undeserved reputation for being “unlikeable” that was sticking to Clinton like gum on a shoe.
Here’s the thing, 2020 contenders: since no president since George H.W. Bush has served in the military, there is no need to fake military swagger. Don’t try. There are lots of smart people who have never been shot at — look at me! And remember how stupid Michael Dukakis looked driving that tank.
Better yet, hire and assign a team of fact-checkers to every speech and every interview you have ever given, anywhere, and be ready for what you are going to say when someone brings it up that no one can remember you seizing the cockpit controls as the pilot slumped over the console. Part of how these embarrassing howlers emerge in a national campaign is that new speechwriters embellish on inaccuracies and exaggerations in old speeches, and candidates — repeating the same speeches a zillion or so times in longer and longer campaigns — may even come to believe they are telling the truth.
Second suggestion: Do not make fun of Joe Sixpack, or anyone else for that matter — the 49 percent, Macaca, people who cling to their guns and Bibles — in front of your wealthy donors. I can guaran-frickin’-tee you there will be waitstaff, or a bartender, or a fuming spouse, or one of your kids recording you on a cell phone as you do. Then they will put it on YouTube.
As journalist Amy Chozick has observed in her campaign book, Chasing Hillary (2018), one problem with having to raise gobs of money from the super-rich in Martha’s Vineyard, the Hamptons, Malibu and so on, is that candidates become comfortable among intimate groups of people who support them as they do not become comfortable with, say, large, undifferentiated crowds of feminist scholars or union shop stewards. Then they commit the unpardonable for a politician: they say what they really think. This, Chozick believed, was the dynamic behind Clinton’s description of some Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” a gaffe that seemed to put the lie to Clinton’s avowed (and actually demonstrated) concern for economically marginalized people, becoming a curse used against her for the rest of the campaign.
Third suggestion: Think very carefully before assuming that any constituency can be counted on because of their gender or race. White women, for example, did not vote for Clinton in anywhere near the numbers they were expected to in 2016. In fact, the first person to learn the sad lesson that identity politics does not translate to support for a candidate’s skills or platform was Shirley Chisholm, when she became the first woman and first African American to run for the Democratic Party nomination in 1972. You could say it wasn’t her time yet, but the fact is that both African Americans and women were far happier voting for a number of white men, the most important of which was George McGovern.
As Congressman Charles Rangel remembered in an oral history done by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom in 2007, “I cannot think of anything kind that Shirley Chisholm had to say about the lack of support of white women when she ran for president, and she was in all the movements: the black movement, the women’s movement, and at the time she was critical of the Congressional Black Caucus for not being more supportive of her candidacy.” More supportive? The CBC — including Rangel — pulled their votes at the convention when she refused to give her delegates to McGovern.
Here is my point: the United States is not a post-racial, a post-class or a post-gender society, but it might be best to run a campaign as if it were and not count on people wanting to “see themselves” in the White House.
Final suggestion: If you are going to call yourself a feminist, and you are also trying to project a warrior image, you have to explain how these two things are consistent with each other. If you can. You know what might have swung some libertarians to Clinton? If she had said, unequivocally: “I will bring our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan by 2018.” Americans are tired, across the political spectrum, of an endless war that is devastating large parts of the globe’s population and being paid for at the expense of their schools, their bridges, their roads, and the health and happiness of young people who sign up to save the world and too often come home with battered bodies and rattled brains. We are sick of the racism, sick of being searched and surveilled, sick of being interrogated at the border.
For those of us who remember the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, it was axiomatic that to be a feminist was to be against the war in Vietnam and against nuclear proliferation. But rather than talking about what it means for a feminist to be president in a profoundly violent and unstable world, in both of Clinton’s presidential runs her supporters were obsessed with the question of whether voting for a man — not being a warmonger — betrays feminism. As third wave feminist Jessica Valenti wrote in 2008, she would not vote for Clinton “at the expense of what I believe is best for women, and because a movement that assumes it knows what’s best for me tells me to … Instead of the group hug approach lets focus on tangible goals: fostering youth leadership, working from the margins in and using intersectionality as our lens — instead of just a talking point. Let’s use this moment, when our politics and emotions are raw, to push for a more forward-looking feminism.”
After eighteen months of Trump I, of course, would settle for a more forward-looking anything: it doesn’t even have to be feminism, since feminism, in my view is at its most radical and forward-looking when it is not statist in its orientation and not making excuses for the importance of drone warfare. Our next Democratic candidate for president will either be a feminist, or a person who has been thoroughly shaped by feminism, a qualification no one wearing a White House security badge has. That’s good enough for me.
Democrats lost the last election to the most unqualified, if not the most unethical, Republican to win the presidency in modern history. Now, let’s try not lose the next two elections on unforced errors.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar, currently teaching in the Democracy and Diversity Institute, Wrocław, Poland. You can follow her on Twitter.