Wake Me When It’s 2020

I’m capable of paying attention to a finite number of things at any given point in time.  And right now, the 2020 presidential race is not even close to making that list.

scottball_beto-orourke_alamo-music-hall_campaign_election_senate_11-4-2018-5-1170x782I see stories like this one — “Beto O’Rourke plans ‘reintroduction’ as 2020 buzz fizzles” — or this one — “Florida takes shape as Joe Biden’s firewall” — and I happily skip over them without a second thought or a guilty conscience.  And it’s not just stories about “Beto” or “Joe” I’m not reading:  I’ll also gladly pass on stories about how “Mayor Pete” is being received by big-money donors in Hollywood, or whether Amy Klobuchar’s campaign is gaining any traction, or how Bernie Sanders is doing in tracking polls in New Hampshire.  I’m not going to read any stories about how any of the candidates are doing on fundraising, or whether they are lining up “super-delegates,” or any inside baseball/horse race analysis pieces, either.

There are people who are political junkies, and I’m not one of them.  At this point, the 2020 election is so far away, and there are so many Democratic candidates vying for the nomination, that I really can’t spend time analyzing their positions or trying to figure out their qualifications or capabilities.  With the number of officially declared Democratic candidates at around two dozen, trying to do any meaningful candidate-by-candidate evaluation is an overwhelming task.  So at this point, I’m fine with allowing the political junkies to carry the ball and do whatever they do to let the field be winnowed down to a manageable number.  Whether the winnowing occurs because of fizzled “buzz,” fundraising efforts, or tracking polls, or super-delegates, I don’t care — just don’t expect me to pay any attention until we’ve got a narrower field that consists of people who might actually have a reasonable chance to win the nomination.

In short, wake me when it’s 2020.

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How Old Is “Too Old”?

This week former Vice President Joe Biden formally declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.  He joins a very crowded field of politicians vying for the chance to square off against President Donald Trump in 2020.

bernie-and-joe-like-donald-trumpJoe Biden is 76 years old.  He was born on November 20, 1942; if he were to be elected, he would be 77 on Election Day, and 78 when he takes office.  Bernie Sanders, who is another candidate for the Democratic nomination, is 77 years old and, being born on September 8, 1941, would be 79 on Election Day in 2020.  If either of those candidates won, they would easily set a new record for the oldest person to be newly elected to the presidency — a record now held by the current occupant of the White House, who was a mere 70 when he was inaugurated.  (The oldest President to be elected, period, was Ronald Reagan, who was 73 when he won reelection in a landslide in 1984 — a record that would be obliterated if the 2020 race turned out to be either Trump-Biden or Trump-Sanders.)

There have been some old Presidents in American history — some good, some not so much — and clearly people’s perceptions of what it means to be old in our current day are changing.  As average life spans increase and medical care, diet, fitness, and general attention to health improve, some people argue that aging is really all about a state of mind, and “60 is the new 40.”  And no doubt Biden and Sanders will produce medical reports that show that they are healthy, active, vibrant, and ready to handle the demands of an incredibly taxing job.

Still, Biden and Sanders are really pushing the presidential age envelope into uncharted territory.  How will people react when, as Election Day nears, they really ponder the prospect of an 80-year-old President?  No doubt people will be looking carefully at all three of the septuagenarians — Trump, Biden, and Sanders — for signs of age-related physical feebleness and mental slippage.  Age is something that can’t be hidden, and one serious memory glitch during a debate could be all she wrote for a candidacy.

I don’t think it is improperly ageist to wonder about how age affects fitness for the Oval Office.  In 2020, we may be answering the question:  “How old is too old?”

Old-School Joe

Joe Biden is an “old school” politician.  First elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1972 — that’s almost 50 years ago, folks — he traces his roots to a different political era.  Joe Biden has been involved in politics at the national level for longer than just about anyone you can think of, and certainly longer than anyone else who might be a serious candidate for President in 2020.

screen_shot_2019-04-02_at_10.23.19_pm_0It’s pretty clear that Joe Biden is what you might call a “hands-on” politician, the kind who likes the handshakes and arm around the shoulder photos and ropeline grappling with admirers.  That’s why you can find countless photos of Joe Biden in physical contact with somebody — some of whom look happy about it, and some of whom look very uncomfortable — and why some of the people who are attempting to explain his current predicament say things like “he hugs everybody.”  It’s a political style that was commonplace in decades past, when some politicians believed that the personal touch and laying of hands was a way to establish a memorable connection with voters and establish power relationships with other politicians.  The backslaps and shoulder grabs were also a way to allow the politician to remain the center of attention, even when someone else was getting an award or making a speech.  Such politicians embodied the old comment about the politician who so craved attention that he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

When you’ve been playing the political games for as long as Joe Biden has, perhaps you lose touch with prevailing views, and perhaps you lose a good sense of the line between an appropriate contact and creepy, personal-space-invading behavior.  No one, male or female, is going to object to handshakes, or a backslap or tap on the shoulder.  But grabbing the upper arms or shoulders of a woman to pull her close, smelling and kissing the hair of a woman, and leaning in so that your face is inches away clearly cross the line into more intimate contact and should be reserved for close friends and colleagues.  The fact that Joe Biden was routinely engaging in such conduct with complete strangers, from biker women in diners to political candidates at rallies to the wives of people appointed to federal jobs, shows that he simply didn’t — and perhaps still doesn’t — understand what are long-standing, and commonly accepted, social boundaries.

Joe Biden’s old-school roots may help to explain his behavior toward women, but they don’t excuse them.  Part of being an effective politician is having sensitivity to what is going on, and how society — and standards and boundaries — are changing.  Joe Biden apparently lacks that quality.  His clutching and space-invading behavior with women is creepy and a real problem, but in my view the fact that he apparently didn’t understand that until now raises deeper concerns about him.

Presidential Debates, Just Around The Corner

In case you haven’t had your fill of politics already, with an important election only a few weeks away and political stories of one kind or another dominating every newscast, here’s some encouraging news — the first Democratic presidential candidate debates for the 2020 election are just around the corner.

t1larg-debate-stage-empty-t1largPolitico is reporting that the first debates will probably occur in the spring of 2019, months before the first primaries and caucuses, and a full year and a half before the 2020 election.  And even though that seems ridiculously early to non-political types like me, it’s apparently causing all of the would-be candidates to ramp up their activities now.  It’s expected that there will be a lot of people who will be vying for the chance to square off against President Trump in 2020 — more people, in fact, that can reasonably fit on one debate stage.  And if sheet numbers mean there will be two debate stages and two sets of debaters, all of the candidates want to be sure that they appear on the stage that includes all of the perceived “real contenders,” and are not relegated to the “everybody else” stage.  So everybody who is contemplating throwing their hat in the ring is out there raising money, hiring staff, visiting Iowa and New Hampshire, and trying to make news and start showing up in the polls.

Who are the “real contenders” for the Democrats?  According to the Politico article, only one person — a Congressman named John Delaney, who I’ve never even heard of — has formally declared his candidacy at this point.  Among the people who reportedly are considering a bid are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.  Some people think Hillary Clinton might run, or Michael Bloomberg, and no doubt there are mayors, governors, other senators and representatives, and corporate figures who may launch campaigns.  If only a few of these folks actually run, you’ve already got a pretty crowded stage.

It’s hard to believe that we’re at the point of gearing up for another presidential election already, but politics being what it is, I am sure that there are a lot of Democrats out there thinking very seriously about running for President.  Why not?  After all, if Donald Trump can win the Republican nomination and actually get elected, just about anything is possible.  So why not take a shot — and do whatever you can to make sure that you get onto the coveted “contenders” stage?

No Go Joe

Vice President Joe Biden announced yesterday that he won’t be running for President. His declaration of non-candidacy ended months of speculation, as well as the hope in some quarters that he might enter the race for the Democratic nomination as an alternative to Hillary Clinton.  Although Biden and his family apparently had decided they could commit to a campaign, after months of mourning the recent death of his son, he concluded that they simply did not have enough time to launch a successful bid.

I’m not quite sure why so many were urging Biden to run in the first place.  After all, he’s sought the Democratic nomination on multiple occasions in the past, without making much of a mark.  I suspect that the “second-string quarterback syndrome” was at play.  Any football fan knows that when the first-string QB is struggling, the back-up’s popularity skyrockets — because he’s not out on the field getting sacked and throwing picks.  With Hillary Clinton’s ever-shifting  approach to questions about her private email server, and Bernie Sanders widely seen as unelectable, Biden seemed like a viable alternative.

It’s interesting that so many people who were urging Biden to run, and so many pundits who wrote favorably of that possibility, focused on Biden’s enjoyment of campaigning, as opposed to his capabilities, judgment, decision-making, and other qualities that would come into play if he actually were elected.  The pro-Joe stories always seemed to strike the tone that Joe came across as a good guy who loved to press the flesh and eat corn dogs with the little guys out on the hustings.  Gaffe-prone, to be sure, but an ever-smiling, two-fisted Happy Warrior who could be friends with those across the aisle and whose politics were agreeable to the liberal/progressive base of the Democratic Party.

Of course, those articles drew a favorable contrast between Old Joe and Hillary Clinton, who is widely depicted as wooden, contrived, and joyless in her campaign appearances and willing to endure them only because they are a necessary path to her ultimate goal.  And Biden’s speech yesterday struck some of those same tones.  Without mentioning Clinton by name, he criticized those who characterized Republicans as “enemies” — as Clinton did in the recent Democratic candidate debate — rather than as “opponents.”

So now “Middle-Class Joe” is out, and Hillary remains in.  Today she’ll testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi about her role in the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. installation in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the death of the U.S. Ambassador and other Americans, and her public assertions in the aftermath of the attack.  With Biden out of the race, her performance today will get more attention than ever.

Joe Or No Joe

With the calendar turning to August, it’s officially the silly season in American politics.  On the Republican side, a loudmouthed, self-promoting, angry anti-politician is leading in the polls, and 10 of 17 declared presidential candidates will crowd onto the stage to have a “debate” on Thursday.  And on the Democratic side, politicos and pundits are talking seriously about drafting Joe Biden to throw his hat in the ring.

Wait a second . . . Joe Biden?  72-year-old, two-time also-ran, vice president Joe Biden?

Evidently so.  There’s apparently concern in some Democratic quarters about Hillary Clinton being damaged goods.  Her trustworthiness numbers aren’t good — whether it is because of her State Department email server fiasco, or because everything she does and says seems so carefully scripted and calibrated, or for some other reason — and she hasn’t exactly been lighting it up on the campaign trail.  In fact, there seems to be a lot more excitement about Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist who has been drawing big crowds in the early decision states.  So while Hillary has raised tons of money and signed up legions of heavyweight staffers and fundraisers, people are beginning to wonder whether her nomination is as inevitable and certain as, say, Ed Muskie in 1972.

But if you think Hillary Clinton may not be the best candidate to carry the Democratic banner, where do you turn?  America isn’t likely to elect a 70-something socialist, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley doesn’t exactly have people buzzing.  Most of the leading Democratic politicians on the national scene don’t seem especially keen to take on the Clinton political machine.  That leaves good old Joe.  He’s been on the national Democratic scene forever, he’s a known commodity, and although he’s been a gaffe machine in his prior races he’s one of those pols who seems to love being on the campaign trail — whereas Hillary Clinton seems to consider it to be a painful hassle.

I have no idea whether Joe Biden will end up running — he’s just lost his son to cancer, but once the presidential bug bites it’s hard to shake the obsessive lure of the Oval Office.  What’s more interesting to me is that the national Democratic bench seems so shallow — and, with the exception of O’Malley, so long in the tooth.  Why aren’t the party bigwigs talking about Democratic governors (other than California’s Jerry Brown, who is 77), or Senators like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown?  Why aren’t more up-and-coming Ds willing to risk a long-shot run, like Bill Clinton did in 1992?

Political Poor-Mouthing

In the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two of the principal presumed contenders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, pointedly talking about their purportedly humble economic circumstances.

Clinton, who with her husband Bill is worth tens of millions of dollars, first said that she and the former President were “dead broke” when they left the White House.  She was immediately ridiculed for that comment, and since then has tried to explain that, even though they are millionaires many times over and make tens of thousands of dollars each time they give a speech, they struggled earlier in life and pay “ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.”

Biden, on the other hand, said people shouldn’t hold it against him that he isn’t rich.  He says he doesn’t own a single stock or bond, and has no savings account.  Of course, fact checkers quickly determined that his disclosure forms show that, in 2013 at least, he had one savings account and two checking accounts, and his wife holds certificates of deposit and investments in several different mutual funds.  Biden concedes that he has a “great pension” — achieved from being a Senator for decades — and makes a “good salary.”  (As VP, Biden earns $227,500 per year and gets lots of freebies.)

Clinton and Biden obviously think they need to make such statements to enhance their electability — which is why we are treated to the spectacle of two people who make far more than the vast majority of Americans, and who live lifestyles that exceed what most people dream of, consciously downplaying their success.  The history of poor-mouthing it by American politicians is a rich one.  During the 1800s, candidates touted their often exaggerated log-cabin roots, and in the early 20th century Horatio Alger tales were popular.  More recently, the elections of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and George W. Bush seemed to take the wealth issue off the table.  Apparently not!

These days, the poor-mouth strategy seems more likely to set a politician up for a fall rather than winning votes; both Clinton and Biden have been chided for their implausible recent remarks.  But let’s set aside issues of truthfulness, candor, and awareness of how normal people live — why would you want to vote for someone who hasn’t been successful and responsible about their finances?  And if Joe Biden in fact doesn’t have a savings account or own any stocks or bonds after decades of receiving the hefty salaries of U.S. Senator and Vice President, what the heck has he been doing with all that money for all those years?  Most of us working stiffs have been scrimping and savings for decades in a responsible attempt to have a decent retirement.  I guess old Joe doesn’t need to worry about that with his “great pension,” eh?