By Jacob Ellis
With a little over 18 months to go until the 2020 general election, there is a flurry of activity within the Democratic Party. As the field of Democratic presidential contenders fills out briskly, there appears to be a curious and unexpected political trend developing on the left. One where personality and charisma may occasionally trump legislative success.
A name currently dominating the headlines is an upstart ex-congressman, Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke. The lawmaker from El Paso most recently served as a House Representative for the 16th Congressional district in Texas. Rather than vie for an additional term, O’Rourke decided to challenge Republican junior Senator Ted Cruz in the 2018 midterm Congressional elections.
And Beto just came up scarcely shy. Yet it is important for us to note Texas has historically been a predominantly right-wing leaning state as well.
But instead of giving the legislative branch another stab or even retreating back into the private sector, he had more ambitious plans. Following his narrow loss, O’Rourke aimed much higher, and declared his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination in mid-March.
Another instance of a presidential hopeful with no previous time in public office would be New Age author/lecturer Marianne Williamson. She previously had mounted an unsuccessful campaign as an Independent for California’s 33rd congressional seat in 2014. Now surfacing again almost 6 years later, she returns anew as a Democrat, announcing her sleeper bid for the nation’s highest office in January of this year.
Further, we can take a look at Georgia-based attorney Stacey Abrams. A one-time progressive Democratic candidate for Governor who fell short of a win vs. the Republican Brian Kemp. The polarized peach state closely divided between those rival factions. Her nomination followed a six-year tenure as Minority Leader of the Georgia State House of Representatives which spanned from 2011 to 2017. Interestingly enough, Abrams is presently in the process of weighing her next career options—perhaps running for either Senate or maybe President.
Additionally, there is an entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Yang. Hailing from Schenectady in upstate New York, Mr. Yang filed to run considerably early, dating back to November of 2017. He is extremely vocal in supporting a universal basic income to all qualified American citizens. Another trait the dark horse Democrat shares with fellow prospect Williamson is that Yang has no past formal experience in American politics.
All of this raises a couple key questions. How much does a prospective presidential candidate’s past political successes (or failures) truly matter at this level today? More pointedly, do the state or national political figures who failed to win a less powerful position take any real political hit once they make the determination to run for the higher office?
The initial thought seems not by a very significant amount. As evidenced by the overly enthusiastic crowds appearing in support of O’Rourke. Along with some quite impressive day-one fundraising totals. In addition, we note the strong support Ms. Abrams has continued to receive since her defeat. Is this actually due to each one’s individual appeal or better a sign of the times?
Ultimately what issues are deemed to be of greatest importance with today’s Democratic voters in a surely contentious primary season? Simply notching a place on the debate stage to earn valued airtime in the main primaries will be difficult for some candidates. Then how might any respective long shot presidential hopeful find a way to separate themselves from such a loaded pack? While numerous issues command the conversation and stir conflicting emotions from discordant groups in our society, who can rise above the din, particularly in a nation splintered by racial, economic, social and generational divides?
Across the aisle we observe two modern examples of high-profile outsiders that spring to mind. Both managed to clear the field of competition, including our 34th president Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. The leader known as Ike served as a top military figure in the years preceding his presidency. Despite never holding a duly elected office, Ike won the White House in 1952 and guided our nation for two terms until 1961.
The latest case is current Commander-in-Chief Donald J. Trump. The celebrity business tycoon improbably earned the Republican nomination and rode a right-wing populist wave late in 2016 to become leader of the free world. Trump likewise had never held office before an astounding victory.
The New York native was viewed cynically as a Washington outsider that somehow managed to connect with a legion of disaffected Americans. His campaign in direct opposition to big government also seemed to gain favor among voters tired of the status quo. Trump’s win may be seen as part of a recurring theme in U.S. politics—the desire to rail against an unruly establishment.
Aside from those rare instances we noted, many others have attempted to run and came up well short. If anything, it could be fair to say that a legislator’s previous success in politics doesn’t necessarily indicate future achievement. This notion would seem counterintuitive to widely accepted conventional wisdom outside the world of politics.
To draw an analogy, if a student athlete missed the cut for a junior varsity team how realistic would it possibly be for them to make varsity? Or the fledgling actor that didn’t get a small part in local theater who figures well I should go and try Broadway.
One criticism we often hear with said candidates would be a lack of major legislative experience. In turn it might be framed in a positive light— they are likely to bring a new perspective together with conceivably less ammunition for the opposition. That is especially relevant now since the growing perception lately, the old Washington guard isn’t exactly rousing the Democratic party’s coveted base anymore.
The famed novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote “There are no second acts in American lives.” Evidently he was not referring to U.S. presidential politics. Like a compelling novel or finely-written script, the 2020 presidential race could potentially make for good theater. If nothing else it should be fascinating.