TL;DR: on the eve of the first round of Democratic 2020 presidential primary debates, I’m putting Harris, Booker, and Buttigieg in Tier 1, Klobuchar and Biden in Tier 2, Warren in Tier 3, and O’Rourke and Sanders in Tiers 4 and 5, respectively.
A few years back I wrote a blog post on the topic of “who would do a ‘good job’ as president.” Criteria included assessments of official constitutional duties as well as informal roles that the U.S. president has taken on over time. Here I’m updating this list for 2020 and taking it a step further and including some criteria that I personally believe to be important but I think that reasonable people can disagree on:
- Foreign policy expertise/experience: U.S. presidents face huge constraints in terms of enacting their domestic legislative agenda but have wide latitude to act when it comes to foreign policy. In my view, one of the highest priorities for a president at this moment in history is to prioritize strengthening the liberal international order, repairing our damaged international democratic alliances, defending democracy and human rights both at home and abroad. Or at the very least, actively embracing the radical idea that democratic allies = good, authoritarian dictators = bad.
- Cognitive complexity: being president is a really, really, really hard job. I personally think that the person doing this job should be able to skillfully and systematically analyze extremely complex issues while recognizing that the world is a complicated and nuanced place where the “right” thing to do is often subjective and elusive.
- Populism: personally speaking, I am extremely wary of populism as a political style, both on the right as well as the left. Populists gain support and popularity by identifying a sub-group of the population as the “enemy” (often an intellectual, political, or economic elite) that threatens the well-being of the “real people” who are noble and virtuous. They tend to sprinkle their rhetoric with words like “corrupt,” “rigged,” “enemy,” etc. It is possible for populists to embrace and respect liberal democratic norms and institutions, but very often they do not. I am wary of populism.
- Background/experience: all other things being equal, I think it’s an advantage for the U.S. president to have some previous experience as an elected official, preferably at the federal level, so that they have a realistic appreciation of the constraints that they will be working with. I also see it as an advantage if this person’s background and life experience provided some basis for appreciating the experiences and perspectives of people from disadvantaged or marginalized groups.
- Realistic plan of action: presidential candidates promise the moon, knowing full well that they ultimately can’t single-handedly impose their policy agenda like an autocrat. I think it’s important for presidential candidates to give a realistic explanation of how they plan to implement their policy priorities, especially through Congress. When pressed, very few presidential candidates have a feasible plan for passing their agenda if, for example, they face a Congress from the opposing party who doesn’t want them score legislative victories.
Taking that all into account, here is my first round of rankings of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, to be updated periodically throughout the primary election season. Right now I’m limiting my rankings to those who are consistently polling above 1%, other candidates have many admirable points in their favor but are having a hard time breaking out of the 0% zone.
TIER 1: HARRIS, BOOKER, BUTTIGIEG
- PRO: Of the various criteria I outlined above, she is strong on all of them except foreign policy expertise. I’m a fan of her LIFT Act proposal to tackle poverty head-on. I appreciate that she is methodical and deliberate in her decision-making style. She could be a formidable “consensus” candidate between various factions of the Democratic Party.
- CON: Little foriegn policy experience/expertise, but her time on the Senate Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees could compensate somewhat for that.
- PRO: The thing that stands out for me is Booker’s rhetorical style that emphasizes unity, inclusivity, and a politics of “radical love,” which could be a good change coming from a president (the chief political representative of our culture and values). His Baby Bonds anti-poverty proposal is a great idea. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a huge Star Trek geek.
- CON: He has little foreign policy experience/expertise, although his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee might give him a leg up.
- PRO: Impressive resume for someone who is only one year older than me. I’m particularly impressed by his academic training in foreign affairs, his military service, and his previous work experience with “big data” science and the ways of thinking about the social world that comes with it. He is one of the few candidates who is actively proposing creative ideas to reform our electoral institutions in a way that will help reduce polarization and paralysis.
- CON: Zero electoral experience at the national level and South Bend local politics are very, very different from those of the U.S. federal government.
TIER 2: KLOBUCHAR, BIDEN
- PRO: For me, the key selling point for her is that she is, above all, a pragmatist. She doesn’t make pie-in-the-sky promises about what she’ll do if elected. Instead, she focuses on incremental, but arguably more achievable, objectives that might stand a chance of passing through Congress.
- CON: Very, very little foreign policy experience.
- PRO: He has, by far, the most foreign policy expertise and experience of all the candidates running (including the current incumbent president). If elected, I hope he would prioritize repairing our relationships with democratic allies abroad and promoting human rights in authoritarian regimes, as that is where he would likely accomplish the most long-term and effective change. While Senate Republicans would still fight him tooth and nail on every policy proposal, his extensive background and personal relationships with them might result in an occasional compromise.
- CON: I am not impressed with how he is dodging interview requests, town hall events, and generally not making himself as available to the media as the other candidates. Also, he is the wrong candidate for the #MeToo era.
TIER 3: ELIZABETH WARREN
- PRO: She has the most extensive and well thought-out policy proposals of any of the current candidates. By far. Her academic background is a big plus.
- CON: Her rhetoric and stump speeches frequently invoke populist notes (as noted by no less than Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson), although not to the same degree as Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. She has also intimated that she will “fight dirty” against a Mitch McConnell Senate, returning in kind the not-technically-illegal-or-unconstitutional-but-norm-defying-and-democracy-damaging strategies that McConnell has employed the last several years.
TIER 4: BETO O’ROURKE
- PRO: He is making electoral reform a high priority in his stump speeches.
- CON: His personal interviews often give the impression that he can be an impulsive decision-maker and perhaps a bit of a lightweight when it comes to substance and style.
TIER 5: BERNIE SANDERS
- PRO: He has improved his foreign policy chops (a little) since the 2016 primary.
- CON: He is a populist through-and-through with little foreign policy experience and does a poor job of explaining the nuances between “socialism,” “democratic socialism,” “social democracy,” and “authoritarian socialism” to a public that is skeptical of the word “socialism.” When pressed, his plan for passing his agenda is “The Revolution” which I think means persuading the public to sweep like-minded democratic socialists into filibuster-proof majorities in Congress. Color me skeptical.