The Ultimate Aphrodisiac

American liberals have caught a lot of flak this season—some of it deserved—for the rigid purity tests they’ve imposed on the men and women auditioning to be the next president of the United States.

As irritating as this moral posturing tends to be, please indulge me one small litmus test of my own:  In November 2020, I will not vote for any candidate who has been credibly accused of rape.

Admittedly, this doesn’t seem like a terribly lot to ask of the would-be most powerful person on Earth—the man or woman who is supposed to be a role model for America’s children and grownups alike.

However, recent history would suggest otherwise.

If polls are to be believed, there is a certain chunk of the American electorate—somewhere north of 40 percent, at minimum—that does not consider accusations of sexual assault to be a deal-breaker for a future (or sitting) commander-in-chief.  This was first demonstrated two decades ago by the continued sky-high approval ratings for Bill Clinton following the rape allegation leveled by Juanita Broaddrick in 1999, and later confirmed by the election of the current chief executive, Donald Trump, whose penchant for grabbing women’s nether regions uninvited was exposed by the candidate himself (via “Access Hollywood”) in October 2016 and by more than a dozen women at regular intervals ever since.

It’s worth noting—in case it wasn’t obvious—that this implicit condoning of felonious, predatory sexual behavior by America’s head of state is not a one-party problem.  Liberals and conservatives have both been complicit, and both are guilty of gross hypocrisy on the matter.  For most Americans, it would seem, the morality of sexual violence by politicians is largely a function of time:  When the opposing party is in power, rape is bad.  When one’s own party is in power, rape is negotiable.

At the moment, of course, it’s Republicans who have disgraced themselves on the question of whether sexual assault is a good idea, thanks—most recently—to the disturbing revelations by E. Jean Carroll in New York Magazine.

In case you missed it, Carroll has claimed that Trump forced himself on her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s, which she tried—unsuccessfully—to resist.  While Carroll herself insists the encounter did not amount to rape and does not want to be viewed as a helpless victim, it is extremely difficult to read the details of her account and reach any other conclusion.

This bombshell initially landed on June 21 and, following a weekend of radio silence, was picked up by a handful of news organizations, which gave it enough oxygen to force the president to deny the incident ever occurred, adding—as only he can—“[Carroll] is not my type.”

In the weeks since, the whole nasty business has all but evaporated from the public consciousness, replaced by newer, flashier headlines on other subjects.  As with so much else, the prospect that the president once committed a violent sexual assault ended up being a three-day story, at most.  Ultimately, the public shrugged and moved on to other things.

It begs the question:  Why?

Are our attention spans so short that serious allegations of rape simply don’t register like they used to?  Are we so fatigued and fatalistic about this president’s long history of indiscretions that we have given up differentiating one from another?  Nearly two years into #MeToo, do we not believe E. Jean Carroll is telling the truth, or that her memory is faulty?

Or is it possible that we actually like the idea of a president who is effectively above the law?  Who can do whatever he wants and get off scot-free?  Who is exempt from all the usual rules of ethics and common decency?  Who can rape somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes?

We don’t admit this out loud, of course.  We use euphemisms like “He’s politically incorrect,” or “He tells it like it is,” or my personal favorite, “He’s not a politician.”

Whichever option is closest to the truth, the underlying rationalization is that any level of unscrupulousness and corruption by the Dear Leader is tolerable so long as he ultimately gives his constituents what they want. 

Trump, for his part, has long been described as a purely transactional figure—someone for whom the ends always justify the means and the notion of right and wrong is a foreign concept.  Less remarked upon—but no less important—is that the general public is transactional as well, and is prepared to forgive any number of shortcomings in service of a greater good.

Hence Trump’s consistently stratospheric approval ratings among Republicans.  After all, if you voted for him on the grounds that he would cut your taxes, appoint conservative judges and make refugees’ lives a living hell, why wouldn’t you be happy with the way this presidency has panned out thus far?

The left can crow all it wants about what a sordid ethical compromise Trump’s base has made, but Democrats’ moral superiority is only as good as the next president of their own party.  Liberals were perfectly happy to excuse every one of Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos while he was in power and carrying out their agenda (such as it was).  While they have had a radical change of heart in recent years, I cannot help but wonder if they would feel differently if The Man From Hope were still in the Oval Office today.

Henry Kissinger famously said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and it turns out that applies not only to those exercising power, but also to the many millions of beneficiaries of it.  It’s a pretty ugly sight when roughly half the nation consciously accepts a credibly accused rapist as the instrument of their political ends, but then one reason we have elections is to correct course, as America stands to do on November 3, 2020.  While there’s more to the presidency than not being a sexual criminal, it’s a perfectly decent place to start.

Perhaps electing a woman would do the trick.

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Making the Case

“You think a lot about people you encounter, and there are a number of them in our community who voted for Barack Obama and Donald Trump and Mike Pence and me.  And one thing you realize […] is that it means that voters are maybe not as neatly ideological as a lot of the commentary assumes.”

So said Pete Buttigieg—the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and one of the two-dozen Democrats running for president in 2020—making arguably the most succinct possible case for electing a so-called “moderate” as the party’s standard-bearer against Donald Trump in the election next November.

Needless to say (but why not?), the question of what kind of Democrat ought to represent America’s loyal opposition in 2019 and beyond is the singular point of contention that primary voters will—and should—be debating over the next year and change.  Broadly-speaking, the eventual nominee could come from three possible spots on the ideological spectrum—the center, the left, or the far left—and a great deal depends on whether the Democrats’ perception of the country’s overall political bent matches the reality thereof.

Before we go any further, allow me to disclose loudly and clearly that, barring highly-unforeseen circumstances, I will be voting for the Democratic nominee on November 3, 2020, whoever he or she happens to be.  With Trump as the incumbent, I would happily and unreservedly support any of the possible alternatives without a shadow of a second thought.  Elections are about choices, and lesser-of-two-evils is the name of the game.

One presumes, of course, that a certain percentage of the electorate—somewhere between 40 and 45 percent, say—is on precisely the same wavelength as I am, and can be counted upon to reflexively line up behind the Democratic nominee, come hell or high water—a near-perfect reflection, ironically enough, of the #MAGA rubes who will stick with the president even if/when he murders somebody on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight.

In truth, when you add up every voter who, for all intents and purposes, has already made up his or her mind—i.e., will definitely vote for Trump or will definitely vote for his main challenger—you would be lucky to have more than 10 percent of the electorate leftover.

And yet, as ever, that 10 percent (or whatever) is precisely where the whole damn thing will be decided.  Indeed, while it’s true that every presidential election in our lifetimes has come down to the comparatively miniscule slice of the public known as “swing voters,” the singularly polarizing nature of the Trump era has shrunk America’s protean middle to little more than a sliver, thereby increasing the power and influence of every member therein, for better and for worse.

All of which is to affirm Pete Buttigieg’s implicit argument about how to win the 2020 election:  By making yourself appealing to the widest cross-section of the public as possible.  That begins with assuming that every genuinely undecided voter is persuadable, and acting accordingly.

Practically, this would certainly include venturing into enemy territory—Fox News—to make the case for why you’d be a leader for all Americans, not just those who watch MSNBC.  (Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have smartly done this already, while Elizabeth Warren has foolishly, and loudly, refused.)  As well, it would require not smearing half the electorate as a bunch of freeloaders (á la Mitt Romney) or a “basket of deplorables” (á la Hillary Clinton).

In truth, it would entail little more than taking the American people seriously and treating them, more or less, like adults.

When Buttigieg reminds us about a certain, non-trivial chunk of our fellow citizens who voted for Obama in 2012 only to switch to Trump in 2016—and who, presumably, could swing back in the future—we are forced to reckon with the possibility that these folks’ political loyalties are a function of something other than racial resentment or any sort of coherent philosophy about the role of government in a free society.

Maybe, unlike us, they don’t spend 12 hours a day watching the news break on basic cable and Twitter, absorbing every last detail about life inside the beltway.  Maybe they lead busy, apolitical lives and haven’t given much thought lately to Robert Mueller or Roe v. Wade.

Maybe their tastes in presidents are more instinctual and elemental than weighing one set of policy proposals against another.  Maybe they voted for Obama because he promised them better healthcare, and for Trump because he promised them…better healthcare.

At the risk of reductionism and oversimplicity, maybe the secret to winning an election is vowing to give people what they want and not calling them idiots more often than is strictly necessary.

Would this necessitate misrepresenting, watering down or otherwise compromising your core moral and political values?  Only if you believe those values aren’t worth defending to a possibly skeptical audience.  And if that’s the case, why in holy hell should anyone vote for you in the first place?

Biden His Time

Here’s a political question for us all:  Was the death of Beau Biden in May 2015 the most consequential event of the 2016 election?

Prior to being diagnosed with the brain cancer that would ultimately kill him, Beau Biden was a rising talent in the Democratic Party, serving as Delaware’s attorney general and generally assumed to be destined for higher office of one sort or another.

He was also the son of Joe Biden, then the sitting vice president and presumptive leading contender for the Oval Office in 2016.  By all accounts, the elder Biden was fully intent on a third run for president—following failed attempts in 1988 and 2008—and it was entirely due to the timing of his son’s illness and death that he decided to take a pass and effectively cede the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton.  And we know how well that went.

It’s the great political “What if?” of our time:  Would the 2016 election have ended differently had Joe Biden been in the mix?

With regards to the Democratic primaries, God only knows.  Maybe Hillary would’ve cleaned Biden’s clock—as both she and Barack Obama did in 2008.  Maybe he would’ve self-imploded through some embarrassing self-own, as he did in 1988 when it was found that he had plagiarized several of his campaign speeches.  Maybe he and Hillary would’ve fought to a protracted, bitter stalemate, allowing a third, outsider candidate (*cough* Bernie *cough*) to sneak past both of them.

But if Biden had somehow bested all his Democratic counterparts and emerged as the party’s nominee, could he have defeated Trump on November 8?

Answer:  Obviously yes.

Of course Biden could’ve defeated Trump in 2016.  Of course he could’ve flipped 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—i.e., the three states that wound up swinging the whole damn election.  Of course he could’ve appealed to a not-insignificant chunk of white, semi-deplorable working-class folk who otherwise find Democrats acutely irritating and Hillary positively intolerable.

Yes, in an alternate universe, Joe Biden could’ve been sworn in as the 45th president on January 20, 2017.

I say “could’ve,” not “would’ve,” since any counterfactual involves an infinite number of variables we can’t even begin to imagine.  What’s more, given the historically low occurrence of one political party winning three presidential elections in a row, it’s hardly inconceivable that Trump could’ve defeated any number of Democratic opponents in that strange moment of populist rage—not least the one most closely associated with the outgoing administration.

That said, hindsight strongly suggests Biden would’ve navigated the 2016 campaign more adroitly than Clinton did—if only from a lack of questionable e-mails or a sexual predator spouse—and may well have made the biggest mistake of his life in choosing not to take the plunge when he had the chance.

The relevant follow-up, then, is whether Biden’s apparently imminent entry into the 2020 primaries—for real this time!—will follow through on the untested promise of 2016 and serve as the de facto Obama restoration half the country has craved for the last two-plus years.  Or, instead, whether Biden’s moment really has come and gone, and the best he could do would be to sail off into retirement as a beloved (albeit slightly pervy) elder statesman.

In other words:  Having become as respected and endearing as almost any public figure in America today, why would Biden risk becoming a loser and a laughingstock yet again for the sake of one last roll in the hay?

The short answer is that Biden just really, really wants to be president.  Always has, apparently always will.  How badly, you ask?  Well, badly enough to address multiple recent allegations of unwanted physical contact by insisting that he regrets none of it and isn’t sorry about a damn thing.

And what about it?  On the subject of #MeToo-era sensitivity about men behaving predatorily, let’s not kid ourselves:  In a society where “Grab ‘em by the pussy” yielded support of 53 percent of white women, who’s to say “I enjoy smelling women’s hair but I’m also pro-choice” isn’t a winning route to 270 electoral votes?

The only certainty about the 2020 election is that no one has any idea how it will shake out—particularly those who claim they do.  Biden could defeat Trump in the sense that anyone could defeat Trump, although the converse is equally true.  Is he the most “electable” of all the Democrats in the field?  With 301 days until the first primary votes are cast, how much are you willing to wager that the word “electable” holds any meaning whatsoever?

I’ll leave you with this possibly-interesting piece of trivia:  The last non-incumbent former vice president to be elected commander-in-chief in his own right was Richard Nixon in 1968.  Care to guess how many times it happened before that?

Answer:  Zero.

The Bernie Conundrum

The Massachusetts Democratic primary is scheduled for March 3, 2020—exactly one year from Sunday—and, oddly enough, I haven’t yet decided for whom I will vote.  With a dozen-odd officially-declared candidates to choose from—and God knows how many more waiting in the wings—I see no particular rush in picking one potential future president over another.  Apart from anything else, I try always to bear in mind Christopher Hitchens’s observation that politicians tend to work a little harder for your vote if you haven’t given it away in advance.

That said, I can’t help noting that the Democratic candidate for whom I voted in the 2016 primary is also a candidate this year.

The hopeful in question is of course one Bernie Sanders, the cranky junior senator from Vermont who was into Democratic socialism before it was cool and whose supposedly loony-toon advocacy for universal healthcare has since become a core tenet of Democratic Party orthodoxy in one form or another.

In 2016, I supported Sanders over Hillary Clinton on the strength of his integrity and liberal bona fides—as Joe Scarborough quipped at the time, “He’s been saying the same thing since 1962”—and I would be prepared to support him over any number of other contenders in 2020 for the exact same reasons.

And yet…

You see, my feelings about Bernie Sanders have grown rather complicated as of late—not by Sanders himself, per se, as by his most ravenous defenders and by what he represents in the American body politic.

Since 2016, my (somewhat cheeky) bumper sticker shorthand for Sanders has been, “Trump, Minus the Racism.”  For all the obvious differences between the two men—to quote Matt Taibbi, “Sanders worries about the poor, while Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat”—there were (and still are) certain ways in which Sanders’s and Trump’s views of the world overlap.  Then and now, both reject the so-called wisdom of the Washington, D.C., establishment of both parties.  Both understand the corrosive, something-is-rotten-in-the-state-of-Denmark role of big money in our political system.  Both are scornful of America’s overly-expansive presence on the world stage.  Both are happy-warrior populists who say exactly what’s on their mind without any filter between their brain and their mouth.

And both inspire a measure of loyalty from a core group of supporters that can only be described as cult-like.  On one side is the Basket of Deplorables.  On the other are the Bernie Bros.

For both groups, the American Dream has effectively become unreachable for all but the most privileged among us—thanks largely to several decades of “rigged” policies by the nation’s elites—and nothing less than a wholesale blowing up of the entire system is sufficient to restore America to its former glory.

The problem with framing our country’s class and cultural divide in quasi-apocalyptic terms—appealing as it sounds at first blush—is that it naturally leads one in search of a savior—someone who presumes to walk on water and spin straw into gold.  And once such a messianic figure is found, it becomes increasingly second nature to view him as infallible—and, more alarming still, irreplaceable.

With Trump and Sanders both, that is precisely what has occurred.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump made a wretched spectacle of himself by describing the United States as a raging dumpster fire and proclaiming, “I alone can fix it.”  While Sanders himself has not quite sunk to such depths of solipsism and delusions of grandeur, his fans have gladly taken up the cause on his behalf, crying all over social media, “Bernie is our only hope!”—implying, with more than a hint of a threat, that if Democratic primary voters opt for one of Sanders’s gazillion intra-party competitors instead of him in 2020, they will shop around for an alternative, Jill Stein-like figure to support in the general election.  As far as they’re concerned, if Bernie can’t have this country, we might as well let it burn.

Needless to say, not all Sanders supporters are obstinate ideological absolutists.  After all, I’m a Sanders supporter and I’m not absolutist about much of anything beyond the correct way to eat a slice of pizza (handheld, folded in half, obviously).

What worries me, however, is that the amplifying—and, dare I say, toxic—effects of the interwebs will cause Sanders to be singularly associated with a gang of humorless, rabid, mansplaining lemmings, thereby turning off millions of otherwise “gettable” voters on both sides of the national divide, greatly narrowing his path to victory and, should victory come, making his operation look less like an organic grassroots political movement and more like the Church of Scientology—a place where unquestioned fealty to doctrine is required at all times and the perfect is forever and always made the enemy of the good.

I guess what I most desire for the 2020 election and our next president are skepticism, nuance and a wee touch of humility every now and again.  We’ve now lived more than two years under a commander-in-chief who seems to truly believe he has never been wrong about anything—or, at the very least, will never admit as much publicly—and who views dissent of any sort as a threat and a nuisance rather than an opportunity for personal and political growth.

Are we sure Bernie Sanders—the man whose views haven’t changed in half a century—is the ideal corrective to this state of affairs?  Is it really enough to replace one stubborn old mule with another simply because the second is smarter, kinder and more dignified than the first?

I don’t have the answer to that question today.  Ask me again in a year.

Think Big

There’s a Greek adage—since become an American cliché—concerning the difference between a fox and a hedgehog:  “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.”

If the Democratic Party wants to reclaim the White House in 2020, it would do well to nominate a hedgehog.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton ran for president as a fox—someone who had walked the halls of power for decades and seemingly knew everything about everything.  As a consequence—because she attempted to address every issue all at once, to be all things to all people—she came across as a woman who believed in nothing in particular other than becoming president.

By contrast, her opponent—one Donald J. Trump—ran as the know-nothing charlatan that he is—a man of appalling incuriosity and ignorance about the world around him—yet nonetheless captured a majority of the Electoral College on the strength of a single, clear and consistent message:  “I will make brown people go away.”  (In time, this would be shortened to “Make America Great Again.”)

If you want to know the story of the 2016 campaign, it’s that the candidate who knew many things was defeated by the candidate who knew (or at least said) one big thing.  My advice to the Democrats’ eventual nominee next year:  Find one big thing on which to campaign, and stick with it.

For all his bumbling and rambling in his official duties as chief executive, Donald Trump understands the power in establishing a singular, unified worldview and funneling all of his major declarations and acts toward the implementation thereof. 

Trump may careen incoherently from one policy bungle to another—ever on the defensive against a media-industrial complex that he views as an existential threat to his presidency—but his One Big Idea has remained the same:  That is, the notion that America has been taken advantage of for decades by its counterparts in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East—economically and militarily—and it’s high time the United States stand up for itself by withdrawing most of its troops, tearing up most of its treaties and, of course, building a Big Beautiful Wall on the border with its neighbors to the south.

We can argue about the wisdom of the 21st century’s leading superpower effectively withdrawing from the world stage to tend to its own private concerns—and, indeed, about whether such a thing is even possible—but we can’t deny the elemental appeal of a commander-in-chief who knows exactly what he wants for his country—particularly regarding its foreign policy—and is unrelenting in his desire to effectuate it, up to and including when public support turns against him.

Obviously, Trump’s bluster on this front has far outpaced his capacity for generating results—as would be expected of a loud-mouthed businessman who once managed to bankrupt a casino.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Trump’s singlemindedness about isolating the United States from the global community scratched a primal itch in millions of voters who wanted to send an angry message to Washington, D.C., and who regard Trump as a faithful vessel for their (self-)righteous ire.  His stick-to-itiveness vis-à-vis “America first!” carried him over the finish line on November 8, 2016, and is the one thing guaranteeing that 30-odd percent of the electorate will never, ever leave his side.  In the broadest possible sense, they always know where he stands and, rightly or wrongly, they believe he stands with them.

In 2020—as in 2018—it will be the left’s turn to vent its outrage at the incumbent administration and chart its own course forward, and the worst the Democrats could possibly do is to nominate a candidate who is timid and circumspect about saying what he or she truly believes—or worse, who says too much about too many different things, resulting in a muddled message that does nothing to inspire those who yearn to be inspired—as perhaps they haven’t been since the “Yes We Can” days of 2008.

Among the more amusing side stories from 2016 was that, in preparing for the general election, Hillary Clinton and her aides entertained at least 84 possible slogans before ultimately settling on “Stronger Together”—a fact that illustrates both how seriously the campaign took the concept of self-branding and how woefully unfocused the whole operation was, thematically-speaking.  For all her experience and expertise as a public official, Hillary could never quite explain why she, of all people, should be president of the United States—particularly not in an easy-to-remember phrase that could fit easily on a bumper sticker or a red hat.

It all comes down to the elemental question, “Why do you want to be president?”  Ted Kennedy famously couldn’t summon a coherent answer in 1980, effectively strangling his own insurgent candidacy in its crib.  In truth, very few candidates in the intervening decades have done much better, typically using the query as an opportunity for a vague laundry list of issues rather than a sweeping declaration of principle.

It shouldn’t be too much to ask that a person who presumes to become the most powerful human being on Earth at least pretend to believe in something beyond personal wish-fulfillment.  As no less than Richard Nixon observed, those who run for high office can be divided into two groups:  Those who want to do big things, and those who want to be big people.  Of course, the former can (and generally does) lead to the latter.  Wouldn’t it be nice if America’s next president understood that it doesn’t work the other way around?

Let’s Never Do That Again

The U.S. government shut down on December 22 because Ann Coulter called Donald Trump a pussy.  It remained closed for 35 days—depriving 800,000 federal workers of their paychecks—because various right-wing pundits mused that capitulating to Nancy Pelosi would constitute the end of Trump’s presidency as we know it.  And when America’s long national nightmare finally ended on Friday evening—without any particular resolution—the president assured the nation that unless he can claim victory by February 15, he’ll be happy to close the government all over again.

Specifically, Trump opted to bring one-quarter of the federal labor force to a screeching halt because of The Wall—namely, the one along the U.S.-Mexico border whose future construction constituted more or less the entirety of Trump’s presidential campaign, has continued to be the great white whale propelling his administration’s domestic policy and is seemingly the final buoy keeping what’s left of his job approval rating afloat.

As such, “victory” in this context can mean nothing less than the actual building of an actual wall with actual funds appropriated by actual congresspeople.  For Trump to renege on his biggest, baddest campaign promise would pose something near an existential threat to his presidency and, with it, his immunity to prosecution by one Robert Mueller.

Indeed, if the Longest Government Shutdown in History taught us anything, it’s that Donald Trump’s selfishness knows no bounds.  That he will gladly throw the entire country under the bus to assert his own manliness and save his own skin.  That he values nothing so much as his own survival—and possibly nothing else at all.  That he regards his loyal fanbase as a mere prop with which to puff up his own vanity—and, when necessary, as a battering ram against all perceived enemies, foreign and domestic.

Think it can’t get worse?  It can always get worse, and if America’s current chief executive excels at anything, it’s finding the bottom of the barrel and drilling a trap door underneath it.

If you’re looking for statesmanship in the Oval Office, all you can do is look to 2020.

Were you to ask me, here in January 2019, what kind of person I would like to see as Trump’s eventual successor—temperamentally, characterologically—I would simply point to the 35-day fiasco the nation just endured and say, “Someone who would not allow a mess like that to ever occur.”

While I admire elected officials who feel passionately about major issues and express their views strongly and clearly, I would never support a presidential candidate who is so single-minded about a particular policy that he would callously deny a month’s pay to 800,000 American workers in order to get what he wants, exactly the way he wants it.

Nor would I support a prospective commander-in-chief whose official acts are so easily and obviously swayed by a gang of radio and TV personalities whom a supermajority of the public finds repulsive.  Whose self-esteem is so fragile, his innate sense of right and wrong so tenuous, that he will gingerly flush billions of dollars in productivity down the toilet in order to prove that, as a leader, he isn’t entirely impotent.  Whose solipsism is so all-consuming that when he is informed—as Trump was in early 2017—that his tax policy will likely wreck the American economy within a decade, his only response is to say, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.”

What I would like in our 46th president—whoever she may be—is someone sufficiently grown-up to resolve a complex issue like immigration without holding nearly a million federal employees and their families for ransom.  Someone who will negotiate in good faith and not view every disagreement as a zero-sum game.  Someone who will assume responsibility for her failures and share credit for her successes.  Someone who will lead by example and not perpetually be on the lookout for someone else to blame.

Someone who is interested in expanding her base of support, rather than merely solidifying the 30-odd percent of the population who will blindly follow her off a cliff.  Someone confident enough to trust her own instincts, but also humble enough to confide in those wiser and more experienced than she.  Someone who values country over party and understands that we live in a nation of laws and not men.

Will the Democratic Party nominate such a person at its convention in July 2020?  And will America elect her on Tuesday, November 3?

Can we afford not to?

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I Like Liz

Elizabeth Warren spent last weekend campaigning for president in Iowa, and because there is nothing else going on in the world, a large gaggle of reporters and pundits tailed her every move.  What’s more, because Warren has apparently never expressed her views on any political issues—like, say, income inequality, Wall Street corruption or the character of Donald Trump—the media felt it had no choice but to engage in a round-the-clock debate about whether Senator Warren is “likable” enough to be elected commander-in-chief.

Predictably, Warren’s supporters—and women in general—made the utterly valid observation that only female presidential candidates seem to be asked this sort of question right out of the gate—and with some regularity thereafter—while male candidates tend to be asked very seldom, if at all.  What’s more, since the 2020 Democratic primary process will likely be the first with multiple female contenders, perhaps this would be a good time to retire this inherently sexist act of punditry once and for all.

In the interest of political correctness and basic gender equity, this plea makes sense as far as it goes.  As someone who is still slightly miffed at President Obama for informing Hillary Clinton, “You’re likable enough” in January 2008, I would be positively thrilled if America’s leading news organizations spent more time asking if a candidate is capable and qualified to be leader of what’s left of the free world, and less time treating her like a beauty queen contestant or a prospective member of a college sorority.

However, since nothing like that is going to happen before November 2020, I think the more fruitful conversation we ought to have concerns the meaning of the word “likable,” and whether it isn’t such a bad metric for choosing a leader after all.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because I found him more likable than John McCain.  For instance, I liked Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War, and the eloquence with which he argued for its end.  I liked his optimism about America in general and our political system in particular.  I liked his penchant for speaking in paragraphs instead of slogans, and for giving his opponents the moral benefit of the doubt.  I liked his dry sense of humor and Ivy League education.  I liked his seriousness of purpose and lightness of touch.  I liked Michelle.

And yes, I would’ve preferred to have had a beer with Obama instead of McCain.  Why?  Because of the two men, Obama probably would’ve had more interesting things to say—and, unlike McCain, would’ve required a little loosening up before saying them.

Of course, for decades now, the concept of likability in a politician has been reduced merely to that final metric—“Would this person be fun to drink with?”—and for just as long, virtually every wannabe commander-in-chief has done his or her damnedest to be that very person—typically, by running into the nearest bar and ordering a local pint.

While the more sober-minded among us might dismiss this dynamic as silly and counterproductive to our political process—what, pray tell, does being gossipy and gregarious have to do with running the world’s largest bureaucracy?—it’s worth asking why we have such a shallow and limited conception of likability in the first place.

In short:  Why don’t we “like” our leaders for their qualities as leaders, rather than just their qualities (or lack thereof) as regular Joes and Janes?

As a Massachusetts resident who has already voted for Elizabeth Warren twice, I find quite a bit to like about someone who effectively birthed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau a decade ago and continues to spend every waking hour defending its core ideals.  I like how Warren imbues every syllable she utters with a combustible, fiery passion, yet somehow always stays on point.  I like how she is wholly unafraid to have her entire personal history gutted in the interest of full disclosure.  I like how she defends the honor of her extended family and its complicated racial history, instead of throwing them under the bus for the sake of political expediency.

As with President Obama, I like how Warren is smart enough to be a law professor at an elite university, yet sensible enough to understand and communicate the needs of those who didn’t even graduate high school.  I like her unabashed liberalism and her implicit belief in a more perfect society than the one we are currently bungling through.

I like how she is fearlessly and head-longingly running for president even as some of her would-be allies are advising her not to.

I like how she willingly makes herself a big, fat target of Wall Street, the GOP and even certain pockets of her own party, earning their hysterical, bottomless contempt, and yet, nonetheless (God help me) she persists.

Oh, and the words “Madam President”?  I find those rather likable, too.

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