The issues will only get you so far. That’s because the country is more divided than it has ever been. The issues are clear and are divided up by party, noted in our recent article. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind.
So the election will be decided by the relatively few who are not ardent partisans. Forget the issues. As people said in 2000, “who would you rather have a beer with?”
In that year, “good ol’ boy” George W. Bush seemed much more “friendly” than the serious, professorial, wooden Al Gore. In 2016, Donald Trump got that bump—despite the fact that Trump doesn’t drink!
The Hill notes that being “likable” is questionable since we don’t personally know the people running.
Pundits would have labeled Lincoln brooding and wondered if Roosevelt’s high-pitched voice turned off voters. Lincoln certainly wouldn’t have won the beer ballot.
In fact, it’s not even actual likability we’re judging: It’s the appearance of likability as mediated by the television screen.
President Reagan came off as an avuncular and reassuring presence in our living rooms, but according to a recent biography by the historian H.W. Brands, “he was not a warm person, but he seemed to be, which in politics is more important.”
But we do make these judgments. First, let’s look at Donald Trump. He’s aggressive, assertive, and the third “A,” abusive. He almost never compared policy in the 2016 debates. The most notable aspect of his attacks was his name-calling and sarcasm. Since he was not being taken seriously as a candidate, his Republican opponents did not “fire back” until too late. Rubio ridiculed Trump’s “small hands,” as a metaphor for his manliness, and some say the reason he dropped out of the last debate was that people were questioning Trump’s claim of being a billionaire. Some say a personal attack on Trump is his “kryptonite.”
In the general election, Hillary Clinton thought she couldn’t lose, so she tried to stay “above” insults—and was also too late in fighting back. Worse, when she did, she was so awkward at it that it backfired—attacking Trump’s supporters (the “Basket of Deplorables”), instead of him.
Is there a chance that another Republican will knock off Trump before he faces a Democrat? Not likely. There’s only one announced GOP opponent, so far.
Again, focusing on personality, the relatively liberal 2016 Libertarian Party vice presidential candidate, William Weld, offers a contrast with Trump, but he has a number of problems. First, he had to change his party affiliation to run—he’s not a “real Republican.” In fact, as we reported, The Libertarian platform is more liberal than many Democrats, with the full support of abortion rights, gay marriage, transgendered people in the military, legalization of gambling, drug use, and prostitution—and opposition to the death penalty.
Back to personality, Trump fans love that Trump is tough. Weld is not. And even in local elections, rightist candidates are running as Trump supporters. There’s really no room for anyone else. It’s now the Trump Party, not the Republican Party.
While “never Trumpers” still exist, they have no voice and few followers. Polls show that Trump is wildly popular among Republicans—with approval up to 88%.
The venerable conservative publication, The Weekly Standard, was destroyed, specifically because it didn’t “toe the Trump line.”
The Democrats have a large field, as noted in the Chicago Tribune.
Officially in: Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Gov. Jay Inslee, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, ex-San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Rep. John Delaney, Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam, author Marianne Williamson and former tech executive Andrew Yang. Formed exploratory committee: South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Do Democrats have a strong candidate who could go head-to-head, toe-to-toe, and hands-to-tiny hands with Trump? The obvious choice would be Bernie Sanders. He’s strong. He’s tough. He has a clear platform. The party base loves him. Some say he could have beat Trump in 2016 when people wanted someone tough. But now that Trump has proven his strongman ways, will people go for a different strong man, instead? Why?
Bernie has personality/identity issues, himself. He’s also known as abusive. Like Weld, he also has party identity issues—until recently, he refused to call himself a “Democrat.” Many women—the largest Democratic constituency—criticize his history with women.
And while Trump has been able to overcome his age issue, there’s no way you can see Bernie as an old man. An old white man. Could he even rally the whole Democratic base?
There’s been a lot of talk about Beto O’Rourke. We have compared him to Bobby Kennedy in style. He might appeal to white Baby Boomers, because of that. But his problem is that personality is all he seems to have. He has no specific platform. And what about experience? Is it really enough to say he was an also-ran against one of the most disliked senator in history (Ted Cruz)?
At the risk of seeming to minimize women, let’s talk about two women at once: the left coast Kamala Harris, and the right coast Kirsten Gillibrand. Both are physically attractive (Yes, that’s still important in today’s America), erudite, have clear policy agendas, and offer a strong contrast with Trump.
One advantage they would have is that Trump’s abusiveness would be neutered. His attacks on his 2016 GOP opponent, Carly Fiorina, fell flat, calling her “horse face.” Right on the stage, Trump said, “look at that face!”
It was an unpopular physical appearance attack, whereas his name-calling of men was personality based—such as calling Jeb Bush weak.
An attack on women’s appearance would likely backfire even more now, and both women are firebrands, who would not stand for that kind of abuse. However, they are vulnerable to charges of being left-wing extremists who could only be elected in the most liberal states (California and New York). And they might be seen as a “Hail Mary” attempt, as were Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin—both of whom were seen as sacrificial lambs to a likely victor.
Then, there’s Elizabeth Warren. She’s well known as are her policies, but she tends to be a “wooden” campaigner and has shot herself in the foot regarding her ancestry claims. Trump calls her “Pocahontas,” which would be disgusting in a normal year, but Trump has the advantage of having been elected despite his disgusting attacks on people.
It’s hard to imagine how Warren’s personality could lay a glove on The Donald. Also, recent polls show that she’s already well known, so there’s not much room for growth—worse yet, her unfavorables are higher than her favorables.
Two more: Corey Booker is African-American. Julian Castro is Hispanic. While the Democratic base would love to “see” such a clear contrast with Trump, Trump showed that an appeal to just “white people” can still win.
Of all the Democratic challengers, the most unlikely candidate may be the answer. Pete Buttigieg could become the youngest president, ever. He’s currently 37, just two years above the legal limit, about half the age of Trump. He’s also gay. While polls show that Americans say they could accept a gay president, you can’t always trust what people “say.” Plus, he is not just gay, but gay-married.
And finally, he’s not a governor, senator, or even a representative. He’s a mayor, and while it would not be surprising to see New York mayors Rudy Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg run for president, Buttigieg is mayor of South Bend, Indiana—a city 1.5% the size of NYC. By comparison of U.S. population, that would qualify him to run for governor of South Carolina—almost—not president.
So let’s look at Buttigieg’s positives. He’s young. He’s (face it) white. He’s from the heartland—right in the middle of the states Trump shockingly carried (but turned against him in 2018). However, Buttigieg’s real “trump card” is his military service. That would be powerful against Trump, who is considered a pampered draft-dodger, as noted in Military Times.
Of all of Buttigieg’s positives, that is the strongest, not only because America knows it owes a debt to the “one percent” who actually fight for us. But this, again, is about character. If you listen to Buttigieg speak, yes, he seems reasonable and intelligent. He has a firm grasp of the issues and is not extreme. But Buttigieg’s most attractive personality trait is that he is very disciplined.
Trump won the 2016 GOP nomination, primarily, because he was not taken seriously. His Republican opponents thought he was a clown, looking for his “15 minutes of fame,” as Andy Warhol famously said.
They thought he would drop out, if it looked as if he might win, the way Ross Perot did in the 1992 general election.
Therefore, no one really challenged Trump until the famous “tiny hands” debate, at the end. When the other candidates ridiculed his small hands (suggesting other parts of his body were also small), and also challenged his claim of being a billionaire, Trump was visibly shaken, with a wounded demeanor, offering only weak responses. So one might think a battler, like Bernie, might be able to get under Trump’s skin. The trouble with that is, according to the old saying, “never wrestle a pig—you both get dirty—and the pig enjoys it.” The point is that if you fight on Trump’s name-calling level, the public will not think you’re any better.
That’s the real reason why Buttigieg may be the best Democrat to take on Trump. His obvious youth is refreshing. For those of us old enough to remember, he could engender the kind of enthusiasm the young Jack Kennedy raised in 1960. He might even inspire young people to leave their computers and Xboxes long enough to actually vote. Here’s another thing: We’ve compared Beto to Bobby, but if you listen to Buttigieg, you might be reminded of JFK, instead. He’s measured, serious, reasoned, yet has a sense of humor, and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Even Republicans look for things in JFK’s policies, to claim him as a forebear. What greater contrast could there be to Trump?
If you set aside issues, and just look at personalities (as most Americans do), Buttigieg’s military self-discipline is a remarkable contrast to the current Oval Office inhabitant, who just about every day exhibits what might be called “conduct unbecoming an officer” of the United States government.