Ranking the Democratic candidates for the US presidency

It is deeply depressing that the US presidential race started in late December 2018, which is 14 months before the Iowa primaries and 23 months before the general election. In order to maintain my sanity, I have decided to ignore all the coming drama over the next 2 years. Instead, I decided to sit down and rank the Democratic candidates in my order of preference, based on the issues that matter, not the soap opera that plays out in the news media. Now I can safely ignore the daily news for the next two years, but I decided to share my list, just in case it helps others who don’t feel like following all the silliness that passes for news now-a-days.

1. Bernie Sanders
Bernie is the best candidate on the economic issues and he is the best in his ability to speak to working-class people to rally their support. Bernie is not eloquent, but he has a way of speaking that makes you believe it in your bones that he will fight for you and he won’t give up, come hell or high water.

Bernie is also the best in his understanding that the only way to push through a progressive agenda (Medicare for All, $15 minimum wage, free tuition at public universities, carbon tax, etc.) is to work outside the Washington beltway and mobilize popular movements. He will call for millions of people to march on Washington to force the politicians to pass Medicare for All, because he cut his teeth in the civil rights movement and understands how change is achieved through social movements despite the opposition of the establishment.

Bernie wants to get the US out of the 8 wars it currently conducts, but he will negotiate and wind them down gradually, whereas I suspect that Tulsi will try to get the US out of those wars faster than Bernie. On the other hand, Bernie is better than Tulsi in terms of the rights of Palestinians and the rights of refugees, and I have some hope that Bernie will be able to force the Israelis to the negotiating table on the issue of Palestine. As a Jew who spent six months living on an Israeli kibbutz in his youth, Bernie has a unique ability to tell Israelis to respect Palestinian human rights. He hasn’t always been good on this issue, but he was the first US politician to publicly announce that he would not attend a Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and when he gave a speech in 2016 that mentioned Palestinian water rights, AIPAC couldn’t use its standard playbook to smear him as an antisemite. With the election of Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, Bernie will also have a block in congress that will both push and defend him on this issue.

People who think that Bernie is unelectable, simply haven’t looked at the public opinion polls. Currently, 70% of Americans want Medicare for All and 60% support free tuition at public universities (Reuters 08-2018). 58% want to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour (Pew 08-2016). 59% support a 70% marginal tax rate for annual incomes over $10 million (The Hill-Harris X 01-2019). 58% support a revenue-neutral carbon tax (Yale 08-2018). 81% support a Green New Deal (Yale-George Mason 12-2018). 85% want more wind power, 89% want more solar power, 39% want less fracking and less offshore drilling (Pew 04-2018). There is a reason why 53% of Americans view Sanders favorably, including 78% of Democrats and 54% of independents (Gallup 09-2018), because the majority of Americans support his policies. The fact that he calls himself a “democratic socialist” is not going to scare Democrats, because 57% of them have a favorable view of Socialism, compared to 47% which have a favorable view of Capitalism (Gallup 08-2018). Trying to red bait Bernie is likely to help him among Democratic voters more than it hurts him. The fact that Bernie calls himself an independent helps him more than it hurts him, since the number of voters who regard themselves as independents is now larger than either of the two major parties.

The other thing that people haven’t considered is the difference between the average Bernie supporter and the average Joe Biden supporter. Democratic activists may like Joe, but most aren’t passionate about him. They aren’t going to bust their butts for months working in the primaries to get him elected. In a crowded primary, the candidate with the strongest block of passionate supporters is going to win and Bernie has that block. If you follow progressive media, then you see it constantly in the comments, that so-and-so is OK, but not as good as Bernie.

2. Elizabeth Warren
Great on economic issues, like Sanders, and her wealth tax is a fantastic idea. She is great on the policy details and taking Wall Street to task. As an academic, she doesn’t have the same understanding of how to work with social movements to achieve change and she doesn’t go all over the country campaigning to help create progressive sociopolitical movements like Bernie. She recently has become very good on the issue of money in politics. What I don’t like is that she consistently votes for increases in military spending and has supported US militarism abroad. Only recently did she say that the US should get its troops out of the MiddleEast.

3. Tulsi Gabbard
Great on the issue of money in politics. Good on the economic issues, but not as strong as Sanders or Warren. Gabbard is fantastic on her opposition to US wars in the MiddleEast and her statement against the US trying to overthrow the government of Venezuela was stronger than Bernie’s. Both Tulsi and Bernie say that they will continue the drone assassination program, but I get the sense that Bernie doesn’t want to be tarred as being weak, whereas Tulsi really believes in the targeted killing of the “terrorists.” On the other hand, Tulsi will have the ability to announce that she is going to end the wars without being perceived as weak and antipatriotic. In contrast, I suspect that Bernie made a strategic decision to avoid being tarred as a peacenik in the early 1990s after all the criticism he got in the 1980s for his “foreign policy” as mayor of Burlington.

Tulsi’s ties with Hindu nationalists and her vote against aiding refugees from Syria and Iraq concern me. Tulsi strikes me as young and her views are still evolving, but she has political courage and is not afraid to take a stand for what she believes.

The one thing that I haven’t seen in Tulsi, however, is the ability to give a passionate speech and rally public support for a cause like both Bernie and Elizabeth can do, and I consider playing the outside game to put public pressure on politicians to be essential to pushing anything progressive through congress.

Tulsi is a maverick, which is fantastic for her independent voting record, but I don’t see her making coalitions to push through legislation. Sanders was called the “amendment king” because he is willing to talk to everyone across all ideological divides to get amendments passed, which was shown in his working with McCain to pass the veterans bill and Mike Lee on the Yemeni resolution. Tulsi has been less effective in building cross-ideological coalitions. Only 13 other members of the House signed up for Tulsi’s “Stop Arming Terrorists Act,” which would have stopped US funding of the anti-Assad forces in Syria.

4. Julian Castro
He has zero chance of winning, but I’m going to put him at number 4, because he has talked about a top marginal tax rate of 90% and he doesn’t appear to be playing the big money game like Kirsten, Cory and Kamala. Maybe he simply doesn’t have the connections to play that game, but his statements about raising the top marginal tax rate tells me that he has decided to not pursue the big money donors.

5. Kirsten Gillibrand
6. Cory Booker
7. Kamala Harris

I lump Kirsten, Cory and Kamala together and can’t really distinguish them very much. They all are smart enough to have realized which way the Democratic Party is going and made a strategic decision to jump out in front of it, but I don’t truly believe that they will do very much to fight for Medicare for All and a $15 dollar minimum wage. They strike me as Obama-esque type candidates who will say the right things in public, but do very little to achieve them while in office.

All of them have recently evolved on the important issues. For example, they all have pledged to not accept corporate PAC money, because that is becoming a litmus test among Democratic activists, but all three of them have a history of raising money from big money donors. Kirsten and Cory are reported to be leading the pack in fund-raising from big money donors. I don’t expect Kirsten and Cory to stop raising money from Wall Street or Kamala to stop hitting up the mega-donors in the Hamptons or Hollywood.

I’m going to put Kirsten first of the three, because she has done three things that I admire: She has been the leader on the bringing public attention to the problem of rape in the military and has worked persistently for victims to be able to report abuse outside the change of command. She voted against the the Israel Anti-Boycott Act in 2017, which took real political courage in a state like New York where she risked alienating Jewish voters. Finally, she changed her position from supporting more deportations of undocumented immigrants to becoming the first US senator to publicly support abolishing ICE.

Cory is a media hound and a grandstander for the public spotlight, but he is the best orator of all the candidates, in my opinion. People call him Obama 2.0, but I don’t think he is going to be able to avoid the public scrutiny like Obama did. Obama took the Wall Street money, but nobody accused him of being corrupt when he didn’t prosecute the Wall Street executives. When Cory voted against Bernie Sander’s bill to allow importation of drugs from Canada, he got nailed to the wall for all that money that he had taken from the pharmaceutical industry.

Cory is actually more progressive than Obama, but the zeitgeist has moved significantly to the left since 2008. I want commitment more than pretty words, and I don’t think Cory believes in much besides himself. However, I am going to place him a tad above Kamala, because I have seen him at least stand up and take action on some few progressive issues as the mayor of Newark. His proposal of a “baby bond” to close the wealth gap between white and black children is not a bad idea.

I actually think that Kamala has the best shot of winning the Democratic nomination after Sanders and Biden, but she is only number 7 on my list, because I haven’t seen her fight for a single progressive position. Her record as a public prosecutor was frankly atrocious. She didn’t prosecute Steve Mnuchin when her own office recommended it, because he essentially bribed her. She now says the right things about criminal justice reform, but she didn’t act that way as California’s prosecutor.

8. Joe Biden
Several polls show him as the front-runner, but I am going to place him second to last, because he won’t say that he supports Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage, nor has he pledged to not accept money from corporate PACs. He fails the three essential litmus tests in my book, that everyone else besides Beto passes. As the senator from New Jersey, he was very much in the pocket of both the financial and pharmaceutical industries and his legislative record reflects that. The one positive thing about Joe is that he does have a sense of the working class, but he doesn’t support the $15 minimum wage or raising taxes on the rich, so it is all just rhetoric.

He appears to be positioning himself as the centrist candidate who criticizes millennials, claims to be able to work with Republicans and won’t demonize the rich. Joe as built up a lot of good will as Obama’s VP, but he fundamentally misunderstands the mood of Democratic voters in 2020. He failed miserably in his previous presidential runs, and I suspect that this run will be no different. Once Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire start examining him critically, they will find his positions lacking compared to everyone else in the field. Nobody dislikes Joe, but why would the party activists go to bat for him, when there are so many better candidates running?

9. Beto O’rourke
Beto looked so good compared to Ted Cruz in the Texas senatorial race. He would have made a fine senator from Texas, but he is severely lacking as the standard bearer for the national Democratic Party. Like Joe, he doesn’t support Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage or raising taxes on the rich. He pledged to not accept corporate PAC money, which he appears to have kept, but he also made a pledge to environmental groups to not accept donations over $200 from the oil and gas industry. During his senatorial race, he accepted $320,000 from the oil and gas industry that broke that later pledge, including donations from 29 oil and gas executives. Of the 167 times that Beto voted against the majority of Democrats during his 6 years in congress, many of those times were in favor of corporate interests.

There will probably be half a dozen more candidates who announce their candidacy in the coming months like Terry McAuliffe, John Hickenlooper, Sherrod Brown, etc., but  they can be safely ignored as inconsequential in my opinion. The only one who I will truly miss is Richard Ojeda, who has already dropped out of the race. It would have been fun to see him tear apart the centrists and corporatists on the debate stage.

It is very hard to predict what will happen over the next two years. Bernie’s health might fail him. Major new revelations might come to light. I would have placed Beto in the middle of the pack a month ago with Kirsten, Kamala and Cory, before journalists like David Sirota started bringing to light his record. Still, I strongly suspect that this ranking will be virtually the same a year from now when the voting starts in Iowa. I really think that campaigning shouldn’t be allowed to start until 5 months before the Iowa caucuses in order to give the American people a break from the constant politicking. We generally don’t learn any more in over a year of primary campaigning that we wouldn’t learn in half that time.

There is really one one issue that is likely to change my mind about the ranking that I have given the candidates. Many of the candidates haven’t yet their plans for how they would address climate change.

The climate science has become so scary that I have become a single issue voter. It took me 7 hours to plow through James Hansen’s article on how the seas could rise up to 5 meters between 2050 and 2150, but I’m now convinced that there is a good probability of non-linear climate change occurring during my lifetime. if we don’t have dramatic action to address the issue in the next decade, I would only give a 50% probability of human civilization surviving in the long term. I don’t relish the prospect of the majority of humans dying of starvation. The agricultural studies that I have read convince me that it will happen if we allow 4 degrees C of climate change to occur. A recent metastudy predicts that following the RCP8.5, which is the emissions pathway we are currently on, will cause a 22.4% (40.2% – 8.5%) reduction in wheat yields, a 10.5% (25.3% – 2.4%) reduction in rice yields, a 27.8% (50.4 – 9.7) reduction in maize yields, and a 11.5% (31.0% – 6.0%) reduction in soybean yields by the end of the century when the planet will have 12 billion inhabitants to feed. The paleohistorical record from the mid-Pliocene 3.3 – 3.0 million years ago shows that we have already emitted enough greenhouse gases to cause 3 – 4 C of climate change and raise the oceans 25 meters. We are basically gambling the entire planet that the ice sheets will remain stable for long enough for us to get the CO2 levels back down to 300 – 350 ppm to restabilize the climate.

The only serious candidate on the issue of climate change is Bernie. None of the other candidates seem to have a clue about the issue. Since 2013, Bernie’s been proposing legislation to implement a carbon tax. His latest incarnation of the bill proposes a carbon tax that rises over time, with 60% of the collected revenue returned in dividend checks to all legal residents and 40% spent on government programs that help the most effected and disadvantaged communities. I doubt that Sanders can get it passed, but he will make the case to the American people why it is necessary and help built the eventual support for putting a rising price on carbon. More importantly, Sanders will use the full power of the presidency to hinder fossil fuels in every way that he can. He proposed the Keep It in the Ground Act in 2015 to prohibit the extraction of fossil fuels on federal lands and ban offshore drilling. As president he will have the power to make these things happen without congress. He can use the Clean Water Act to stop mountain top removal. He wants to ban fracking, but he can’t do it due to the exemptions that were passed under George W. Bush so the oil and gas industries don’t have to obey the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, but I expect Bernie to appoint people who will make it very difficult to get permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure. When Jane Sanders was asked in 2016, who her husband would likely appoint if he were elected president, she mentioned Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, as the possible head of the EPA.

In drawing up this list of candidates, I was surprised how good many of them are on the important issues. Although I have criticized many of them, I would happily vote for 7 out of the 9 in the general election and the two who give me reservations, Joe and Beto, are far better than Hillary was in 2016. When I think back to previous presidential campaigns, we haven’t seen a truly progressive candidate since Jessie Jackson ran in 1984 and 1988, and now we have 3 Jessie Jacksons, plus 4 Howard Deans running in the same year.

All my life I have been told that my political beliefs were un-American and I was made to feel like a freak. Bernie’s 2016 campaign showed me that millions of Americans agree with me, but 2020 promises to be the year when those beliefs will become part of the American mainstream, where the media has to publicly acknowledge them, instead of pretending that they don’t exist.

 

PS: Since social media now-a-days practically puts us in personal contact with the candidates, I have decided to call them by their first names. Everyone refers to Bernard Sanders as “Bernie” and Hillary Clinton ran as “Hillary” so it seems pointless to use their last names.

PSS: Maybe I should mention my attitude toward gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. I hate how many in the Democratic Party seem to value identity politics over policy substance. We can’t ignore these issues, but we actually do a disservice to them, if we can’t see how policy effects them, rather than just focusing on the identity of the candidates. If two candidates are basically the same on policy, I will pick the candidate who represents a group that has historically suffered oppression and not been well represented, because of the symbolic value of having a member of that group in office. However, I consider the right policy to always take precedence over identity, appearance, region, etc. Racism, sexism, and bigotry in general should be disqualifiers in for anyone to become president, but I get very angry when these terms are falsely employed for cynical reasons. When I see Bernie being tarred as sexist or Rashida Tlaib as antisemitic, I grow weary of identity politics in general.

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