Paul Waldman: What the Democratic presidential candidates aren’t telling us

| Courtesy Spike Paul Waldman, op-ed mug.

Beto O'Rourke is inching closer to running for president, as we learn today from the New York Times:

"As the Democratic presidential field takes final shape, Mr. O'Rourke seems inclined to be in this, according to interviews with people who have spoken to him and other top Democrats. He says he has made a decision about whether to run and could announce it as early as this week, unsettling prospective rival campaigns that consider Mr. O'Rourke a credible threat. [...]

"Few doubt Mr. O'Rourke's capacity to upend the race regardless, buoyed by a talent for relentless retail politics, a formidable low-dollar fund-raising army and an unsubtle contrast to front-runners in their 70s, like Mr. Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders."

Not only that, the conservative Club for Growth has already put out an ad against him that amounts to a kind of false-flag attack, criticizing O'Rourke for not being progressive enough.

As a general matter I think anyone who wants to should run for president, and if they turn out to be the most compelling candidate then they'll win (though I make an exception for billionaire businessmen). But O'Rourke is among the most unlikely of the major candidates, in ways that call attention to a vital part of the case the candidates ought to be making but largely aren't.

Think about it this way: If you're a Beto O'Rourke admirer, are you excited about the prospect of him running for president, or the prospect of him being president?

To be clear, this applies to lots of candidates; I’m just using O’Rourke as an example. If you watched his unsuccessful Senate race in 2018, you have a good idea of what his presidential campaign would be. He’s enthusiastic, idealistic, and charismatic. He takes unashamedly progressive positions and has shown his ability to activate a grassroots army of volunteers and contributors. He calls people to be hopeful and ambitious without spending too much time tearing down his opponents.

But for the moment - and this could change if he actually runs — it’s hard to know what an O’Rourke presidency would be like; people who like him are mostly attracted to the idea of an O’Rourke candidacy. That isn’t only true of him. Before Sen. Sherrod Brown opted out of the race, there were many Democrats talking about how great he would be; they always pointed to his proven ability to connect to white blue-collar voters and win votes in the Midwest. But you seldom heard anything about why Brown would be a better president than the other candidates. It was just that people thought he could beat Trump.

Which is important, of course. But if you run down the list of Democratic candidates, you’ll see that for most it’s hard to picture them in the Oval Office and know what they’d be doing. Could you rattle off Amy Klobuchar’s top policy priorities, or Kamala Harris', or Cory Booker’s, or John Hickenlooper’s? If you had to describe their fundamental approach to foreign or domestic policy, what would you say?

That doesn’t apply to all of them. It’s pretty clear what Bernie Sanders would try to do if he won, at least in some areas. Jay Inslee has promised to put fighting climate change at the center of his presidency. Elizabeth Warren has the most fully fleshed-out agenda, not only in its particulars - she has issued a series of bold proposals, the latest of which is to use antitrust authority to break up the tech giants — but also in its general approach, which is to reorient capitalism away from the interests of the rich and toward the interests of everyone else.

But for the rest of them, even if they have plenty of policy positions they endorse, it’s hard to know what sort of presidents they’d be. It’s particularly difficult for someone like Beto O’Rourke, who for all his virtues was basically a replacement-level congressman and hasn’t had any executive positions we could judge from.

To be clear, that doesn't mean he or anybody else couldn't become a great president. O'Rourke is often compared to Barack Obama, who was also young and had a limited resume, but turned out to be pretty good at the job. And history is full of presidents who looked on paper like they had the right tools and experience but turned out to be awful.

Which is why what we need from all these candidates isn’t just a recitation of their biographies and a list of policy prescriptions, but also a picture of how they think about the presidency, how their personalities suit them for it, and what they want to do with it. The good news is that they have some time to fill in that picture.