Pete Buttigieg is the 37-year-old mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana. His one bid for statewide office—a 2010 run as the Democratic nominee for Indiana state treasurer—drew just 37.5 percent of the vote. Yet, he is, according to media reports from the presidential campaign trail, getting “stellar reviews,” making “a star turn” and “having a moment in the 2020 primary.”
Buttigieg’s an impressive contender. But his escalating status as a presidential prospect has to do with something more than the mayor’s considerable skill set. Even with an already substantial Democratic field, there remains a longing for fresh candidates who communicate in newer, savvier, edgier ways about the challenges facing the party and the country. So why shouldn’t the stars of the 2018 campaign circuit—Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke—mount 2020 presidential bids?
Gillum, age 39, announced last week that he plans to “to do everything in my personal power to flip this nation blue in 2020,” and said he has “a major announcement” coming on March 20. Excellent.
O’Rourke, age 46, announced Thursday that he is running, “adding to the mix,” in the words of The New York Times, “a relentless campaigner with a small-dollar fund-raising army, the performative instincts of a former punk rocker and a pro-immigrant vision to counteract President Trump’s.” Excellent.
Yes, the 2020 field is crowded. But no more crowded than the 1976 field that produced a Democratic president and big Democratic majorities in Congress and the statehouses. And not that much more crowded than in the early stages of the 1992 and 2008 campaign seasons that ended with similar successes for the Democrats.
So, yes, these candidates should run. They should get in and run different campaigns. Run better campaigns. And they should reject the nonsense that says someone must be sitting in the Senate, or in a statehouse, to mount a winning bid for the nomination of a major party. Or that having lost a recent bid for a lower office somehow renders a candidate unprepared for the presidency.
The defeated and dismissed candidates from one election cycle often become the winners of the next. Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 as a former congressman who had just lost his 1858 Senate race. Richard Nixon’s last general-election campaign before winning the presidency in 1968 was an embarrassing “don’t-have-Nixon-to-kick-around-anymore” loss for governor of California. Ronald Reagan, the rejected Republican presidential contender of 1976, became the party’s nominee and then the president in 1980. John Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, just four years after Democrats rejected him as a vice-presidential prospect. Barack Obama launched his bid for the presidency barely two years after leaving the Illinois state legislature, and not that many years after winning just 29 percent of the vote in a losing bid for a congressional seat representing the south side of Chicago.
Presidential campaigns make and remake candidates—especially young candidates who have accomplished things early in life, taken risks and remain undaunted.
Abrams led a legislative caucus with considerable success, displaying governing skills that made her a statewide figure long before she bid for the governorship. Gillum led a city and then upended the calculus of the Florida Democratic Party with a grassroots campaign that beat better-known and better-funded candidates for the 2018 gubernatorial nomination. O’Rourke beat an incumbent to win a seat on the El Paso City Council, got reelected twice, and then beat an incumbent to win a seat in Congress.
Each of these candidates came into their after they seized the moment in 2018 and launched what pundits dismissed as unlikely bids for high office. They did not win their races. But they brought the Democratic party back into serious competition in states that Trump had won in 2018. They did so by running bold campaigns that built coalitions aimed toward a future where Georgia, Florida, and Texas will elect Democrats to statewide office and back Democrats for the presidency—perhaps even as soon as 2020.
These 2020 prospects all have more credible political and governing experience than Donald Trump did when he ran for president in 2016. So I’m not worried about Trump taking Twitter shots at outsider Democrats. I am, however, worried about the Democrats who want to narrow their party’s options.
This is the time for candidates to jump into the running and make their cases, as O’Rourke did with an announcement video that reframed the debate about Trump’s signature issue. “All of us, wherever you live, can acknowledge that if immigration is a problem it’s the best possible problem for this country to have,” declared O’Rourke. That’s exactly right. Immigration is not a negative. It’s a positive.
The vital contribution that younger candidates from varied backgrounds make is in this regard. They may not have traditional résumés. They may not have perfect records. But they come at the issues in fresh and often more optimistic and engaging ways. At their best, they reject the narrow lanes that have been set in place by the reactionaries on the right, and by the cautious consultants of the compromised center, and pull the discourse in different directions—to places where Democrats are not apologizing and complaining but proposing and championing. They recognize that it is still possible to forge what songwriter (and Iowa native) Dan Bern once described as “A New American Language”—“I have a dream of a new American language/ One with a little bit more Spanish… I have a dream of a new American language/ I dream of new beginnings…”
This is the right time for the next politics. We do not know where it will come from. The way out could be cleared by a 77-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont. Or by the 37-year-old son of a Gramsci scholar from South Bend. Or by an award-winning author of suspense novels from Atlanta. Or by a Spanish-speaking punk rocker from El Paso.