Memo to 2020 Democrats: You’re campaigning wrong

2019-08-27 | The Baltimore Sun

Aug. 27--Most of the Democrats running for president focus on two things: their vision for the country and the policies they support. With the exception of former Vice President Joe Biden, their background and experience is secondary. Mr. Biden folds his background and experience into his vision, since his vision is to restore order to the country and integrity to the White House.

Painting a vision for the likely primary voters and offering specific policies is a reasonable approach, but it is dated, a Smith Corona typewriter in a new age.

The candidates hammer away at the values of equality, fairness and opportunity that they promote, and they spell out their specific approaches to health care, climate change, gun control, immigration, trade, child care and paid family leave. The problem with this dominant approach to campaigning is that it does not give likely voters -- or more important, unlikely voters who might become likely voters -- good reasons to think that the candidate in question could perform the job of president effectively.

For one, the president of the United States must be a top-rate negotiator. The president must negotiate with House and Senate leaders, whether they are in his party or the opposing party; the president must negotiate with foreign leaders; he or she must negotiate with his or her own cabinet; and, in truth, he or she must negotiate with the American people.

Our candidates for president run as if they will become prime minister, where it would be assured that their own party would control the legislature. That's the way the parliamentary system works: Whichever party controls the parliament picks the prime minister. In these systems, common in Europe and most of the free world, the prime minister has considerable control over the legislation that will be passed.

The American president must be the top negotiator in the country. For, in America, the more power you have, the more people you have to negotiate with.

Second, instead of painting visions for the voters and spelling out the details of their favorites policies -- most of which will never pass because Congress will not agree to them -- it would be better if candidates not only listened more to voters but articulated the thoughts and feelings of those voters who lack certainty about what we need to do as a country.

Politicians want us to see the future as they see it, but the ocular metaphors, as many philosophers and literary theorists have argued, are overused. They devalue the importance of other senses, notably hearing. We need candidates for president to help the voters to hear the future.

Hearing the future involves showing voters that as president you will be a great listener -- to members of Congress, to leaders from other countries, to the American people themselves. Our hardest problems are going to be solved when groups of people work together -- even groups of people at the highest level of government. We need a candidate for president who will convince us that he or she can hear a future in which the vast majority of Americans are on the same page, working together to face our struggles.

Seeing the future is problematic for many reasons. It is usually divorced of human contact. We are asked to see a set of buildings or highways or a set of statistics. Hearing the future is more subtle, and by its nature it involves relationships. You can't hear what others in the community are saying without them speaking. So the bonds of community are more likely to be generated out of hearing others than seeing goals put into concrete or software.

It is also time to throw out the phrase "the American people" when it is used to refer to the way a candidate will unite us. If a president could get 60 or 70 percent of the American people behind him or her, that would be outstanding.

We do of course need to hear about policies and initiatives. But even more, we need to hear about the skills and the moral character the candidates have that prepare them for the job of president, and we need to hear how the candidate will work with us to hear a bright future for our country.

Dave Anderson ran for Congress in the 2016 Democratic Primary in Maryland’s 8th District and has taught at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Cincinnati, and the George Washington University. He can be reached at