Beto O’Rourke quickly discovered one of the biggest differences between running for the U.S. Senate against an incumbent loathed by Democrats and running for the presidency against an incumbent loathed by Democrats: The latter requires far more self-loathing.
His nascent presidential campaign raised more money in its first 24 hours than any other White House wannabe, which suggests that a lot of people across the country like the idea of the former Texas congressman facing off against President Trump in November 2020. Yet O’Rourke has spent a non-trivial amount of time in his campaign’s opening days apologizing for something he said, did, or just is.
Sound familiar? Acts of contrition are like a rite of passage into the Democratic field this year. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) apologized for the sexual harassment that pockmarked his 2016 campaign, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) apologized for the idiotic DNA test. Joe Biden hasn’t formally declared, but he’s already apologizing for all manner of past offenses.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), at least, has resisted the urge to apologize when challenged for her work as a prosecutor and state attorney general. Instead, she has stuck to the message that she was a “progressive prosecutor,” despite stinging criticism from criminal-justice-reform advocates on the left. Ditto for Sen. Amy “Binder” Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has declined to apologize for being a reputed boss from hell.
The example set by Trump, who is famous for never apologizing, suggests that Harris and Klobuchar are taking the wiser course. But what works for a former reality TV star in the GOP doesn’t necessarily translate to the Democratic Party.
This is a gross oversimplification, but Republicans in the 21st century don’t seem to expect their candidates to apologize for their youthful indiscretions, personal or policy-wise. All that matters to GOP voters is that candidates believably pledge to deliver on their (conservative) promises when in office.
Think back to the Republican primaries in the last three elections. The party of American conservatives nominated three people with possibly the worst conservative credentials in the field. And yet they persuaded voters to look forward, not back.
Democrats, meanwhile, impose purity tests of progressivity on potential nominees that can turn a long record of public service into a minefield of liabilities. Folks forget that now-rejected policies such as “don’t ask, don’t tell” were actually seen as steps forward at the time they were adopted — the circumstances of past compromises have long been forgotten.
In a sense, that’s a win for evidence-based decision-making — don’t listen to what candidates say they’ll do, look at what they’ve done. But it’s fundamentally backward-looking, and it breeds a hunger for new faces with no record to hold against them. Hello, Pete Buttigieg!
Here’s where it’s worth remembering another lesson of the Trump phenomenon: Experience matters in the White House. If Democrats are determined to punish candidates for having made choices in the past that look bad by today’s standards, they’ll wind up with a fresh face who makes beguiling promises but has little or no knowledge of how to deliver them.
Jon Healey wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.