2020 Vision: There are 14 white male Dems running for president. So why should Kamala Harris settle for veep?

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a town hall in Detroit, May 6, 2019. (Photo: Paul Sancya/AP)

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race. Reminder: There are 262 days until the Iowa caucuses and 535 days until the 2020 presidential election.

[Who’s running for president? Click here for Yahoo News’ 2020 tracker]

Not so ‘woke’

And then there were 14.

The ranks of white, male Democrats who seem to have surveyed the party’s sprawling primary field and concluded that America clearly needs another president who looks like them continued to expand this week. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio followed in the footsteps of other little-known white dudes such as Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, launching their own late-breaking presidential bids.

Bullock and de Blasio’s back-to-back announcements mean that a full 61 percent of the comically vast 23-person Democratic lineup is now made up of white men after the groundbreaking early weeks of the contest, when most of the candidates were women and/or people of color.

Some Democrats were not rejoicing at the news of de Blasio’s candidacy, in particular. “I have no idea what the mayor is doing,” one operative told Yahoo News. “Delusional,” said another.

Yet as skeptical as Democrats may be, few have suggested that the latest white guys to declare would be better suited to serve as vice president than as commander in chief.

That dubious honor, it seems, has so far been reserved for candidates of color — black women in particular.

After 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams was floated by associates of former Vice President Joe Biden as a possible out-of-the-gate ticket mate — a proposition that Abrams swatted aside, saying, “You don’t run for second place” — the VP speculation has intensified around the only black woman already running for president: California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a campaign stop in Las Vegas, May 16, 2019. (Photo: Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun/AP)

What started over the winter as a “whisper campaign,” according to Politico, has “rapidly” transformed into “national narrative,” with members of the Congressional Black Caucus pitching the pair as a “dream ticket” earlier this week.

“I think [Biden’s] going to look to balance his ticket so that the ticket itself is more appealing,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he picked a woman of color.”

Reports say Team Harris finds the talk “infuriating,” privately venting that “it’s demeaning to a woman of color and perpetuates an unfair critique that she’s somehow not prepared for the job she’s actually seeking.” Her people have a point: Almost no one is making the same argument about, say, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has never won statewide office (Harris has won twice) and who is trailing the senator in national polls and fundraising — not to mention the dozen other white men who also lag behind her.

Even so, the Harris-for-VP talk highlights a very real issue for Democrats going forward. The party’s base is disproportionately black and brown, and increasingly young, progressive and female. Biden, the frontrunner, is none of those things. If he continues to dominate the polls — a big if, considering that Iowa is still nine months away — then he will eventually come under tremendous pressure to ensure that his ticket reflects the party he seeks to lead. The same pressure would apply to any of the other white guys angling to take Biden’s place should he stumble.

For her part, Harris’s counterargument is that Democrats who are anxious about losing to Donald Trump and shopping for so-called electability need to shake the outdated (and likely biased) assumption that the only way to win is by putting a white man at the top of their ticket.

I think that Joe Biden would be a great running mate — as vice president he’s proven that he knows how to do the job,” she snapped Wednesday in New Hampshire. Then the former prosecutor turned her fire on all of his fellow white-dude wannabes: “There’s certainly a lot of other candidates that would make, for me, a very viable and interesting vice president.”

"I do believe I could enter the conversation as late as the fall and still have a chance to win."

— Stacey Abrams to MSNBC on the timing of possible 2020 presidential bid

Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke is seen at a campaign stop in Yosemite National Park, April 29, 2019. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Reset, reboot, repeat

Even as new candidates are still joining the Democratic primary, others are already seeking to “reboot” (or “reset” or “reintroduce”) their campaigns.

It’s a time-honored tradition. You launch your White House bid. You get a “bump” (or “bounce”) in the polls. Then the slog begins, the media moves on, and your numbers start to stagnate — or sink.

Time to hit reset (or at least whisper to the press on plans to do so) and hope people start paying attention again.

First to hit reset this cycle was Harris. On May 8, the New York Times reported that after an internal debate over whether she should tack to the center or the left — and poll numbers that have fallen 5 percentage points over the last few months — the California senator was “attempting to reset her campaign” by “using her strengths as a prosecutor … to mount a sharp indictment of Mr. Trump.” At a speech in Detroit, she said that “this guy in the White House” has enabled a culture of hate that has produced “domestic terrorism,” and she dismissed the conventional wisdom around “electability,” calling it “simplistic politics” that ignores the diversity of the Democratic electorate. She’s also become one of the few Democratic candidates to turn down a Fox News town hall.

Beto O’Rourke has also reached for the reset button. Amid headlines such as “Beto’s Long History of Failing Upward” and “How the Media Fell Out of Love with Beto O’Rourke” — as well as poll numbers that have plummeted more than 5 points since the start of April — the Associated Press reported last weekend that “O’Rourke is planning to try again, taking a hands-on role in staging a ‘reintroduction’ ahead of next month’s premier Democratic presidential debate.”

“I recognize that I can do a better job,” the former Texas congressman told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow a few days later.

What exactly O’Rourke can do differently — and whether whatever that entails can resuscitate his campaign — remains to be seen. So far he has focused on driving himself to “more than 150” small early state events in a rented Dodge Caravan, much as he did in his star-making (yet ultimately failed) 2018 bid to unseat GOP Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Now he says he will do more national media, including an upcoming CNN town hall, and release more policy proposals. He’s also planning more high-dollar fundraisers.

The problem — for both O’Rourke and Harris, and for pretty much everyone else — is Joe Biden. Since he entered the race on April 25, O’Rourke’s numbers in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have not climbed above 3 percent, according to CNN’s Harry Enten, O’Rourke’s cable-news mentions have tumbled week after week, to the point where Biden is now being name-checked 20 times as often. The former vice president, meanwhile, is hovering around 40 percent nationally; leading in every early state; drawing direct attacks from Trump; and running like the general election has already begun.

“When Biden announced,” influential Democratic donor Robert Wolf told Politico, “everything changed.”

27

Pete Buttigieg unveiled 27 new “policies” Thursday in an effort to counter the perception that his media-fueled rise has been light on specifics. The numbers stop there, however: None of Buttigieg’s policies have a price tag attached to them, and many are only short, vague phrases such as “hold the gun industry accountable” and “increase energy efficiency in homes.”

“I would certainly agree to that. I don’t need it. All I need is the opponents that I’m looking at. I’m liking what I see.”

— President Trump to reporters when asked whether he would pledge to not use use “dirt” from a foreign country against an opponent in the 2020 election

President Trump steps off Marine One as he returns to the White House in Washington, D.C., May 17, 2019. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Trade on the trail

Trump reportedly believes his escalating trade war with China will help him win reelection in 2020.

Democrats, of course, disagree.

As the back-and-forth between Washington and Beijing has intensified in recent days, the president’s potential 2020 rivals have tried to capitalize on the conflict. Their responses are centered upon two critiques of the president’s leadership: his decision to engage in bilateral (as opposed to multilateral) negotiations, and his seemingly off-the-cuff, Twitter-fueled negotiating style. At stake is a tricky political question: Will Trump’s combativeness energize blue-collar voters who have long viewed the Chinese as job-stealing cheats? Or will his unconventionality fall flat, driving the same voters — many of whom are experiencing economic pain because of his tariffs — into the arms of Democrats who promise an equally tough, but steadier approach?

A sampling of Democratic criticisms:

Bernie Sanders: “What I recognize is that for many years our trade policies have been a disaster. If you look at NAFTA and PNTR with China, in fact, it has cost us about 4 million decent-paying American jobs and help lead to a race to the bottom where wages were depressed in America. So I think we do need new trade policies that are fair to the working people of this country, not just to the CEOs. But as usual, I think Trump gets it wrong in terms of implementation.”

Elizabeth Warren: “I don’t believe in tariff negotiation by tweet. I think we need a comprehensive, coherent plan before we ever get started, and that would start with bringing our allies together so we have maximum leverage against the Chinese. The Chinese are bad actors on trade. But that means that our best way to fight back is with strength and with a coherent plan — not with chaos.”

Joe Biden: "The only people paying the price are farmers and working people right now. … The president has done nothing but increase the tariffs, the debt and the trade deficit. The way we have to proceed is we have to have our allies with us. It’s not just us. We have to keep the world together.”

Kamala Harris: "This president and this administration have failed to understand that we are stronger when we work with our allies on every issue ... meaning working with our allies to address China, in terms of the threat that it presents to our economy, the threat it presents to American workers and American industries.”

Pete Buttigieg: “If you’re going to deal with an actor like China, one of the largest and one of the most strategic countries ever to come on the world stage, you’d better really know what you’re doing. … I’m not sure this president thinks beyond his next tweet, and it shows in our policies. … There has to be some sense that we’re going to come to the table and negotiate something better, not just lobbing tariffs over the fence.”

“I think that’s something that perhaps some people will have a problem with. I have no problem with it whatsoever. I think it’s good.”

— President Trump on Pete Buttigieg being openly gay and standing onstage with his husband

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks at an event promoting the Green New Deal at Howard University in Washington, D.C., May 13, 2019. (Photo: Cliff Owen/AP)

The AOC primary

Orlando Bloom, Katy Perry and Gwyneth Paltrow are backing Buttigieg. Shonda Rhimes, Elizabeth Banks and Ben Affleck are with Harris. Susan Sarandon and Danny DeVito are supporting Sanders. And even Steve Bullock has some A-list donors, including Jeff Bridges and Lyle Lovett.

But the biggest celebrity “get” of the 2020 cycle isn’t based in Hollywood. She’s based in the Bronx.

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t even a celebrity in the traditional sense of the word. But thanks to an inspiring, rags-to-riches political rise, a massive social-media following and an influential, no-holds-barred approach to progressive messaging, the freshman congresswoman has quickly become the left’s most effective counterweight to Trump.

As a result, several 2020 contestants are actively angling for her endorsement.

Sanders and AOC “have had phone calls,” reports Politico — she worked as an organizer on his 2016 campaign — and last week, the pair teamed up on legislation to cap credit card interest rates.

Not to be outdone, Warren has met privately with the freshman congresswoman and written a glowing essay about her for Time magazine.

And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro have also made overtures to the first-term phenom.

So who will snag her endorsement? And how much will it matter?

Right now, Sanders and Warren are the frontrunners. “I’m very supportive of Bernie," Ocasio-Cortez recently told Yahoo News’s Skullduggery podcast. "I also think that what Elizabeth Warren has been bringing to the table is truly remarkable.”

If AOC winds up endorsing Sanders, few would be surprised. If she jumps ship for Warren, however — or even just holds off on backing Sanders — it could boost Warren with progressives who worry that the Vermont senator is out of place in an increasingly diverse party, as well as shore up Warren’s standing with lefties who didn’t like it when she said she was “a capitalist to the bone.”

Either way, AOC insists she won’t be awarding her seal approval “for a while.” In the meantime, it’s safe to say she won’t be throwing her weight behind Biden. At a rally earlier this week, Ocasio-Cortez slammed “politicians who refused to act” in the 1980s and 1990s” but who “come back today and say we need a ‘middle of the road’ approach” on climate change — remarks obviously aimed at former vice president Biden, who is facing criticism for not speaking urgently enough about climate change.

She previously told Skullduggery that the prospect of a Biden run didn’t “animate” her.

42 percent

Trump’s current approval rating, according to FiveThirtyEight. The only modern president who had a lower rating at this point in his presidency was Jimmy Carter (37 percent). Carter went on to lose reelection the following November.

“Fox News is a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracy theorists. I won’t ask Democratic primary voters to tune into an outlet that profits from racism and hate.”

— Elizabeth Warren explaining why she turned down an offer to appear at a town hall hosted by the cable network

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