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Useful Candidate Evaluations Are Holistic, Not Ad Hoc Searches For Arbitrary Dealbreakers

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Martin Longman’s response to Ryan Cooper makes a point I think is important:

The reason I’ve been putting “the left” in quotes throughout this piece is because it’s absurd to suggest that the vocal opponents of Harris, Patrick and Booker have sole ownership of the term. And they must know that they can’t forge a truly left-leaning takeover of the Democratic Party without making deep inroads with people of color. Moreover, David Axelrod is correct that the early primary schedule could favor a talented, charismatic African-American candidate who has the official or unofficial blessing of the Obama team.

So, what Cooper should try focusing on, at least for a while to see how it looks, is how “the left” can avoid marginalization on the basis of perceived racial insensitivity. In my opinion, neither side can avoid their fates here. “The left” will attack these black candidates as a group for their Wall Street connections no matter how many allies advise them that this will be unwise and self-defeating. But, if you’re trying to be constructive, you might consider that the best way to protect “the left” from charges of racism is not to insist that they have a point, even if they do. It might be better to do what is expected by decent people, and that’s to be fair and focus on the strengths of these candidates and the fullness of their records rather than lumping them together and dismissing them as sell-outs.

I think the criticisms Cooper raises of Harris, Booker, and Patrick are in themselves mostly fair. Unlike Longman, for example, I think Patrick’s decision to work at Bain Capital is a very serious concern — even if we assume arguendo that his buckraking is just bad optics, well, this is politics: optics matter! (I would indeed assume that Patrick’s not running.) Booker’s rhetorical closeness to Wall Street is a serious concern for the same reason. Harris’s meh record as AG is certainly something that should be counted against her.

But if we’re serious about evaluating candidates, weaknesses have to be assessed along with strengths. The fact that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Booker’s record as a senator and Elizabeth Warren’s also matters. Putting the arbitrary dealbreakers side-to-side is often instructive, showing the electoral equivalent of the “ACA is worthless neoliberal crap and repealing it would be a catastrophe” contradiction. If Harris’s squishiness on criminal justice issues is worthy of mention but Booker’s excellent record on them as a senator is not, for example, then we’re not really evaluating candidates based on criminal justice — we’re just finding pretexts to clear the field for your preferred candidate.

Criticism of potential candidates is not merely fine but necessary, and people will have different priorities. But useful comparisons of candidates examine their records and strengths and weaknesses as a whole, both in terms of policy and politics. (Patrick’s decision to work at Bain is a serious if not necessarily dispositive drawback; the same is true of the fact that Bernie would be 79 on Inauguration Day in 2021.) Cherry-picking the records of candidates you have decided ex ante you don’t like and ignoring problems with candidates you do is not going to be very illuminating.

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