How Does a Straight White Male Democrat Run for President?

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Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, and co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ.”

Of the nine candidates officially running in the Democratic presidential primary, only one is a heterosexual white man. And that guy, former Rep. John Delaney, generally polls somewhere between zero and 1 percent.

But of the 17 Democrats reportedly still pondering a presidential bid, all but one is a straight white man. It’s hard to chalk that up to coincidence. Clearly, the women and minority candidates sensed that the water is warm for them, and the straight white men appear to be worried that this is just not their year.

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CNN’s demographic number cruncher Ron Brownstein noted recently that the percentage of the Democratic primary electorate who are women, nonwhite voters and—“the most liberal component” of the party—college-educated white voters are all on the rise. The 2016 Democratic primary electorate was 58 percent women, 38 percent nonwhite voters and 37 percent college-educated white voters, all numbers that could be bigger in 2020, and strongly suggest a hospitable environment for candidates who embody a diverse America.

Does this mean that Democratic Party voters are so obsessed with identity politics that they are shutting straight white men out of the party? No. Who have been the top two candidates in nearly every primary poll? Not just two straight white males, but geriatric ones: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are the two oldest straight white men in the lot. In the most recent POLITICO/Morning Consult Democratic presidential primary tracking poll, the straight white male candidates, largely driven by Biden and Sanders, combined to garner 64 percent of the vote. Biden and Sanders are holding the top slots with the help of double-digit support among African-Americans, Latinos and women, showing that it remains possible for a white male Democratic candidate to knit together a diverse coalition.

Still, the straight white men—including Biden and Sanders—are not being irrational by hesitating. Yes, they are risking a loss of media buzz, A-list staff and access to donor networks by allowing others get a head start. But they have good reason to tread carefully. Issues pertaining to race and gender are bound to be prominent in the campaign, and white men do not exactly have the best track record of dealing with them.

Possible independent presidential candidate Howard Schultz sparked a thousand cringes when, after being asked about racist incidents at Starbucks cafes, he unconvincingly insisted, sounding like Stephen Colbert’s old Comedy Central parody of a right-wing TV host, “I honestly don’t see color.” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, struggling to restore his reputation in the wake of the blackface scandal, stumbled again when he referenced the “first indentured servants from Africa” and received this sharp retort from CBS’ Gayle King: “also known as slavery.” Whatever defense you might want to make for these responses, the fact remains that precise language matters when discussing discrimination and bigotry, and a candidate who comes across as clueless, even if well-intentioned, on such topics is going to fail the test of who can best bring the nation together.

Both Biden and Sanders will have their top-tier status severely put to the test on race and gender issues if they enter the primary. Biden is still dogged by his handling of the Anita Hill hearings. The conservative Washington Examiner has been digging up Biden’s comments from the mid-1970s criticizing the use of busing to desegregate schools. His more recent nostalgia for bipartisanship and compromise, even with “old-fashioned Democratic segregationists,” makes today’s young leftists apoplectic.

Sanders, meanwhile, has periodically betrayed a tin ear on race and gender. He defended his endorsement of an anti-abortion mayoral candidate by admonishing the left, “You just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.” And he charitably characterized white Floridians who were uncomfortable voting for an African-American gubernatorial candidate as “not necessarily racist.” His answer for why he missed sexual misconduct by his 2016 campaign staffers—“I was a little busy running around the country”—did not position him to win the #MeToo vote.

If you think these statements automatically doom Biden and Sanders, you may be underestimating how forgiving the Democratic electorate can be. Consider that 58 percent of African-Americans in Virginia do not think Northam should resign. Even so, Biden and Sanders have not dealt with these issues as presidential candidates in the 2020 race, when scrutiny will exponentially intensify. They may want to spend a little extra time making sure they know exactly what they want to say on these subjects before they announce.

Most of the straight while male fence-sitters come from the pragmatic corners of the Democratic Party, and they may want to position themselves as less susceptible than the early declared candidates to knee-jerk pandering to the left. Polls show that most Democrats are not inclined to put primary candidates through an obstacle course of purity tests, so there is likely room for such a candidate. But trying to seize the pragmatic mantle comes with a risk, especially for the straight white men. Hectoring others about what’s politically realistic could easily get a candidate tagged as a “mansplainer.” Moreover, any attack by a white man against a woman or a minority—be it from the candidate or from his supporters—would be extremely dangerous to wage, especially if those attacks come from the relative right of the party.

One question that will be particularly tough for any male candidate: Why shouldn’t the next president be a woman? After all, just among the five female members of Congress already in the field, Democratic voters can choose among different ideologies, geographic and demographic backgrounds, and types of experience. With so many qualified choices, shouldn’t the male candidates just get out of the way?

The hard truth is, there is no good answer to this question. The most obvious response, that the candidate feels he is best person for the job, runs the risk of sounding condescending. Magnanimity toward female candidates is fraught as well. Sen. Cory Booker recently fielded a softer yet still tricky question from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow: whether he would commit to a female vice presidential nominee. While trying to delicately say he wouldn’t make an iron-clad commitment, he felt the need to insist that he isn’t trying to thwart women from becoming president. “I believe there should be a woman president right now, and I worked very hard to get one,” Booker said. He was referring to Hillary Clinton, of course, but the answer leaves dangling why isn’t he working to elect a woman president “right now.”

Certainly no candidate is going to say on the record what one almost-candidate, Michael Avenatti, said last year—that to have the best chance of beating President Donald Trump, the Democratic nominee “better be a white male.” Even implicitly suggesting such a thing would be dangerous, as the straight white man and Southerner John Edwards did in 2008. He defined himself as the “most electable candidate” because he could “go to every corner of America,” implying that the African-American candidate, Barack Obama, and the female candidate, Hillary Clinton, could not.

Not only did Edwards’ argument fail to sway voters in the primary, it was proven wrong by Obama in the general election. Ten years later, a slew of women in swing districts defeated Republican men in several House races to help Democrats take control of the House. There may still be skittish and cynical Democratic voters who worry about Trump defeating another woman, but it’s going to be hard to convince most of them that it’s impossible for a woman to beat Trump.

We don’t need to feel sorry for the straight white male Democrats. Yes, they have challenges to overcome in a Democratic primary. But female and minority candidates still have to face bigotry every day, and they will be pressed to prove how they will overcome such barriers in a campaign against a president who lacks all restraint on the political battlefield. If some of the dozen or so white guys still thinking about running really do feel they are the best person for the job, part of making their case is by showing us how they can unite the party. If they can’t figure out how to do that, then they should stay on the sidelines.

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