The next president will have a lot to do. Each and every executive agency, down to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will need a deep cleaning. Unidentified fluids will have to be expunged from the carpet in Scott Pruitt’s soundproof room; rancid oils that have accumulated in the crevices of the Interior Department will have to be scrubbed; and whatever’s been going on at Rick Perry’s Energy Department — he’s been awfully quiet, hasn’t he? — will probably take a team of scientists and their Geiger counters to undo.
That alone will be a herculean task, but that’s not all the next president will have to do. Most urgently, we have about 40 years of lost time to make up on climate change. Meanwhile, the Democratic base is pressing to leap forward on an array of other politically thorny issues: health care, immigration, education. And to make any of that a reality, the party needs to play hardball. Whether it’s the “easy” stuff — expanding voting rights and winning control of redistricting — or the unthinkable, such as statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, Democrats can’t afford the “make-nice” politics of the past.
So far, the Democratic field is fairly strong. But there are certain qualities we should be looking for in the party’s next presidential nominee. First, they have to win, so electability is important. Second, they need to be in tune with the party’s priorities and beliefs: what issues are most important, and how to address them. If you don’t check those boxes, the rest doesn’t matter.
Because the to-do list is so daunting, the next president also needs to be someone who demonstrates a keen understanding of how power and politics works. They need to have a deep and intimate understanding of both Congress and the immense federal bureaucracy, and a willingness to use that knowledge, even in ways that incur political risk.
Bad news on that front: We need an LBJ at a time when the OSHA-violating factory that made LBJs has been shut down for decades. In politics, Americans now value fresh faces and people without complicated records, which is partly how we ended up with this perfectly smooth-brained son as our president. We think what it takes to shake up Washington is an outsider with new ideas, but what’s needed is an insider with strong convictions, a redeemed demon — Mitch McConnell, but not evil.
Compared to D.C.’s movers and shakers of yore, there are some thin résumés in the Democratic field. Julián Castro and Cory Booker were both mayors. Castro went on to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Booker has served one term in the Senate. Kamala Harris was a state attorney general and has served in the Senate for just two years — if Congress were college, she’d be a sophomore. Many people are pushing for Beto O’Rourke to run despite the fact that he’s been a backbench member of the House for just six years.
Compared to them, Kirsten Gillibrand looks like a grizzled veteran of Congress — she’s been there since 2007. But that’s not much either, historically speaking. Elizabeth Warren is a policy wonk who has been familiarizing herself with Congressional horse-trading since at least 2005, but even she has only been a senator for a little more than one term.
Sherrod Brown has a suitably long rap sheet, having been elected to the Ohio state House back in 1975. Then there’s Bernie Sanders, who has been in Congress since 1991. Experience has a long lead time, which means it’s whiter and more male than Democratic voters, perhaps one reason it holds less appeal than it used to. Moreover, such experience was gained in a broken, unpopular Congress.
But to say we need a power broker isn’t to say that we have an obligation to vote for the oldest dude in the room. Rather, it’s just as important to ask how a candidate will act as it is to ask what they believe. It’s fine to pin them down on the exact shape and curvature and declination of their Medicare expansion plan, but there’s a strong likelihood that the next president will enter office with a Senate minority and a hostile Supreme Court, facing the hatred of powerful and monied interests. Sir or madam, how will you give ’em the shiv?