Donald Trump has lousy approval ratings. House Republicans are bracing for carnage in November. And the economy stands a reasonable chance of stalling between now and Nov. 3, 2020. So the next presidential election should be a prime opportunity for Democrats.
But potholes abound on the road to the White House. Looking at the field of possible candidates and the direction the party is leaning, there are clear and plausible ways things could go wrong. The Democrats could nominate someone who will squander their advantages and lose. Or they could nominate someone who can win but will not make a good president (as the Republicans recently did). Neither is an outcome to welcome.
Consider the possible nominees. Joe Biden's statement that he would like to "beat the hell out of" Trump should disqualify him on grounds of temperament. It also isn't likely to endear him to the millions of voters who are weary of presidential belligerence.
He would also be 78 years old upon taking office. Biden has long dreamed of the presidency, but as the late sports writer Red Smith noted, "The place for old men to dream is beside the fire."
Age takes its toll, and anyone older than 70 has passed the sell date for such a consequential, consuming job as this one. Most big corporations require CEOs to step down at 65—and a president whose age proves a liability is a lot harder to remove than a CEO.
Among the senior citizens who should be ruled out are Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (who would be 79 on Inauguration Day), California Gov. Jerry Brown (82), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (71).
Advanced age is not the only grounds for automatic disqualification. There are the celebrities and non-politicians, among them Oprah Winfrey, Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz, and actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Any of them has as much business in the Oval Office as I have in the papacy.
In the past 14 months, we've come to learn the hazards of entrusting the office to someone who has no background in government and regards this inexperience as an asset. Oprah is superb at what she does, which has little in common with the presidency. You wouldn't hire a novice to run Starbucks. Why would you put one in charge of a nuclear arsenal?
None of the politicians considered a possible candidate, by contrast, has any obvious deal breakers. Among those who have spent enough time in office to demonstrate their competence: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kamala Harris of California, and Cory Booker of New Jersey, as well as Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and John Hickenlooper of Colorado.
The question is whether any or all will try to claim the mantle of Sanders and lead the party on a giddy march to the left. Some Democrats seem to think that if pandering to base voters is good enough for Republicans, it's good enough for them.
In reality, it would be unwise as policy and as politics. The litmus test may be Sanders' single-payer health plan, which would combine extravagance with uncertainty and disruption. It would also let Republicans change the subject from their unpopular efforts to dismantle Obamacare.
Democrats have done well in recent presidential races, winning the popular vote in six of the past seven elections. What all their nominees had in common was being close to the center of the party. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton were essentially pragmatists. Conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan characterized Barack Obama as "a de facto moderate Republican"—a description Obama more or less accepted.
Those who make up the party's left wing may imagine that Americans are eager for their ambitious remedies for income inequality, corporate abuses, and racial injustice. But there is a reason that Republicans control 32 state legislatures and have 33 governors. The GOP is fervently hoping the Democratic Party will embark on a quest for ideological purity and zeal.
At present, Washington is short on leaders who offer maturity, problem-solving skills, willingness to compromise, realism about policy, and basic decency. If Democrats offer virtues like those in 2020, they are likely to win—and, equally important, to improve the nation's governance. That may not sound exciting, but excitement is the last thing we need.