A single issue is not enough for a winning Presidential campaign
With the second set of debates set to begin, this time with a higher bar for candidates to participate, the Democratic field for President is finally starting to winnow down. While it is true that some candidates such as Steve Bullock and Tom Steyer still refuse to acknowledge the writing on the wall, something that is especially troubling since Bullock is needed as a Senate candidate, and Steyer’s millions could be better spent addressing voter disenfranchisement, several others have finally acknowledged what everyone else was well aware of for some time: they will not be the Democratic nominee for President.
Among those finally coming to terms with reality are a number of very impressive candidates — evidence of the Democrats’ deep bench this year — including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Washington Governor Jay Inslee. These two are particularly instructive since they fell into a trap that we see candidates falling into year after year: the single-issue candidate trap.
You can see how it happens. An issue seems to have particularly strong voter support. The candidate believes that he or she can appeal to those voters and ride their wave to the Presidency. Inevitably, these candidates are disappointed.
I have some personal experience with this frustration. In 1992, I was working for the Presidential campaign of Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey. Kerrey is an extremely impressive individual, having served as Nebraska Governor, a successful small businessperson, and a Medal of Honor recipient. He is brilliant and articulate. He seemed a natural.
Kerrey had built a reputation in the Senate as an advocate for national health care. Remember, these are the days before Obamacare or even the failed Clinton health care initiative. Just the year before, Harris Wofford had been elected to the Senate in a special election advocating universal health care.
I remember watching a debate with my coworkers in New Hampshire in which Kerrey answered a question about crime by referring to his healthcare initiative. His answer quickly made him something of a laughing stock. That, combined with a couple of other unfortunate missteps, doomed his campaign.
Instructively, he did actually win one primary after New Hampshire: South Dakota. In fact, he won a primary before the eventual nominee Bill Clinton won anything. But he won that primary based upon his position on the Senate agriculture committee, and his deep understanding of the needs of America’s farmers appealed to the voters in that state. As a result, it wasn’t health care that delivered Kerrey his one primary win, it was the entire package.
The two Democrats who went on to contest the nomination had both thought long and hard about what it would mean to be President. Former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas used to hand out a booklet with his plans for America everywhere. I even remember seeing them under the windshield wipers of parked cars. Bill Clinton could speak at length on any issue. These were candidates with the depth to run for President. Unfortunately, at that time, Kerrey didn’t have it yet.
So this year, Jay Inslee had built his campaign around a call to arms on climate change. To be sure, this is an issue Democrats are concerned about. Indeed, the environment is the third most important issue to Democrats, and climate change is the issue that most divides Democrats and Republicans. Nevertheless, Inslee’s campaign never caught on, likely because voters want a President with something to say about all issues, not just the environment.
Similarly, Gillibrand had focused her campaign around women’s issues. She seemed the proper candidate to deliver this message, with her vocal advocacy of the “me too” movement, and her proposed “Family Bill of Rights.” Indeed, the successful attorney who speaks Mandarin Chinese and has a beautiful family seemed to epitomize the aspiration of a modern woman. But her campaign just never caught fire.
Unfortunately for Gillibrand, it appears that women want a President who represents everyone, not just women.
As with Inslee or Kerrey, Gillibrand’s inability to offer a broader vision than one based upon a single issue doomed her campaign.
Some might argue, what about inequality as a single issue? That issue seems to have largely powered the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the two candidates challenging Joe Biden’s lead most successfully.
But yet there is something different about inequality as an issue. In this case, it represents a coherent philosophy addressing the basic unfairness built into our system. In focusing a message on addressing inequality, these candidates are saying that they stand for basic fairness, something much more comprehensive than a single issue represents.
Shortly after the disappointing 2016 election, the show Blackish produced an episode in which the characters discussed their frustration with the results. Even the traditionally conservative gun-owning white boss was upset. Then it came to light that the white woman in the room had voted for Trump. The African-Americans were appalled, arguing that they turned out for Obama and that women should have similarly supported Hillary. The woman argued, however, that she wanted a candidate who represented all her views, not just her gender. She was insulted by the efforts of Hillary to pigeon-hole her into a single issue.
While it is true that African-Americans turned out in record numbers to support Barack Obama, enthusiastic at the prospect of electing an African-American President of the United States, Obama also offered a coherent narrative of hope at a time when many Americans were scared. This kind of broad appeal is what one needs to win the Presidency, and neither Inslee nor Gillibrand ever achieved it.
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