The New York Times recently published a handy guide to who is running for president. That number recently increased by one, when my old boss, Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, announced that his cancer was gone, and he was now running for president. I supposed I could use this column to toot Bennet’s horn (Ed: no, you can’t) but I’m supposed to be an observer of politics rather than a lackey for a particular candidate (Ed: yes, you are!), so I think rather than do a campaign piece here I’m going to write on campaigning. See the subtle difference? (Ed: you better hope that I do.)
In looking at the now 21 Democratic candidates for the White House, I see right off the bat that Bennet has one advantage, heretofore held by Joe Biden, and that is the alphabetical placement of his name relative to the other candidates. Bennet is listed first, because Be comes before Bi. Imagine poor Andrew Yang, a long shot candidate who is doomed to be listed last, unless and until a Mr. or Ms. Ziegler tosses a hat in the ring. I wish I was kidding, but studies have shown that ballot placement is a significant factor in close elections.
This election now contains two candidates I know personally (Bennet far more than Hick), and that is very interesting to me, in that since I know Bennet, I wonder how much of my personal support of him comes from that personal knowledge and how much from his public persona. For the 99.999% of Americans that don’t personally know a candidate, this feeling is normal, as it was for me until this year.
Michael Bennet came to the attention of many folks a few months ago when he took to the Senate floor to make a scathing, off the top of his head, response to comments made by Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. I remember thinking that this was the first glimpse for most Americans of the Michael Bennet I’ve known and worked for. And this does, I think, point to a real problem with how we are electing presidents in the 21stcentury.
Before the 12th Amendment changed things, the vote for president and the vote for vice president were separate. The Founders thought, in their idealism, that this way, we’d elect the “best” person as POTUS and the “second best” person as the veep. This system lasted all the way through George Washington’s two terms, and then promptly failed us in the election of 1796, when Mr. Adams became president and his great rival and political opponent Thomas Jefferson became his vice. (Ed: nice double entendre!) (Me: huh?)
All during Adams’s four-year term, Jefferson worked actively to subvert the policies of his president. That lesson (and the actions of Aaron Burr in 1800) demonstrated that we needed to fix the system, and have the P and the VP run together, hence the 12thAmendment.
Now, we’ve come to a time that I don’t image the Founders could possibly understand, when personal popularity and the ability to manipulate the media is at least as important in a presidential run as policy positions and expertise. And that is not a good thing.
Conveniently, the aforementioned Sen. Cruz is a very helpful example, especially when compared to Bennet. What the nation saw from Bennet that day in the Senate is the MFB (as we called him) that the staff saw all the time. The same is true, I bet, about Mr. Cruz. I suspect he is as vain and vacuous in private as he is publicly.
Bennet and Hickenlooper are different. I remember the passion in Bennet’s voice the time the boss called me to completely ensure that a particular veteran being laid to rest got a proper military funeral. We worked very hard and we ultimately got a trumpet player from the Denver Symphony to play Taps. I suspect Buttigieg and Klobuchar are similar, so their campaigns will also be interesting tests of the gravitas vs. show biz savvy.
The vast majority of Coloradans and, well, all Americans, don’t know about such examples, because Bennet has one massive flaw when it comes to a presidential campaign — he’s a genuinely modest man. And that, my friends, is incredibly rare in politics. I sure bragged on myself when I ran for Congress back in 2008.
I don’t know if Bennet can win. His campaign will be a test of whether Mr. Smith can still go to Washington. Obviously, I’m quite biased (Ed: gee, really?) but I think the Bennet campaign will prove illustrative of whether competence and a gentle nature can win in a wildly partisan and divisive era. I hope it can, but I fear it cannot.
But as a VP candidate…? Hum…
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.