We’ve reached that time of year when triple-A ballplayers who played well last summer watch their cellphones for the call inviting them to spring training with one of the Bigs. Professional baseball is raw Darwinism. If you can hit better, run bases faster and field the ball with fewer errors, you can knock a veteran off the roster. There is no room for complaint that this is intrinsically unfair or that you shouldn’t be judged on the basis of performance. It’s all about results.
Not so much with presidential campaigns. Primary candidates possess varying degrees of credibility and familiarity. Name recognition matters. Experience and past performance matter. Likeability matters. Consequently, these contests always launch with frontrunners and dark horses. Triple-A candidates lurking behind the frontrunners rarely compete unless a favorite stumbles or withers underneath the glare of the spotlights. Joe Biden has tanked a pair of previous Democratic primary outings and always seems one slip of the tongue away from another disaster.
Pursuing him is a pack of aspirants ready to lunge into the center ring without shedding a tear for his departure. Two of these, billionaire Tom Steyer and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, visited Colorado recently to stir up their supporters. Neither Steyer’s billions nor Pete’s silver tongue will help them dislodge the current frontrunners. That will only follow an unforced error. The one thing we have learned in recent decades is that these contests are inherently volatile.
Frank Sinatra topped the charts with the lyrics, “You’re riding high in April, shot down in May. But I know I’m gonna change that tune, when I’m back on top — back on top in June.” That’s politics, as well as life, and could serve as an anthem for all the dark horses, even Colorado’s own Michael Bennet. With few exceptions, most voters offer their support not as a promise of unwavering allegiance, but as a judgment on which candidate is most likely to advance their own priorities. Four years ago, a disgruntled electorate sought someone who would travel to Washington, flip over the banquet table, and break all the crockery. That was never going to be Hillary Clinton.
Democrats in 2020 are gambling a majority of voters believe it is necessary to elect a president to sweep up the mess that has emerged from constant chaos in the White House. Quite enough China (double entendre alert) has been shattered. Certainly, this is the premise underlying Tom Steyer’s campaign. He spoke to a small crowd of perhaps 150 at the IBEW Union Hall in northeast Denver two weeks ago. Perhaps the greatest surprise is how progressive he is for a billionaire. The media has failed to group him with Sanders and Warren to the left of the field, though they probably should.
During his brief opening remarks, he checked off a laundry list of issues where an overwhelming majority of voters tell pollsters they want to see immediate change: election finance, gun control, congressional term limits and an economy where a single parent earns enough to support his or her family. He feels our only solution is to break corporate power controlling our politics. “This has to stop,” he implored. “We’ve lost our way spiritually as a country.” Interestingly, he attracted about 15-20% African Americans. Aurora NAACP director Omar Montgomery and recent candidate for mayor, losing in a tight race to Mike Coffman, moderated the event. Steyer promised to appoint a commission, not to consider whether reparations for slavery are appropriate, but to determine how they should be fairly distributed.
This contrasted with Buttigieg’s appearance at the Fillmore concert hall, which drew nearly 3,000 fans. I spotted a single African American and he appeared to be with the campaign staff. Mayor Pete’s speech was delivered before a huge American flag offering echoes from George C. Scott’s peroration in the movie "Patton." There was an emphasis on Pete’s military service and a direct criticism of the pardon conferred by Trump to the Navy Seal found guilty of battlefield brutality. There were several Bible quotations and a litany of policy initiatives, similar to Steyer’s, followed with the admonition, “That can’t wait!” The largely millennial audience shared an opinion expressed to me by a married couple from Colorado Springs, one an elementary teacher and the other a professor at Colorado College, that Democrats need to offer voters new faces.
Both candidates appear ready to step up should a collapse occur on the front tier. In fact, both have been showing surprising strength in recent polling. Either appeared capable, without hesitation, of delivering Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election appeal in 1936, “These economic royalists complain we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.” Fighting words. Possibly winning words.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.