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The biggest mistake Democrats could make right now

If there is one accomplishment for which we can confidently credit President Donald Trump, it is ending the ...

Posted: Jan 2, 2019 11:13 PM
Updated: Jan 2, 2019 11:13 PM

If there is one accomplishment for which we can confidently credit President Donald Trump, it is ending the country's political apathy. Americans who stayed home on Election Day 2016 have turned their attention sharply to politics -- streaming to the polls in record numbers in the 2018 midterms.

And if 2018 brought a sense of urgency to politics, 2019 is sure to boost it to new levels, with the 2020 election looming brightly in the distance. Whether or not Republicans choose to challenge Trump will matter greatly, but the main event will play out on the Democratic side, where dozens of candidates are lining up to compete. The large number of options is a mixed blessing, offering voters a veritable smorgasbord of choices, but creating countless risks in the process.

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Democrats feel understandable pressure to choose a candidate with a strong chance of winning, but that inclination could give undue weight to early polls, shortchanging less well-known figures -- one of whom may hold the key to victory.

Just remember that early polls are fog machines, making it more difficult to see. In 2006, Rudy Giuliani led the polls for the Republican nomination. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was ahead, followed by Al Gore and John Edwards. Nine months later, then-Sen. Barack Obama was in second place.

Another risk is giving in to presumed prejudice for the sake of imagined expediency. Should Democrats play it safe, go with a white male and stay away from candidates with ideas that sound too bold, in an effort to appeal to the largest possible swath of the electorate?

The question is no doubt spinning in some voters' minds, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren has launched the preliminary phase of her campaign, and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, looks set to announce his candidacy. Many other women and minorities are seriously considering a run, among them Senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and others.

Are the stakes too high to line up behind one of them? That is a cold calculation that some will surely consider a tactical move, or concession given the gravity of the situation. But that would be a grievous mistake.

In fact, the greatest mistake voters could make now is to pay attention to the polls and to make decisions too soon. At this early stage, the polls reflect name recognition and little else. Unfortunately, they create a circular narrative, with strong poll numbers boosting well-known figures. Early polls magnify the problems caused by a crowded field, making it even more difficult to hear the voices of the lesser-known contenders.

Is it any doubt that most polls show former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders at or near the top? They both have had lengthy opportunities to introduce themselves to voters and make their ideas known. Perhaps one of them holds the combination to the Oval Office. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said as much about Biden on WAMC radio on Wednesday morning.

But we shouldn't decide before we listen to all the other potential candidates. That, admittedly, will not be easy considering how many Democrats are pondering a run. Several weeks ago, I started typing out the names of potential candidates on a spread sheet. I stopped at 40, and I wasn't finished.

One of those people has the right mix of ideas, charisma, intelligence and experience to become the Democratic candidate -- and to potentially win the 2020 the election, changing the course of American history.

I have written extensively about the threats to liberal democracy across the globe, and about the importance of what happens in the US. If Trump wins reelection, it will not only affect the future of the US, but it will give new impetus to the illiberal authoritarian trend. Democracies around the world are hoping American voters will get it right.

To do that, it is crucial that voters find a candidate that offers the right balance of temperament, empathy, intellectual capacity and political acumen.

Democrats are right to want to be smart and deliberate about their choice. In a field rich with inspiring orators, accomplished legislators, successful business figures and so many impressive resumes, we don't know who will make the strongest case for the nomination. It may well be someone who's not even showing up in the scores of articles listing the top prospects.

My advice to responsible media is to play down the horse race and ease up on the early polling. Instead, tell voters who the candidates really are, what they believe, what their ideas would do and what their track record tells us about how they would govern.

My suggestion to voters is don't let the seriousness of the choice force you to decide tomorrow. Keep an open mind, listen to the candidates and try to dig deeper than their words. Learn about all of them before you settle on one.

It's going to be a fascinating and important year. Apathy just won't do.

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