Diversity among Dem presidential hopefuls shows progress

Sen. Kamala Harris
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Sen. Kamala Harris' mother was Tamil-Indian and her father Jamaican.

I’ll eventually get around to saying something (something amazing and historic) about the developing campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination, but indulge me first, if you have the time and inclination, in a little ancient history.

I’m so old that 1960 doesn’t strike me as ancient history. I turned 9 that year, and, growing up in Massachusetts in a liberal, Democratic FDR-worshipping Jewish family, we were very excited about the presidential prospects of our young senator, John F. Kennedy.

One of the big political/cultural questions that year was whether the country was ready to elect a Catholic as president. It had never happened. In fact, every president up to then was a full-on WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) except for a few who were predominantly Dutch (the two Roosevelts for example) and then-incumbent, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose ancestry was mostly German. Herbert Hoover was a Quaker, which might or might not be considered exactly “Protestant” by some people, for reasons I don’t understand.

But a Catholic? That would be a big diversity move to the America of 1960. Only one Catholic had ever been nominated: New York’s Democratic Gov. Al Smith in 1928. He had to overcome substantial anti-Catholic resistance to get the nomination, but he was crushed in the general election.

One reason I bring this up is that I recently re-read a breakthrough book about the Kennedy-Nixon election, “The Making of the President 1960,” by Theodore White. Published in 1961, after closely following the 1960 campaign, White took an insiderish, novelistic approach to how presidential campaigns really worked.

As I read it in 2019, it seemed almost naïve. (White didn’t go anywhere near the matter of JFK’s philandering, for example, which I’m sure was considered too risqué to discuss at the time. The 1988 front-runner candidacy of Democratic Sen. Gary Hart was the first time the press decided that philandering by a candidate was newsworthy.)

But in 1960, the is-America-ready-for-a-Catholic-president angle was very big. JFK had to make clear that he would not be taking orders from the pope on how to run the country. And anti-Catholic bias was such a concern that the West Virginia primary became a very big deal.

In 1960, there were still very few primaries. You could run for president without competing in any of them. (In most states, the party bosses put together the delegations to the nominating conventions. And the few states that did hold primaries operated on a winner-take-all basis. Whoever won got all of a state’s delegates. So even candidates who were interested in using primaries to demonstrate their popularity would compete only in states where they thought they could finish first.)

In 1960, on the Democratic side, the two who hoped to primary their way to the nomination were JFK and Minnesota’s own Hubert H. Humphrey. The first primary, as always, was New Hampshire. But Humphrey had no incentive to challenge JFK in a state that bordered Massachusetts. JFK won easily.

Wisconsin was second, where Humphrey had a similar neighboring-state advantage. But JFK decided to compete there, and try to finish off Humphrey. Kennedy’s money and charisma enabled him to win there, too, leaving the Humphrey bid on life support.

The desperate Humphrey campaign searched for a place to try to stop Kennedy. They looked at the remaining (very limited) list of primaries and decided to make a last stand in West Virginia. I’m a huge Humphrey admirer. And this might not sound defensible. But in choosing West Virginia, Team Humphrey surely believed that they needed a redneck state with very few Catholic voters in which to underscore the risk the Democrats would be taking if they nominated a Catholic. West Virginia’s population was roughly 95 percent Protestant. Humphrey didn’t say anything despicable along those lines, but that clearly was the logic behind making a last stand in West Virginia.

Anyway, it didn’t work. JFK defeated Humphrey by a solid margin in West Virginia, Humphrey dropped out of the race, and that essentially ended any serious resistance to Kennedy for the nomination during the primary season. (He still faced some big names who hoped to stop his nomination at the convention, based, as I said above, on the fact that most of the delegates back then were not chosen in primaries. But, of course that didn’t work either. JFK was nominated and elected.

I hope that history wasn’t too boring. The main point that’s relevant to today is to recall that as recently as 1960 the big “diversity” question was whether America was ready to elect a president who wasn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. And it turned out the answer was yes, we were ready for a handsome, rich, white, Irish Catholic. It was quite a big breakthrough.

Since I read the book, I’ve been meaning to write some of this not-so-ancient history of what passed for diversity in 1960. But I got off my duff and did it today because I just looked at the latest update of the Washington Post’s perhaps silly, roughly weekly, ranking of the likeliest winner of the race for the Democratic 2020 presidential nomination. They call it the Post Pundit 2020 Power Ranking, in which members of the Post’s editorial and columnist crew generate their updated best guess of who will be the 2020 nominee.

I’ll provide a link below. We, the obsessed, may enjoy these exercises, but it’s vital to bear in mind that as predictions, they border on worthless, as evidenced by the fact that they redo them every week or so. They don’t even claim to be making predictions. It’s roughly equivalent to speculating who might win the SuperBowl three years from now.

But it does seem better than 50-50 likely that someone on their list of 15 – 15! – contenders will be the nominee. I’ve decided not to get overly excited about week-to-week movement on the list.

I bring it up today, after the long history lesson above, to note and to celebrate how far Americas (or at least Democrats) have come since 1960 in its willingness to consider individuals of various races, genders, religions, affectional orientations and fundamental ideologies.

The top four on the list (all apparently tied for No. 1) are Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former senator and VP Joe Biden, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

We may think of Harris as African-American. Her mother was actually Tamil-Indian and her father Jamaican. We have never had a president (nor a major party nominee) of Tamil, or Indian, or Jamaican ancestry. We never had a non-white president before Barack Obama, which was pretty recent and still pretty astonishing. We’ve never had a female president and we never had a female major party nominee before Hillary Clinton in 2016.

If elected, either Biden or Sanders would be the oldest ever president at time of election. (We have that right now, by the way. Donald Trump was 70 on Inauguration Day 2017. If he is the nominee in 2020, he will be 74. Biden will be 77. Sanders will be 79. I’ll confess that I’m a little nervous about the age factor, considering the strains of the job, and perhaps the electability factor. But certainly this paragraph reflects great progress against ageism in presidential politics.

Biden is also Catholic, which, as this piece above mentions was a pretty big deal as recently as 1960, but is now barely noteworthy in terms of diversity breakthroughs.

Sanders, in addition to being the oldest president ever at time of election, is also Jewish. We’ve never had a Jewish president, a Jewish major party nominee, nor a Jewish vice president. The closest we’ve ever come was Joe Lieberman, Al Gore’s Jewish running mate in 2000. Until recently, the Jewishness of a candidate would at least be somewhat interesting/controversial.

Sanders would also be the first major party nominee or president who describes himself as a democratic socialist. And that, of course, will be controversial.

Buttigieg. OMG. If nominated or elected, he would be the youngest president ever (he’ll be 38 on Election Day; the Constitution requires 35;  the previous youngest ever on Election Day was the aforementioned JFK, who was 43.) Mayor Pete would also be the first of Maltese extraction. But, of course, I buried the lede: Buttigieg would the first openly gay, and gay-married nominee or president, and the first in that category to ever be seriously considered at any point in any presidential contest.

That’s just the top four on the Post list. Keep going. At No. 5 is Beto O’Rourke. Despite his nickname, he would not be the first Hispanic president, although he would be the first Hispanic-nicknamed. And despite looking very young, would be older than JFK on Election Day.

But after Beto, comes Cory Booker (who would be just the second nominee or president of color, after Barack Obama). And then, ranked 5-10, come four more women, three of them senators: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen Amy Klobuchar, Stacey Abrams (who is also African-American), and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

When JFK beat Nixon in 1960, there was exactly one woman in the Senate, Republican Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first woman ever elected to the Senate without having first been appointed to the seat to serve out her late husband’s term. In 1964, Smith became the first woman ever to seek a major party nomination for president. In announcing, she said: “I have few illusions and no money, but I’m staying for the finish. When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.”

She didn’t win any primaries but never dropped and become the first of her gender to have her name placed in nomination at a major party convention.

At present, without getting into any handicapping, we have a Democratic field that includes in its top 10 contenders (according to the Post power people) five women; two candidates of color; one Jew (also a self-described socialist) two candidates who would set a record for oldest at time of election, and one who would set a record for youngest, and who also be the first to break the homosexual barrier.

Personally, I haven’t settled on a favorite, and I hope Democrats who will figure out the best combination of a candidate who can win and who will be an excellent president. But I call this level of diversity in their current field progress, at least on one side of the partisan divide.

(Here’s the Post Pundit list.)

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by cory johnson on 04/19/2019 - 01:12 pm.

    Progress except only the old white guys poll well. The rest are running for VP.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/19/2019 - 02:02 pm.

    This may be another way of saying that the United States population is more diverse than it was 50 or 70 years ago.

    • Submitted by Mark Iezek on 04/20/2019 - 10:35 am.

      The increased diversity of presidential candidates says more about increased acceptance of diversity in leadership than it does about the increased diversity in the US.

      After all, in 1970, there was essentially the same percentage of women in the country as today, the same percentage of LGBT people, nearly the same percentage of African-Americans. And those groups combined, then as now, were a significant majority of the population. But in 1970, no member of those groups would have received serious consideration for President, as the reception for Margaret Chase Smith’s 1964 campaign and Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign showed.

      In fact, in 1970, we were two years away from the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, 29 years from the first African-American and 44 years from the first openly gay Fortune 500 CEO.

      And, we were four years from electing the first woman governor who wasn’t the wife or widow of the previous governor, 20 years from electing the first post-Reconstruction Black governor and 48 years from electing the first out gay governor.

      So, even though the country is more diverse than 50 years ago, the major change is that the country is more accepting of leadership from outside the minority group of straight white men.

      Not totally accepting, mind you, just more accepting. After all, there is still polling about what percentage of the population would be comfortable with a woman, black person or LGBT American as President.

      (Interesting that no one ever polls how many Americans are comfortable with a man as President. There is an implicit assumption that the question is not worth asking, even though the answer almost certainly would be less than 100%. It’s hard to wrap your head around the implicit unacknowledged bias of every decision maker is the media and polling companies in repeatedly asking that question about women and never about men. So, when a poll finds that (for example) 80% of people are comfortable with a woman as president, it is compared to an assumed 100% comfortable with men, rather than some actual percentage determined by polling.)

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/19/2019 - 02:39 pm.

    Actually, there has never yet been a president who is descended from Africans brought to the U.S. to be slaves. Barack Obama was not descended from slaves (I believe Michelle Robinson Obama was, though); his father was Kenyan and his mother was white. Kamala Harris has no connection to the African-American community that is descended from slaves. These Democrats have experienced our systemic racism, of course, but Eric is being too literal about diversity for that to count, really.

    Stacey Abrams and Cory Booker, now: they have roots in our African-American community and history.

    To have all three white septuagenarian males place at the top here, when there are so many qualified younger women running for the Democratic nomination for President, is very disappointing.

    Further, I’m of the same generation as Trump, Biden, and Sanders, and in my view–remembering vividly what happened to Reagan as he developed Alzeimer’s after he turned 80 in office–they’re too risky to nominate, because of their age. Donald Trump, if you look at video clips of him even ten years ago, is not the same man–he’s not as quick, and he has the old man’s tendency to repeat himself again and again, always in short sentences. Biden’s generational problems are clear: He just doesn’t get it, with women and #MeToo. Sanders barely even stopped to think about the misogyny and gender harassment in his 2016 campaign, and he has to be reminded all the time about race matters.

    The woman–indeed, the candidate–with the most impressive policy “chops” is, of course, Elizabeth Warren. Nobody even comes close to her, except for the really, really young Green New Deal proposer, Alexandra Ocasio.

    But Americans want a Daddy. They do not want anybody remotely professorial or schoolmarmish (Warren does come across that way, like her as I do). They want a populist, and I fear that the highly-emotional Bernie folks will again vote for Donald Trump (as millions of them apparently did in 2016) if Bernie doesn’t get the Democratic nomination.

    I’m too old to yearn after a Father Figure to make all our problems go away so we don’t have to think about them, and hope that America looks to younger candidates.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/19/2019 - 06:08 pm.

    While I will happily vote for virtually anyone in opposition to Donald Trump who can walk and chew gum simultaneously, I continue to hope that we can do much better than that very, very low bar. I don’t have much personal opposition to anyone currently on the Democrats’ list, but overall, I’m much inclined toward Connie Sullivan’s sentiment. I, too, am of the Trump/Biden/Sanders generation (I’m 74).

    I’ll take almost anyone who’s not a convicted felon on the Democratic side, but my preference would be for someone younger and – it’s about time, I think – of a different gender than previous presidents. I’m a fan of AOC, but I think she needs more seasoning and experience – if she stays in office for a while, she will be a very formidable candidate at some future date. I’m also a fan of Elizabeth Warren, but I’m an old retired teacher, and I agree with Ms. Sullivan that Warren often comes across in public as professorial. I don’t mind it, but know there are those who do. Amy sounds like a lawyer, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but will alienate some, and so does Kamala Harris. I admit that I think Kirsten Gillibrand was too quick to act and too harsh in judgment in driving Al Franken from the Senate.

    None of the candidates is perfect, either in personal or electoral terms, but I’d happily vote for any of the current Democratic candidates if the opponent in 2020 is the current occupant of the Oval Office.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/20/2019 - 08:41 pm.

    Elizabeth Warren would be the first American Indian to be elected President.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/21/2019 - 02:55 pm.

      Neither Warren or any tribe has claimed that she is a Native American.
      Actually, Kamala Harris would be the first Indian American President.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/21/2019 - 09:07 pm.

        Warren claimed that she is American Indian on multiple occasions, including in writing (Texas Bar). She has admitted it and apologized for it. Yet, claims persist that she said no such thing.

        From NPR:
        https://www.npr.org/2019/02/06/692103008/elizabeth-warren-apologizes-for-latest-revelation-of-native-american-claims

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/21/2019 - 09:53 pm.

          No — she has claimed that she has Native American ancestry.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/21/2019 - 09:55 pm.

          Read the link that you posted.

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/22/2019 - 08:59 am.

            Read paragraph 1 of the NPR article I linked, provided here for your convenience:

            “Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is once again apologizing for claiming Native American ancestry after the Washington Post reported that she filled out a registration card for the State Bar of Texas in 1986 and wrote “American Indian” in the line asking her race.”

            She registered, in writing, that her race is “American Indian”.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/22/2019 - 10:32 am.

              Is that the worst thing you can find to say about her? Or is it just something that Donald “Fake Swede” Trump decided to harp on, so it must bear repeating?

              • Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/22/2019 - 07:05 pm.

                If you look up stream, I was merely calling out a false claim regarding Senator Warren, a claim commonly made. I am not attempting to say at the worst thing about her. I do however enjoy observing the attempted defense of the indefensible.

                • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/23/2019 - 11:13 am.

                  I see. Why concern yourself with policy, right?

                  • Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/23/2019 - 03:13 pm.

                    Seriously, policy? Did you read this column? Eric talked about candidates being Catholic, Jewish, WASP, Tamil-Indian/Jamaican, female, gay, young, old, mid-western. These are not policies.

                    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/23/2019 - 03:40 pm.

                      I read the article. I also read your comments.

                      I’m sure you have plenty of good reasons why Senator Warren’s statement about her heritage is “indefensible,” yet you give a pass to Trump (FYI, I still won’t believe “hypocrisy”).

                    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/23/2019 - 04:20 pm.

                      Do tell about the policy statements you read in this column.

                      Why are you motivated to defend Warren’s claims for which she apologized long ago. She surely wouldn’t make the defenses that you are offering for her statements.

                      When have I given Trump a pass?

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/22/2019 - 08:58 am.

          She has said she has Native American ancestry. She has never said she is a member of any tribe, or that she qualifies for such membership.

  6. Submitted by Henry Johnson on 04/20/2019 - 10:37 pm.

    I don’t expect it to happen, but it would be nice if the Democratic party started switching from the various candidates trying to out-liberal each other, to focusing instead on how they as a party can WIN the general elections in 2020 (not just for president, but for senate and house seats as well).

    What I’ve seen so far is a lot of jockeying for primary votes that are already won for the democratic party in the general election – far left votes, black votes, hispanic votes, gay votes and so on.

    Positions are being advocated by many of the leading candidates to pander to those groups and their special interests – groups, that unless they are brain dead, would be insane to vote for Donald Trump.

    The candidates are working hard to win votes that are already won, won for the party anyway, and completely IGNORING the undecided, up-in-the-air swing votes that decide general elections!

    What the party should be doing, if it wants to win the presidency, the senate, and retain the house in 2020, is to win back the white and working class vote, the ‘blue dog’ democrat vote that decided at least Trump seemed to be addressing THEIR needs (jobs, make America first, etc), as opposed to voting for unappealing and allegedly corrupt Hillary Clinton, who even among democrats, had a pretty high polling rate as someone with an honesty problem, and who seemed to primarily talk about positions that appealed to the needs of democratic special interest groups.

    And in the final weeks, she didn’t even bother visiting the rust belt states or places like Wisconsin, she just assumed those ‘traditional’ democratic states were “in the bag”.

    She took those votes for granted, exactly as the party right now seems to be doing – AGAIN!

    Those swing states and swing votes are what the party should be trying to win over.

    The answer to the fascism that we are seeing in the Trump-publican party is not extreme left positions – not when it comes to winning elections, and IMO, that should be the primary focus for democrats right now.

    The bulk of American voters are currently in favor of neither the far-right or far-left positions, and they are a large, and currently largely ignored electorate looking for someone to represent and champion them!

    As of now, both major parties seem completely un-interested in courting the votes of the big block of voters who are even close to moderate, as in voters who are left-moderate, center-moderate, or right-moderate.

    And that’s a pretty big block – probably somewhere between 30% to 50% of the electorate according to studies I’ve been reading.

    And those are precisely the voters who are most likely to be undecided and therefore whose votes are “up-for-grabs”.

    The far-right folks are already voting Trump-publican for sure, the far-left are already voting a straight democratic ticket, it’s the people in the middle who decide elections.

    You would think that the democratic party would use some scientific analysis to wake up and realize they won big in the mid-terms precisely because a lot of moderates, including some right-moderates even, decided that they’d rather have a moderate democrat than a hard-right representative who is totally at the beck and call of Trump, who they were starting to have a problem with.

    Because a few ultra-liberals like AOC also won in the mid-terms (in districts that were already democratic), the Democratic party has irrationally decided what America wants and what the mid-term victory signaled – is that America wants far-left policies and candidates.

    Duh, No!, she and Omar and a few others were exceptions – the vast majority of seats that changed hands from republican to democrat, were because the democrat in that election was a moderate, and those moderate democrats appealed to center-moderates and right-moderates even.

    The shift in power that occurred by winning the house was a gift given to the democratic party by MODERATE voters, NOT far-left voters.

    I’m fine with some of the positions being advocated by AOC and others, yes, we need to take climate change seriously and create jobs doing so, yes, I’m for national health care – but you need to win elections to get any of those policies enacted into law..

    And it will take time to “sell” moderates on those position, so you don’t want to fool yourself into thinking you are going to win big in the general elections by highlighting and focusing primarily on issues that a great bulk of the country is not yet “sold” on.

    I think the old expression “putting the cart before the horse” would apply here.

    The wise thing to do then, IMO, is to focus on choosing candidates and positions that are most likely to lead to victories in 2020, and THEN after the presidency has been won back, and the senate and the house, to then start that process of convincing the public on the virtues of various progressive programs.

    There is no way any progressive legislation of any kind is going to be enacted into law, and whether you think theoretically it’s right or wrong, taking campaign positions like coming out in favor of reparations is a great way to kill the chances for victory in the general election.

  7. Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/22/2019 - 07:07 pm.

    Bottom line: The Democratic candidate for President will be one of two old white guys, Sanders or Biden. Though very unlikely, they could team up on the same ticket.

Leave a Reply