How to decide who to vote for in the primaries (including this one)

Here’s my formula for how to decide who to vote for in the primaries. It’s a two-step process:

  1. Choose which party you agree with more.

  2. Vote the person.

That’s it. Do not try to pick a candidate until you’ve picked a party. Don’t get caught up in Rand Paul’s isolationism, Donald Trump’s promise to build a yuge wall, Bernie Sanders’ desire to break up the big banks, or Hillary Clinton’s desire for more gun control. None of that will actually matter when they get into office.

Step one – picking a party – is usually the easy part (Although, apparently there are some people who evidently still insist there isn’t a real difference between the two parties. I have nothing to say to those people. This post isn’t for them. Moving on…).

Personally, I’m a Democrat. I belong to the party which believes in climate science and supports clean energy. The party for gun control. The party for civil rights. The party that doesn’t start stupid wars (at least not lately). The party where it’s ok to believe that human law should be above religious law. The party for a higher minimum wage. The party of fiscal responsibility (by which I mean not exploding the debt and then trying to force a default on that debt). The party which essentially says, we’re all in this together, rather than you’re on your own.

Anyway, that’s my party. Step 1 is done.

The next step is vote the person. This is by far the trickier step.

I’ll start with why I was an early and ardent supporter of Barack Obama way back in 2007. It wasn’t because of his policies. It was because of who he was. He was bi-racial. He had lived abroad for large swaths of his childhood. Multiculturalism was in his blood. He had a muslim name. He was a constitutional lawyer. He’d been a community organizer. He was whip-smart, a gifted communicator, and even-keeled. He played basketball to unwind. Those are all things about who he was.

Of course, who we are informs what we believe, and that’s sort of the point. It’s difficult to suss out what a politician really believes without first looking at who they are, and in any case what they believe turns out to be much less consequential than everyone makes it out to be.

Take the 2008 Democratic primary. Do you remember what the single biggest domestic policy difference was between Clinton and Obama? It was over whether to include an individual mandate as part of healthcare reform. Obama was against it, arguing that it wasn’t that Americans didn’t want health insurance, it was that it was too expensive. Clinton, meanwhile, was for it, arguing – correctly, I might add – that for comprehensive reform to work you needed a mandate to ensure a healthy marketplace. Without a mandate, only sick people would sign up, and health insurers wouldn’t agree to a plan that forced them to cover only a bunch of sick people.

It was an esoteric policy difference that turned out to not matter at all once Obama got into office and Congress started writing the bill, individual mandate and all. The point here isn’t that Obama was wrong and Clinton was right, or that Clinton grasped policy better, or that she was the pragmatist of the bunch. No, the real point is that once one gets into office the policy differences with those in your own party that were argued during the campaign go out the window.

Obama’s multiculturalism meant something to me, and was important. It informs his view of the world and America’s place in it, as I knew it would. We need to get past the idea that primaries should be about issues. It’s ok to vote for someone because of who they are. And not just ok – preferable. Who they are is a more reliable guide to future behavior than what they say in the debates.

Hillary’s being a woman, for example, is and should be a factor. So should Rubio’s being Hispanic. Being old, young, male, female, gay, straight, a businessman, a lawyer, a community organizer, a veteran, an atheist, a Christian – all these things are legitimate factors for choosing a candidate.

Which brings me again to what I think is the main fallacy of primary campaign season: that debates and campaigns should focus on the issues. Well, yes and no. It is of course instructive to hear what issues they talk about, first, but the intra-party disagreements over issues are only interesting insomuch as it tells a larger story about who they are as people, or maybe more accurately who we are as a people. In one of the smartest things I’ve ever heard Andrew Breitbart say, the conservative publisher noted that “politics is downstream from culture.”

We do get the politicians we deserve. Who they are reflects who we are.

The fact is, I think a lot of Americans have an uncannily accurate sense who these candidates are. It’s why they like Donald Trump even despite his policy positions. It’s about who he is, and to be honest I sort of see the appeal. My favorite part of this whole election season came in the first debate when Trump was asked to explain his past financial donations to Democrats, and he replied that the system is corrupt and he did it because he was playing the system, as businesspeople do. “When they call, I give,” Trump so bluntly replied.

My God, what a breath of fresh air that was. Watch the clip here, and watch how Brett Baier tries to make it about issues, and then watch how Trump just exposes the whole corrupt system as a fraud. I loved it. Vox called it a “shockingly insightful” comment.

So, who is Trump? He’s a businessman, and businessmen make deals. This, for what it’s worth, is why if given a choice between Trump and Cruz, the Republican establishment will pick Trump every time – because at least he’ll cut a deal. Trump is also pompous and crass. He’s a celebrity, a product of reality TV. He’s rich, he’s well-connected, and he’s sort of racist and sexist (but then, so are a lot of people). And finally, he could give a shit about the Washington political class’s preconceptions and rules.

There’s actually a lot to like there, and a lot to dislike. But if you’re a Republican who has followed Step 1, I totally get why you’d support Trump in Step 2. Since I’m a Democrat who has followed Step 1, Trump is not an option for me – but still, I get it.

So on to the Democrats. First, let it be said that I wish I had more choices. I’ve been dissatisfied with this field for a while. Was there an opportunity for another candidate to get in the race? Certainly. It does not speak well of the Democratic party that so few serious candidates were willing to take on Clinton. But not voting is not an option for me, so I have to choose: Sanders, Clinton, or poor Martin O’Malley.

 A note about Martin O’Malley: It’s not that the media doesn’t take him seriously, or that the media hasn’t deemed him a “viable” candidate. It’s that people actually do not respond to what O’Malley is dishing out. Ever listened to O’Malley on the radio? He sounds like a factory-designed liberal progressive Democratic drone, and it’s only slightly better on television. He’s white, handsome, and too polished by a factor of three. Is there a real person underneath that liberal sheen? Someone who can tell me something about who he is beyond the policy positions he holds? I honestly can’t tell. O’Malley is certainly a good Democrat, but there’s nothing about who he is that appeals to me.

That leaves Sanders and Clinton. We know a lot about who these two people are – so much, actually, I’m not sure it even needs explication here. Forget about their policy positions for a moment. Think only about who these people are. What is their temperament? What is their character? Where do they come from? Who are they, really?

When it comes to voting the person, I have to go with Sanders. Much as there is to admire about Clinton (her toughness and resilience, her intelligence), I have to side with Sanders. I like his transparency and I like that he is angry. As they say, if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.I like his secularism. I like that he (much like a certain Republican candidate) has a penchant for saying what he thinks, as opposed to triangulating what all the liberal interest groups want to hear, and the politics of the matter be damned. I like that he’s from Vermont, oh liberal bastion, and I like his long, long history of more or less always being the same person, regardless of where the political winds blow. He’s certainly got a spine – you have to in order to presume to run for president against so much conventional wisdom. For what it’s worth, he also understands that politics is downstream from culture.

At this point you may have noticed that I have left out of this discussion what many believe to be an essential criteria for choosing candidates in a primary: viability in the general election.

To which I will acknowledge: yes, it does scare me a bit that Sanders could lose. Although, I must say that in my cold, hard political calculation, I actually think Clinton could also easily lose, and that in this particularly crazy election, it’ll matter more what the particular match-ups are than whether we as Democrats nominate someone too liberal. My cold, hard electoral analysis is that – again – the issues won’t matter as much as which candidate more convincingly can tap into the prevailing mood of the country. That is, which candidate can better match their message to the moment. In that analysis, it could very well be Sanders who is the more viable general election candidate.

Open elections like this one are opportunities to think less about electability and more about the direction of the country overall, by which I mean: given that both Clinton and Sanders will face roughly the same opposition from an intransigent Republican Congress, which candidate do I want to help shape culture for years to come? The answer is Sanders.

In contrast, elections in which one party is trying to unseat an incumbent (Bush in ’04) hinge more on electability, because we already know who the opponent is, and the election is necessarily a referendum on that person. In 2004 I went to work for Wesley Clark. It was who he was that made me think he’d be a good candidate to unseat Bush. Clark was former Supreme Allied NATO Commander. He was a Rhodes scholar. Fluent in four languages. I think if Clark hadn’t skipped the Iowa caucuses, he could very well have emerged as the “not Howard Dean” candidate that John Kerry did. And understand, Kerry won that nomination because of who he was, not what he believed. In a national security election, it was the war vet Kerry who Democratic voters eventually flocked to.

So it seems even in elections with an incumbent president, voters must still vote the person. The difference is why. Do you vote the person because you want to beat the incumbent president? Or do you vote the person because you think it’s that person who can better tap into the mood and of the country, that person who can better match their message to the moment? In ’08, an open election, that person was clearly Obama. In this election, I say that person is Sanders.

To sum up: Step 1, pick a party. Step 2, vote the person.