Painter: Give Us the Young Guns

The Democrats’ mistake in 2016 came in putting forward old candidates.

by Ryan Painter | 2/9/17 12:15am

The 2016 election was unprecedented. The fact that I can say “Donald Trump is the President of the United States” without being asked what I’ve been smoking is something that would have been nearly inconceivable four years ago — or one year ago. But the Democrats lost. They lost an election that very easily could have been theirs and are now faced with being the minority in the House, Senate, Executive Branch and soon the Supreme Court. Understandably, much Democratic soul-searching has occurred in recent months. Many feel a need to determine where the party failed during the 2016 cycle, and many different explanations have been floated. However, I believe it comes down to a relatively simple fact: the Democrats ran too many candidates who were old and, generally speaking, lacked charisma and a dynamic campaign presence.

The first televised Democratic debate of the 2016 cycle featured five candidates: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee. The average age amongst these contenders is 66.2 years. If O’Malley is removed from the equation, there would not have been a single candidate on stage under 65 years of age. After O’Malley, Webb and Chaffee ended their campaigns, the Democrats were left with a 75-year-old self-proclaimed democratic socialist unsupported by the national committee and a former secretary of state who had more baggage than the Dartmouth Coach on the last day of term. It was a lose-lose. Sure, Sanders was popular among young people, but this is America — the Democratic elite would never support a socialist. The Democrats should have instead pressured many young, but qualified, Democrats to enter the race.

Take New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand ’88, for example. A senator from New York, she is a Dartmouth-educated woman aged 50. Could she have run? She was reelected to the Senate in 2012 with 72 percent of the vote, notably winning the rural, white upstate counties as well as New York’s urban areas. Pair her with someone like Minnesota Senator Al Franken, and you suddenly have a ticket that has everything Clinton lacked. Could Democrats have been with her?

Or how about New Jersey Senator Cory Booker? At only 47 years old, the Yale-educated former Mayor of Newark, New Jersey is dynamic and popular. Unlike Clinton, who was often criticized for lacking a personality, Booker is noted for his personable demeanor and has had an ongoing satirical feud with comedian Conan O’Brien. He is a young, successful, African-American male — could he not have appealed to a greater number of voters than Clinton?

Julian Castro is another candidate the Democrats could have nominated. Castro is a 42-year-old Harvard University graduate who served as Mayor of San Antonio from 2009 to 2014 and later as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama. Castro is noted for his personality and late night talk show appearances. His brother, Joaquín, boasts the same academic credentials and serves in the House of Representatives.

To some degree, it is understandable that the Democrats did not field these candidates. They’re young — and while that’s part of the point — it isn’t a selling point for some. But nonetheless, it was a foolish decision. The Republicans ran their youngbloods — Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz — albeit unsuccessfully, helping set up the future of the party. Running for office and participating in the televised debates increases name recognition and by running 17 candidates — compared to the Democrats’ five — the Republicans allowed themselves to build a future. “Little” Marco Rubio is now a household name. The same goes for Cruz. The “Trump Train” was hard to stop, and although someone like Booker may have still been unsuccessful in 2016, the Democrats could have, by nominating him, greatly increased his name recognition. That only five candidates — four quite old — ran was the Democrats’ greatest mistake this election cycle.

Unless it’s in the party’s charter that one must be a member of the AARP to be nominated for president, the lack of young character truly hurt the Democrats in 2016. While they should start grooming these young stars for the 2020 campaign, they made the mistake of not exposing them to the mainstream during the debates and this caution, ultimately, will hurt the party moving forward.