The 2020 Democrats don’t have to be nice to one another

Back before Donald Trump won the presidential nomination, and then the presidency, by laying waste to every rival in sight, the GOP used to have an informal rule: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”

It was known as “the 11th Commandment,” and it was popularized by Ronald Reagan as he unified a fractious party on the way to winning the White House. It’s been legend in the GOP ever since, even if most Republicans — including Reagan himself — have only falteringly followed the ideal.

Democrats don’t really have an equivalent rule, though it’s clear many activists in the party wish otherwise. George Takei, the former Star Trek star and noted social media maven, went viral this week with a plea to followers “not to speak negatively about any of our candidates” — “our” candidates being Democrats.


Will you join me in pledging not to speak negatively about any of our candidates? We don’t know who the nominee will be, but they need to be as strong as they can be going into the election against Trump.

— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) April 26, 2019


Takei’s rationale was pretty clear: “If candidates cannot win your vote without personally trashing other Democrats, they should not have your vote,” he said.

There’s just one problem with this notion: There are potentially plenty of bad things to be said about all the major Democratic candidates running for president.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is too handsy. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) is a socialist trying to win in a capitalist country. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) embarrassed herself by taking a DNA test to determine if she has Native American ancestry. Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) are too tough on crime. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke are running campaigns based on personality instead of policy. Cory Booker’s (N.J.) own record of accomplishment is thin, given his relatively long career in politics.

Probably any of these individuals are preferable to Trump, but you get the idea: There’s no such thing as a perfect candidate.

There are two lines of thought about negative campaigning in a primary election. The first holds that candidates should save their ammo for the general election — that intraparty rivals shouldn’t help opponents by handing them lines of attack to be used in the general election.

The second approach suggests that presidential candidates are going to take a beating whether they win or lose, so it’s best to take one’s licks early — and thus be battle-hardened when the general election comes around.

Recent history suggests that, for Democrats, the second approach might be the better one. Bill Clinton won the party’s nomination in 1992 — even though allegations of an affair with Gennifer Flowers emerged right before the critical New Hampshire primary. Barack Obama won the nomination in 2008, despite coming under heavy criticism during the primary campaign for his membership in the church where the Rev. Jeremiah Wright had given controversial sermons.

In 2016, on the other hand, Sanders basically gave Hillary Clinton a free pass on her email problems. “The American people are sick and tired about hearing about your damn emails,” he told Clinton during a primary debate, adding: “Enough of the emails — let’s talk about the real issues facing the American people.”

Trump’s campaign didn’t get the message that the emails didn’t matter. Neither did former FBI Director James Comey, nor The New York Times. They did matter. And the next Democratic nominee’s foibles — big or small — will matter in 2020, too, because Republicans will make them matter.

There are other practical reasons for candidates to resist the call to be nice campaigners. The most important may be this: There are now 20 Democrats running for the nomination, and it’s possible the field is not yet complete. Primary voters are going to have to separate the strong candidates from the weak — and candidates who can’t endure some negative comments should probably be among the first to go.

Politics ain’t beanbag. Candidates for the highest office in the land are going to be tested, sooner or later, in unfair and even cruel ways. Just this week, news broke that conservative activists tried to raise false allegations against Buttigieg.

It would be nice if our politics were better than this, but they aren’t. It does candidates and their supporters no good to protect them from the inevitable attacks that a White House campaign will bring. Democrats can wait until after the campaign to make nice with each other — or they can get out of the race.

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