Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has entered the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, thus joining the many, many candidates for the nomination who I (a) like and (b) am basically annoyed at for running.
For months now, I've been puzzled with every new entrant into the Democratic field. What's their lane? What makes them look upon the (literally!) dozens of excellent people who already declared for the race (and also Tulsi Gabbard) and think "there's a niche here that nobody but me would be occupying"? How can it be that we have what seems to be a historically strong primary field and yet people still cast their eyes outward for an option not on the menu?
But over the past few weeks, other aspects of my personal life have given me renewed insight into what I think is going on. Here's my best thrust:
Democrats want to beat Trump. That's all we want. We're desperate for it. This primary is barely about ideas or vision or policy disputes. The overwhelming question driving us is "which candidate will beat Trump in 2020?" And of course, since we expected Trump to lose in 2016, we're feeling especially anxious about our own apparently malformed instincts on the question -- we don't know how to answer the question we're asking.
What we want is "Johnny Unbeatable". Johnny Unbeatable is the candidate who is guaranteed to beat Trump. He (or she) has all upside, no downside. Every aspect of their biography, every vote they've taken, every policy stance they've taken, every speech they've given, is perfectly tailored to appeal to swing voters while revving up the base. They can lock down Wisconsin and Michigan while turning Arizona and North Carolina (and even Georgia and Texas!) blue; they are a comforting presence for Boomers and Gen-Xers while representing exciting, sweeping change for Millennials and Gen-Z. If Johnny Unbeatable was the nominee, we could rest easy knowing the election was safe in hand.
The problem, of course, is that there is no Johnny Unbeatable. There can't be, even in concept. Not only is nobody perfect, and not only do elections carry intrinsic uncertainty, but we don't know what Johnny Unbeatable looks like. Take gender as just one example: Is Johnny Unbeatable a woman, designed to rev up the base of pink pussy hat wearers radicalized after Trump's inauguration? Or is he a man, a safe choice who'd better appeal to heartland voters? It seems Johnny Unbeatable would have to be a woman and a man -- combining the "best" political attributes of both -- but for the love of God not non-binary (you see the problem?).
No candidate can be Johnny Unbeatable, which means all candidates who have declared will always have that residual feeling of existential dread -- they could well lose -- attached to them. The quest for another option, another choice, stems from that persistent feeling of dread and anxiety that none of the candidates can fully dispel. Those Democrats on the outside of the race can sense that anxiety as much as anyone else, and see -- in some ways accurately -- that none of the declared candidates has an unbreakable grip on their supporters. Everybody is looking for something they don't yet have. We're all still looking for Johnny Unbeatable.