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Democrats: Don’t let ‘electability’ become an excuse for dismissing candidates who aren’t white men

Jill Biden argued this week that Democrats shouldn't let differences on some issues distract them from selecting the candidate best suited to beating Donald Trump. In her view, that would be her husband, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Jill Biden argued this week that Democrats shouldn't let differences on some issues distract them from selecting the candidate best suited to beating Donald Trump. In her view, that would be her husband, former Vice President Joe Biden. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Jill Biden was the latest to bring up the buzz word of this year’s Democratic presidential campaign — electability.

She spoke of the issue during a campaign stop Monday in New Hampshire, urging people to vote for her husband, former Vice President Joe Biden. She quite explicitly said that Democrats should forget about whether they like another candidate better on one issue or another and rally instead around the candidate who has the best chance to beat President Donald Trump.

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We agree that picking a candidate who can win is an important consideration for any political party. We just think it’s way too early to know who that will be in November, 2020, and there’s a danger that the party will dismiss good candidates for the wrong reasons. So early in this election cycle, with so many options, Democrats need to give a chance to the candidates who move them and espouse ideas they think will take the country in the right direction.

To be clear, we’re not saying whether or not people should support Mr. Biden’s candidacy. If he is the candidate that drives someone to the polls, then that is who they should pull the lever for.

But we are concerned that “electability” is code for “white, straight man.” Some in the electability camp argue that middle America and independents won’t vote for a woman, African American or gay candidate. Ms. Biden didn’t discuss the issue in those terms, but others have. Yes, Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, and lots of folks are skittish about a repeat of those results. But that doesn’t mean a women can’t win in 2020. It is a different year, different candidates and a different election. Do we just give up on the notion because one woman lost? A large number of women won Congressional races in the latest election, so there is an appetite for female elected officials.

The electorate has to get past the old notions of electability that people think will appeal to that middle of the road voter. The idea that people of a certain demographic can’t get that crossover vote to win. Democrats need those voters, but history has proven they are not always so predictable.

Look at all the other not-so-typical candidates that have won presidency. Nobody thought an actor would sit in the White House. Hello Ronald Reagan. Or a little-known governor from a southern state. Did we forget Bill Clinton? And of course the best example of all, an African American, one-term senator with the name Barack Obama. Even Mr. Trump, who many said had no chance of winning right up until he did, was an outlier candidate.

Electability is in the eye of the beholder.

The Democratic primaries are still many months away, and far too much is yet to happen that will determine which candidate is actually the most electable. Mr. Biden has a clear advantage in name recognition given that he has served in the White House before. That upper hand will narrow as people get to know the other candidates on the campaign trail. The race could go in so many directions, and a number of Mr. Biden’s competitors could easily become a surprise standout. We’ve seen it happen plenty of times before. Or perhaps Mr. Biden really will prove the strongest option. Time will tell.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will need to fire up the party. Remember, a large part of why Ms. Clinton lost was because too many Democrats stayed home. (As well as an outdated Electoral College model.) By contrast, Mr. Trump was able to rile up a Republican base by appealing to their feelings of being left behind. Mr. Obama attracted a younger, hopeful demographic looking for change, and won by large margins doing so. Mr. Clinton did something similar for an earlier generation.

What the Democrats can’t do is paralyze what should be a spirited and competitive democratic process by ruling people out and deciding so early who the winner will be. For now, let’s put electability aside and choose candidates for the right reasons. Let the voters truly decide.

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