Granite Staters, for reasons we hope are clear, might be presumed to be a bit more familiar than average voters elsewhere with those vying to take up residence in the White House come 2021. But even here, the names John Delaney and John Hickenlooper might provoke a response of: “I’ve heard of him … but I can’t quite …”
That’s too bad, because both have something to offer the country in terms of thoughtful national policy on a variety of topics. Yet, their chances of becoming the Democratic nominee in 2020 seem right now to be far less than those of other candidates whose platforms are no more — and in some case, far less — developed.
Our flawed political system now rewards celebrity far too much over substance. Not that the best-known candidates in the Democratic race lack substance, but policies and solutions aren’t what have them well ahead of the pack in the polls and, thus, getting more media attention, debate time and other advantages, than the lesser-known candidates. Because they’re known, voters mention them more often; are more willing to donate to them; see them as “more electable.”
We couldn’t say we’d back Hickenlooper or Delaney at this point. Neither is a perfect candidate, if such a thing exists, and questions remain about even some of their more developed policy suggestions. But each was thoughtful about the topics of concern in 2019 America, and showed us enough to be considered a serious candidate.
Delaney, the former congressman from Maryland, and Hickenlooper, who was Colorado’s governor until earlier this year, have each visited The Sentinel to speak with our editorial board. Videos of their interviews can be found on our website, and we’d urge voters to give them — and any future videos of other candidates — a look. An hour-long interview isn’t a perfect setting, but it’s surely more informative than 10-second sound bites on an overcrowded debate stage.
This isn’t simply taking to task the criteria set forth by the debate sponsors for inclusion in each round, or that such inclusion is limited at all. Though it’s easy to find fault with those mechanisms, the choices have to be made somehow. It would be great to hear from anyone who has good ideas, but having 1,000 candidates would be logistically impossible to deal with. And our concern is not aimed specifically at the format of those debates — which feature almost no actual debating, instead serving mainly as a venue for sound bites and an opportunity for a candidate to grab viewers’ attention, for better or worse, with a quick jab or flub.
Rather, it’s acknowledging the entirety of the modern, controlled-by-the-image-consultants political campaign. Aside from the obligatory “chance to donate” screen, most candidates’ websites today feature mainly feel-good photos and short videos, long on generic values and short on specific answers. Any supposed discussion of “issues” is likely to be a series of platitudes and general statements of principle — “I believe in the Constitution and keeping our soldiers, first responders and schoolchildren safe. And in justice for all and a woman’s right to equal treatment. Quality health care is a right, and every one of us deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Hard to argue with that; but hard to glean anything meaningful from it, either.
The New Hampshire primary is about six months away, and as the race focuses, what ought to be important isn’t whether a candidate looks good on stage or has a familiar name. It ought to matter how they’d lead the country and approach creating an administration that spans the nation and employs roughly 2 million Americans. It ought to matter what they see as the country’s global role and what their priorities are when rights collide. It ought to matter how they plan to pay for their proposed initiatives. Those answers take time to explain, and we hope that the candidates will take that time, and that voters will devote the time to learn about them, too.
Ultimately, the onus is on the voters to seek information about the candidates beyond what arrives in their mailbox, paid for by political action committees or the campaigns themselves, and beyond the TV news punditry of deconstructing sound bites.
And eventually, the two dozen candidates will be somewhat less than that, and then the noise will be easier to ignore. But by then, some qualified and serious candidates may be among those who’ve dropped out, for lack of traction.
And that will be a loss for all of us.