Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

How to Disqualify a Presidential Candidate

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Former Vice President Joe Biden invaded women’s physical space in a way that used to be uncomfortable and is now intolerable. He abandoned Anita Hill to the political wolves when she needed a friend on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his signature criminal-justice law, once a political winner, now looks draconian to many Democrats.

Senator Kamala Harris, during her long career as a California prosecutor, was a cog in the prison-industrial complex.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, daughter of a lobbyist and former intern for New York Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato, not long ago professed the kind of anti-regulation views on gun policy that most Democrats consider pure gun nuttery.

As a member of Congress, former Representative Beto O’Rourke voted more conservatively than the mean Democratic House member. His rhetorical gifts mask a suspiciously vague — some say empty — policy portfolio.

Senator Bernie Sanders is 77 years old and makes a lot of Democrats uncomfortable for a lot of reasons, not least because he himself still isn’t one.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has that Cherokee thing that started out messy and got worse when she tried to fix it. 

Senator Amy Klobuchar is mean to her staff, Senator Cory Booker is too schmoozy and corporate-y to be trusted, and Pete Buttigieg is only 37 years old, the mayor of a city (South Bend, Indiana) that sounds like a town, and he’s gay in case anyone still cares about that outside the fortified precincts of Christian conservatism. Oh, and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is, as one well-connected and very smart Democrat pointed out to me with dead seriousness, kinda short.

This is not a comprehensive list of people running for the Democratic nomination for president. But it’s a pretty good sampling of the range of disqualifications for the nomination. And those negative factors can serve as a banner under which people with lots of other qualms or agendas can rally.

That’s perhaps what is happening to Biden right now. His behavior toward women is a legitimate issue, and troubling to many. But it’s also a convenient bin in which a host of other qualms can be safely stored.

Biden is a 76-year-old straight white man in a party that’s on the verge of busting through racial, sexual and generational barriers. He’s the very definition of old school at a moment when U.S. politics has left the school building and is headed who knows where.

In a crowded field, Biden’s name recognition, Obama aura and national network are extremely valuable. They could bolster a candidacy that, in a smaller field yielding more intense scrutiny, might look less appealing. After all, Biden has run for president twice before, and Democrats twice chose someone else. And there is cause for concern that the failings exhibited in those previous campaigns could assert themselves at precisely the wrong time in a general election.

How Democrats deal with the perceived shortcomings of the presidential field may say a lot about which issues are particularly salient. Biden obviously has a MeToo spotlight on him, for example. But it may tell us more about the inchoate process of a party identifying its leader than it tells us about individual transgressions or defects.

If Democrats want Harris, her prosecutorial history, which is long and complicated, can be recast as armor for the general election. If O’Rourke manages to reignite the campaign trail, his lack of specificity will translate as inspiration. If Warren captures hearts the way she is capturing minds, the Cherokee business will be just another cheap shot.

If Biden is the candidate Democrats want, they will make allowances for his age, clumsiness and the shift in cultural mores that marked his political career.

It’s not that issues or faults don’t matter. Obviously they matter a lot. But most of the knocks on most of this Democratic field are not disqualifying. Voters will ignore blemishes provided they’re comfortable that a given candidate can lead the party against Donald Trump in a campaign that Democrats, and quite possibly democracy, cannot afford to lose.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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