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Forget the fundraising money. Democrats are jockeying for a different kind of capital

A presidential primary race should never be confused with a quest for moral and political purity

Even as presidential hopefuls tout their fundraising hauls, the case of Joe Biden shows the currency they’re really trading in, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Even as presidential hopefuls tout their fundraising hauls, the case of Joe Biden shows the currency they’re really trading in, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Sixteen years ago, at the beginning of the last wide-open Democratic presidential race, John Kerry and John Edwards vied to wow the media with their first-quarter fundraising prowess. Edwards narrowly won the spirited early 2003 competition by raking in $7.4 million, much of it from trial lawyers.

The campaign finance boasts of Edwards and Kerry soon were silenced by a little-known former Vermont governor. Iraq War opponent Howard Dean, harnessing the potential of online fundraising for the first time, corralled what was then a stunning $7.6 million in the second quarter.

As the 2020 Democrats begin to roll out their first-quarter numbers, I recalled Edwards and Kerry elbowing each other for supremacy just as Dean was rewriting the rules of the fundraising game. It serves as a reminder that when money talks in presidential politics, it’s probably not in the way that most insiders suspect.

This history has failed to prevent the political press pack from swooning over Bernie Sanders raking in $18 million, the $12-million swag reported by Kamala Harris or the $9.4 million that Beto O’Rourke collected in the first 18 days following his formal candidacy.

It is probably folly to anoint a tier or front-runners based on these fundraising numbers. Especially since the overall numbers are not much more impressive than Edwards’ initial 2003 haul — which was the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $10.2 million.

Please understand that I am not entirely dismissing money as a factor in assessing presidential contenders. The ability of Pete Buttigieg to raise $7 million represents a significant marker for the 37-year-old gay mayor of South Bend, an Indiana city mostly known up to now as the home of Notre Dame.

Nonetheless, many of the indicators that political reporters depend on to rate presidential candidates may prove evanescent and misleading.

I will spare you the full rant about premature polls when most Democratic voters are still struggling to name all the major candidates.

The Iowa caucuses are notoriously difficult to poll, even late in the game, since it is difficult to predict who will show up. And New Hampshire primary voters can be mercurial, as Hillary Clinton demonstrated in 2008 by erasing a formidable Barack Obama lead in the final 48 hours.

Despite the hunger of Democratic voters for a clear-cut alternative to Donald Trump, we are still in the casting-call phase of the 2020 race. And while TV pundits are rarely rewarded for a furrowed brow and a muttered, “I don’t know what will happen,” that humility is the only sensible stance more than two months before the first round of debates.

Try as we might, it is equally daunting to predict what issues will shape the Democratic field.

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This is the week when Joe Biden and his hugs across America have led to the portrayal of the 76-year-old former vice president as yesterday’s man. Biden, who came of age smitten with the Kennedys, probably could never have imagined that emulating JFK in 1960 and Bobby in 1968 embracing the adoring crowds would someday be regarded as sexually inappropriate.

Watching Biden struggle with the changed rules of politics, I am reminded of Spencer Tracy playing an aging Irish mayor of Boston (based on James Michael Curley) in the 1958 movie “The Last Hurrah,” which was based on a bestselling novel by Edwin O’Connor.

The mayor, fictionalized as Frank Skeffington, depended on his creaky political machine as he campaigned with torchlight parades and appearances at events like Knocko Minihan’s wake. But on Election Day, Skeffington was as dead as Knocko.

This is not designed to consign Biden to the dustbin of 2020 politics. More than any Democrat, he boasts a formidable ability to unite the party and offer a telling contrast to Donald Trump’s cruelty and governing inexperience.

Bernie Sanders is older than Biden, but the Vermont socialist comes out of a different tradition that places little emphasis on touching voters or even caring unduly whether they like him. At his core, Sanders is satisfied if his acolytes “connect the dots” and accept his economic arguments.

Gotcha moments are apt to dominate the upcoming Democratic race as reporters flit from one controversy to another. As a group, the 2020 Democrats compare favorably to some of their predecessors like — gulp —John Edwards.

But today’s candidates may suffer from the harsh reality that we are living, thanks to the web, in the golden age of opposition research. Dishing the dirt on presidential candidates in 2019 is the contemporary equivalent of being an artist in Renaissance Florence.

Every ill-advised comment, every congressional vote prompted by re-election fears, every questionable prosecutorial decision (this applies mostly to Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar), every dubious campaign contribution and every embarrassing photo can be downloaded within minutes.

The challenge for the media and primary voters is putting this evidence into context.

Virtually every 2020 Democrat who was in public life more than a decade ago squirmed whenever he or she was asked about gay marriage. With 20/20 hindsight, this equivocation and embrace of civil unions is embarrassing. But if once expressing such timid sentiments is now disqualifying, the Democratic debate stage would suddenly become quite small.

A presidential primary race should never be confused with a quest for moral and political purity. All candidates are flawed to some degree. The trick for Democrats in 2020 will be to avoid falling into the trap of shouting, “One strike — and you’re out.”

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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