Selecting a candidate is hard. I think my wife Laura framed it really well: at least at first, it’s about inspiration and belief. We need a candidate who inspires us to think bigger, who inspires us to believe in the future, who inspires us to believe in our country and ourselves. But impractical ideas are fantasies: we need to be able to believe that the candidate can make some of those ideas real, with the skills, experience, and strength of will to achieve some of those goals. Eventually, though, we also need to think about electability, about whether the candidate will win.
The primary process we use to select our candidate is aimed at evaluating the candidates in against these concerns. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think the process goes through three phases.
First, there’s a conversation that basically determines what resonates with the base, the ones who are going to vote for one of these candidates (if we vote at all). What is going to get us motivated? What ideas matter? This part of the conversation is mostly about inspiration – do you have ideas that could really improve the country? Do you have answers to the challenges we’re facing? Are you able to express complex ideas in ways that resonate? Are you composed under duress? Yes, we should already start to eliminate useless candidates, but we want to keep anybody around who is moving the discussion in a useful direction.
The second phase starts as people start needing to make decisions about who to vote for. At this point we need to winnow out candidates who have said their piece and aren’t changing the conversation. More importantly, we need to start checking in more thoroughly if we believe in you – are your plans realistic enough? Are you really a person who can get them done? By the time voting begins, the field should only include people who can credibly be expected to do the job, and do it well.
The third phase arrives when voting begins in earnest, and a third, important consideration comes to the forefront: of the remaining group, who is the most electable? Can we believe the candidate can actually become the leader of this country? Will she convince the middle third of the electorate to join the base? Or, more simply, does she have what it takes to beat the corrupt narcissist, even after he trumps up a war against Iran?
So I think during this early phase of the conversation it’s a mistake to focus too much on credibility or electability. For those who have seen my evaluations of the current crop of Democratic candidates, this framework informs my thinking. I’m not looking to pick a winner; I’m looking for people who elevate the debate, by bringing in themes, ideas, and priorities that matter. If you’re ignoring people who don’t have the experience to win, you’re going to lose out on interesting ideas that could improve what we get when one of them does.