What are you looking for in a presidential candidate? I want someone with fresh proposals on health care or the environment, you might say. A track record that testifies to effectiveness. Or you might say: I’m just looking for anyone who can defeat Donald Trump. As the race for the Democratic nomination heats up, the debate is threatening to turn into a search for a savior.
This search manifests itself in two ways. The first is the belief that electing the right person will result in immediate solutions to the country’s multitude of systemic problems. If only we had the perfect person in the Oval Office, the thinking goes, then we would finally be able to fix our disastrous health-care system, or take action on global warming, or counteract the rightward shift of the Supreme Court. But this thinking runs counter to the reality that each president inherits problems from the previous administration, as well as constraints or even obstruction from the legislative branch.
It wasn’t long ago that a Democrat who was viewed as a savior by millions was elected president. Among other things, Barack Obama promised a public healthcare system and an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What he delivered instead were Obamacare, limited engagement in Iraq and a continuing war in Afghanistan. No matter what a candidate promises, the reality is they have to work with a Congress that is unlikely to share his or her agenda.
The second manifestation of saviorism is the belief only one candidate in the current field is good and that skepticism about, or even scrutiny of, this candidate is heresy.
I like passionate supporters, but I wonder what they think will happen if their candidate wins the Democratic nomination and faces Trump in the general election. Do they expect that he or she will be shielded from criticism?
Whatever happens in 2020, expecting transformative change from the top is a recipe for disappointment. If elected officials want to deliver on their big promises, they have to work on the small ones first. Last month, for example, I attended a fundraiser for the Virginia House of Delegates’ Danica Roem. As far as political events go, this one wasn’t flashy. It was simply an opportunity to hear from Roem, who made history in 2017 as the first trans woman to be seated in a statehouse – and who did so by defeating a 26-year GOP incumbent who has called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe.” Her winning strategy? Focusing on the needs of her district, specifically traffic on State Route 28. It’s unglamorous work we need to be doing if we want any chance of making serious change.
Let’s work on saving ourselves. And that begins by treating our candidates like the public servants we expect them to be.