Sorry, Straight White Men: You're Just Not Electable Enough

Sorry, Straight White Men: You're Just Not Electable Enough

By Jennifer Psaki

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (middle) speaks while (from left) South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) listen in the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019, in Miami, Florida.
SourceDrew Angerer/Getty


Because the rules about who can be president continue to shift before our eyes.

By Jennifer Psaki

Jennifer Psaki is a former White House communications director who served under President Barack Obama.

The first debate is over, and one thing is clear: We need to rethink our definition of electability and what electable looks like.

Debates don’t determine the outcome, but they do offer a clear comparison of the candidates. And they do give a glimpse into who is ready to not only take on Donald Trump, but also to present their vision for the future of the country.

For the first time in American history, there were three women on the debate stage. And that was the case on both nights.

When we watched debate coverage Thursday morning and I asked my almost 4-year-old who she liked, her response was: “I like the girls, Mom.” She may not be of voting age, but I bet she is not alone.

Kamala Harris, the only woman of color running for president, owned the stage.

For the first time in American history, there were four candidates of color on the debate stage over the two nights.

A gay Midwestern mayor stood on the debate stage next to the former vice president of the United States because his polling dictated it.

And the standouts from the first two nights did not include a single straight White man.

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro owned the debate moment of Night One with his forceful and emotional answer on immigration. America learned about the passion Sen. Cory Booker has for civil rights and addressing gun violence, and he had the second-best fundraising day of his campaign as a result. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren showed the country why she is gaining on not just Sen. Bernie Sanders, but also the front-runner Joe Biden, with her crisp and direct answers on economic inequality and health care.


And on Night Two, Sen. Kamala Harris, the only woman of color running for president, owned the stage, by first silencing a screaming match with a well-practiced one-liner: “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we are going to put food on their table.” And then challenging Biden on his record of working with segregationists to oppose busing for African American students with a reference to her own experience as a young girl who was bused to school in California with a memorable statement: “That girl was me.”

After a meteoric rise that left some skeptical, Mayor Pete Buttigieg showed America that he is not afraid to admit he hasn’t been able to get the job done to increase the diversity of the police force in South Bend, Indiana. He also showed how he isn’t afraid to take on thorny topics like religion and call out the hypocrisy of cloaking yourself in Christianity while turning a blind eye to the innocent children who are crossing the border.

Biden is a good man with a long record of serving the country. He did not have a good first debate, even though he would be an excellent president. But being an experienced White man with white hair does not make him the most electable. And electability is not a blood oath pledge that the American people commit to without the possibility of looking for other options.

An old colleague reminded me earlier today that when we were in the trenches working for then Sen. Barack Obama, that he was double digits behind then Sen. Hillary Clinton at this point in the race and that for months, it just didn’t feel like he could get his groove going on the trail. It wasn’t until the November 2007 Jefferson–Jackson Dinner, an annual dinner in Iowa that gathers the delegates and activists from around the state in Des Moines, that people started to see his magic. And it wasn’t until he won Iowa, a surprise that most commentators and analysts weren’t predicting even the week before, that the African American community started to see that he was, in fact, electable and began to coalesce around him.

So what makes someone the most electable? If being an experienced statewide White male elected official from a swing state at the prime of his life who won’t offend the apparently sensitive swing voters is the definition, then we should just anoint John Hickenlooper or Michael Bennet. But neither of them would have a prayer of beating Trump — and more importantly, neither of them is presenting a fresh, forward-looking and optimistic vision for the future.

Electability is determined by nothing more complicated than whom the American people want to elect, and are moved to elect. Twelve years ago that never would have been an African American. After seeing the performances of the first debate, it is time to change our definition of electability to get in step with 2019.

Read more for an opposing view: Democrats’ small-ball debate is a recipe for failure against Trump.