The man who helped elect Bill Clinton president came to Wilmington on April 23rd to talk politics and not surprisingly, the conversation turned to a Delawarean named Joe Biden.
Paul Begala, who rose to national prominence as chief strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore Campaign, had plenty to say about the former vice president and his soon-to-be-announced (if we can believe the latest “reports”) presidential candidacy.
But the political consultant who starred on CNN’s Crossfire and now teaches at Georgetown University wanted to focus on some broader themes influencing American society before he got into his handicapping of the 2020 Democratic primary field.
Begala’s insightful and often humorous assessment of the national political landscape was shared with an audience at Wilmington Country Club at the invitation of Westover Capital Advisors, a wealth management firm that annually hosts a summit featuring a prominent national speaker.
In his introduction of Begala, Westover Capital president and CEO Murray Sawyer said the country’s politics are interwoven with its economic future. “There is no doubt that Washington influences the markets and the economy,” said Sawyer, citing by example “trade issues, tax and regulatory policy.” Sawyer further cautioned that “a fundamental belief that most of us have in free-market capitalism is today under attack by some.”
Begala focused his remarks on two major themes: we are experiencing unprecedented volatility in the power shifts of major political institutions and simultaneously (and perhaps not coincidentally) we are living in a “hyper-partisan, negative partisan era.”
“In the last ten elections – the year 2000 to now” Begala argued, “the House, the Senate or the White House have flipped eight times. In ten elections between 1960 to 1978, the White House or Congress only flipped three times.”
And at a time when the political dialogue can too-often be characterized as, “I’m good, you’re evil … I’m right, you’re wrong,” Begala decried today’s hyper-partisan era, which he says diminishes chances of compromise.
“We’re in trouble when negative identification has infected our political life so deeply,” said Begala, joking that as an avid University of Texas graduate, “We used to save that for important things like college football.”
Begala had high praise for Delaware’s two US Senators, saying Tom Carper and Chris Coons “are always at the top of the list of people who find bi-partisan solutions.”
“When both sides are demonizing the other, common sense suggests someone is going to come to the middle. Your political culture in Delaware is really interesting to me.”
When it comes to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary – a race that with Joe Biden’s official entry will number 20 candidates – Begala made no effort to hide the centrist thinking that helped make a moderate southern governor from Arkansas president of the United States.
“I don’t want a Democrat who’s just as divisive, vulgar and combative … someone who is trying to out-Trump Trump,” said Begala, who went on to suggest Biden will have a very strong shot at the nomination.
“He’ll [Biden] start out as the favorite not only because of name ID but because he’s earned it,” said Begala. “Thirty-six years in the Senate, eight as Vice President. I actually believe in qualifications. I also like his demographics — he’s from Scranton as well as Delaware. He really has a sense of the folks that Democrats have alienated in the last couple of elections.”
Begala also likes Biden’s history of reaching across the aisle to build consensus, which he says some Democrats will not like. “I’ve known him as long as I’ve been in this business; he’s just terrific because he’s authentic. People love Joe. And they’ll call him by his first name.”
Begala is pragmatic, saying all presidential candidates possess attributes that can cut both ways. He concedes that he hears a reluctance among some voters that Biden might be too old. “I think that’s really not fair. It really matters how they perform. Democrats lost 49 states saying that Ronald Reagan was too old. I think we make a mistake if we dismiss a candidate for being either too young or too old. I think what people want to know is the age of your ideas.”
When asked what he thought would be the defining issue of the 2020 campaign, Begala said he hoped “it will be about the American Dream, the middle-class American Dream. If the middle class does better everyone is doing better. Sometimes Democrats get distracted with these boutique issues.”
Westover Capital Director of Wealth Management Matt Beardwood says he thought the talk’s themes were important no matter one’s political orientation. “The political divisiveness and vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, has become a hallmark of American politics today,” said Beardwood. “Unfortunately, for the majority of us who fall somewhere in the middle, we’ve lost more than we’ve gained. Paul’s remarks were spot on. We feel that creating a forum like this for our clients not only engages and inspires but from time to time, challenges or supports the collective. “