Let's Make 2020 Democrats Better Candidates Instead of Ripping Them Apart

Past sins matter. But they aren't everything.

Democratic voters are understandably excited about the diverse field of 2020 presidential candidates that has only just begun to flesh out. The opportunity to take the White House back from Donald Trump is in view.

They’re enthusiastic and have lofty ideals. That’s great. The corruption and attempts to subvert democracy that we’ve witnessed should make everybody feel a sense of urgency about our politics.

What must be avoided if Democrats are to win the White House, however, are one-size-fits-all purity tests that eliminate candidates based on past statements or actions that conflict with a progressive vision for today. Pointing these questions out and pushing candidates on the issues is important. Automatically disqualifying candidates because of them is self-defeating.

Already, activists and supporters of specific candidates are attacking the flaws of other Democratic contenders.

We’ve seen Bernie Sanders supporters attacking Beto O’Rourke for past donations and votes in Congress (neither Sanders nor O’Rourke has announced he’s running, but both have yet to rule it out).

Former Vice President Joe Biden (who has yet to decide if he will run) has been in politics for over 40 years and has had so many bad positions, statements, votes and actions in the past — on gay rights, mass incarceration, sexual harassment, you name it — that if he were judged only by them now, he should be disqualified immediately. No matter that he has shifted dramatically on most, speaking out forcefully on many.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who announced she’s running last week, has gone from being a conservative Democratic House member in a rural upstate New York district — supporting gun rights, opposing marriage equality and holding terrible immigration positions — to being the most progressive Democrat in the Senate by dint of her votes in the Trump era. She’s been a leader on LGBTQ rights and has apologized for her past positions, including, in recent days, her old stance on immigration, even calling her past self “callous” on the issue. Some are asking, Who is the real Gillibrand?

Sen. Kamala Harris, a former California attorney general, has been rightly criticized because she often pursued harsh prosecutions that conflict with a progressive vision of criminal justice, even as she instituted admirable policies, such as the first statewide implicit bias training in the country. One writer for The Intercept posed the question: “Can a prosecutor become president in the age of Black Lives Matter?”

The criticisms are happily egged on by the media, which feeds on conflict and is only too happy to portray Democrats in chaos ― a tried and true storyline that gets attention. Social media, including Trump’s own Twitter account, only adds gasoline to the fire.

All of these examples are legitimate concerns. It’s not that past positions and actions aren’t important. Pointing them out is vital, and how candidates respond is critical. But there should be room for there to be a right answer to some of these questions. It’s notable that within weeks of the reporting on O’Rourke’s donations from fossil fuel executives, he moved toward supporting a Green New Deal.

Each candidate should be looked at individually. But let’s acknowledge and celebrate that both the Democratic base and the larger American public have shifted, thanks to progressives, and many politicians are catching up.

That’s a good thing.

It doesn’t mean you trust every conversion or absolve every sin. As i pointed out about Rep. Tulsi Gabbard last week, sometimes the evolution is too much to swallow. Gabbard was actively assaulting LGBTQ rights, having been involved in a group that pushed harmful “ex-gay” therapy and having made deeply homophobic statements early in her career, only to apologize and vote for pro-LGBTQ measures in recent years — even though she said only three years ago that her personal opinions hadn’t changed. More than that, it’s what Gabbard has done recently: attacking Democratic senators, using a right-wing “religious bigotry” trope to criticize their questioning of an extremist, anti-LGBTQ Trump-nominated judge; meeting with foreign dictators, and supporting leaders with brutal anti-Muslim and far-right records.

Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who announced her presidential exploratory committee on New Year’s Eve, finds herself in a somewhat different boat. Rather than skeletons from her past, Warren has received sustained criticism for her tone-deaf attempt to prove she has Native American ancestry this past fall. Some Native people have argued the move should be disqualifying while others have accepted the senator as an ally. Either way, it’s criticism Warren will have to answer in the campaign.

“Both the Democratic base and the larger American public have shifted, thanks to progressives, and many politicians are catching up. That’s a good thing.”

Most of the other candidates, however, truly seem to have evolved on certain issues over the years — as have many Americans — and it shouldn’t be disqualifying if they prove it through their actions and statements. In some cases, maybe they were always there personally, but they weren’t out front or even took a conservative position in order to please their constituents. That’s cynical politics, but it’s true of just about all politicians, even the most progressive. Sanders has a terrible past record on gun reform, bowing to voters in his rural state of Vermont where gun rights are important, as liberal as the state’s electorate is on other issues.

Was Barack Obama ever really against marriage equality? Evidence suggests that he supported it in 1996 while running for the Illinois state Senate. Pursuing a U.S. Senate seat, and later the presidency, however, he opposed legalizing marriage for gays and lesbians — like almost every other Democrat in 2008.

Once Obama became president, activists continuously pressured him — disrupting speeches, chaining themselves to the White House gates — to fulfill his promise to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and, finally, with further pressure, he shifted on marriage equality too. Similar dynamics played out between Obama and activists on immigration and environmental protection.

Activists, rather than casting one candidate as a panacea — and attacking the rest — should be pressuring every candidate to make promises on the issues that matter. Give them an incentive to compete for your support. That’s what will ultimately make them better candidates, and eventually, will make one of them the best possible nominee.

And once that nominee is elected, hold his or her feet to the fire.

Michelangelo Signorile is a HuffPost editor-at-large. Follow him on Twitter at @MSignorile.