When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, her approval ratings hovered in the mid-60s, higher than either President Barack Obama’s or Vice President Joe Biden’s. By well into the slog of the 2016 presidential run, her polls numbers had dropped some 30 points.
Ever since he left office, Biden’s favorability ratings have been higher than just about any other potential Democratic rival for the 2020 nomination. That hasn’t always been the case, though, including during some of his time as Obama’s vice president. And Biden doesn’t have the most impressive history as a candidate for the top office. In 1988, he dropped out well before voting started, and in 2008 he languished as an also-ran while Obama and Clinton duked it out for the nomination.
The upshot: Sometimes politicians are just more appealing to potential voters when they’re not running than when they are.
And that brings us to former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Landrieu didn’t definitively put the kibosh on his long-rumored presidential run, but he came close in a recent CNN interview earlier this month. When anchor John Berman asked whether he might run, Landrieu responded: “I don’t think so.” Although he said he never says never, Landrieu told Berman that “at this point in time, I don’t think I’m going to do it.”
By the time that aired earlier this month, all signs had been pointing in that direction anyway. While other candidates have been announcing or testing the waters en masse since the 2018 midterms, Landrieu has been continuing a string of speeches and interviews with out-of-town journalists but has refrained from any actual campaign activity.
His reticence hasn’t exactly caused his national admirers to move on, though. Even after that CNN interview, one of them, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, published a piece entirely devoted to what Landrieu could bring to the large field.
Gerson, a former head speechwriter for President George W. Bush and blistering critic of President Donald Trump, pegged Landrieu as someone who could “heal racial wounds that President Trump has salted, and to provide serious reflection on the proper application of American ideals to current controversies.”
“Landrieu is known as the guy who took down the four Confederate monuments in New Orleans. He should be better known as the guy who explained his actions in one of the best civil rights speeches since President Barack Obama spoke at Selma in 2015,” Gerson wrote.
Gerson’s plea comes from a very particular place. He’s a Republican, obviously, so he’s naturally focused on a finding a Democratic candidate who can appeal to the center. But there’s also a push among some Democrats to find a candidate who will be more confrontational than Landrieu, a self-identified pragmatist and a “radical centrist,” and embrace an even more progressive issue agenda than Landrieu would.
Landrieu’s aware of this, and in an earlier interview with another major paper columnist, The New York Times’ Charles Blow, he wondered if his politics might not be the best fit with his party’s moment. He also used that interview to raise another tricky topic: How would a white politician focused on racial reconciliation come across standing next to several major nonwhite candidates?
It wasn’t a mistake for Landrieu to try to game out what could happen if he were to jump in rather than hang back. After hypothetical candidates become actual candidates is when things start to get messy. The opposition research revs up. Journalists delve into records and invariably find something that doesn’t reflect well (Sewerage & Water Board, anyone?). Every word these candidates say is filmed, and invariably some misstep or gaffe goes viral.
In presidential politics, availability doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder. Just ask Clinton and Biden.
But Landrieu’s unavailability, at least for now, is unlikely to damage the national reputation that he’s been honing. As Gerson’s column suggests, it may even enhance it.
For Landrieu, that’s not a bad way for this part of the story to end.