Read 2020 Challenge: Part 1

I am reading the memoirs of every Democrat running for president. Here is what I think of the ones debating on September 12th.

Writing a memoir has become a mandatory part of running for president. Like a college essay, these books help voters learn about a candidate’s background and get a sense of their values. In preparation for the Iowa caucuses, I am trying to read the memoir of every Democrat running for president in 2020. I want to know who these people are – and maybe find a candidate to vote for. In the process, I hope to help you identify which books are worth reading and which ones are best left on the shelf.

A note about my process. This challenge is not intended to promote any particular candidate. My reviews are focused on answering two basic questions: is this book enjoyable and do I know more about how this person would be as president? Therefore, I will be giving each book a seperate entertainment and utility rating. The entertainment rating will score my level of enjoyment when reading the book. I will be considering stylistic choices and the strength of the narrative. The utility rating will score the clarity of their ideas. I am looking to see how well candidates articulate their priorities and policy positions. I will do my best to keep my policy opinions to myself.

Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden

Telling the parallel stories of Joe Biden’s political career and personal life during his final year in office, Promise Me, Dad is an intimate and eloquent memoir. I was deeply moved by the strength of the entire Biden family as they confronted Beau Biden’s diagnosis with terminal brain cancer. I was equally impressed by the ability of the former vice president to continue passionately pursuing his work in the face of unimaginable grief.

As Biden comes to terms with his grief, he continues to push for progress in Washington. As vice president, he was deeply involved with foreign relations in Ukraine, Iraq, and the Northern Triangle. Additionally, Biden used his experience to serve as the nation’s consoler in chief. The memoir made clear that Biden’s strength has always been his ability to lead with compassion. In the moments where he is called to speak to families in grief, Biden’s personal and political stories flow together, and the reader sees beautiful moments of humanity. Compared to any other book on this list, Biden’s memoir offers a far more intimate look at the candidates life than those of his peers. As a result, the book scores high on the entertainment scale.

Nevertheless, what the book had in heart, it lacked in vision. I would not recommend Promise Me, Dad as a resource for those trying to envision a Biden presidency. His ability to act as a healer in emotionally charged situations would serve him well in the current political climate, yet his limited discussion politics place him directly in the shadow of the Obama Administration. He offers few concrete reasons why “it’s gotta be you” – as his Beau once told him. For those looking for a good read, this is your book. For those researching their vote, it is best to check his website instead.

Entertainment Rating

Utilitiy Rating

Where We Go From Here? by Bernie Sanders

In his new book, Bernie Sanders’s Where We Go from Here makes it clear that he is still the energetic and relentless advocate for the “revolution” that he was in 2016. Hopeful, principled, and occasionally sarcastic, the second book by the Vermont Senator clears the air after 2016 and demonstrates his growth as a leader. With topics ranging from free college to climate change, this book is an interesting and on-brand account from America’s favorite Democratic Socialist.

While Sanders is no great writer, Where We Go from Here effectively captures the moral consistency that continues to make Bernie Sanders so distinct from other candidates. From healthcare to education, electoral politics to foreign policy, it is clear that he is guided by an unshaken faith in the democratic system and a belief that democracy works best when average people are empowered. I was particularly impressed by the comprehensiveness of his second publication. He conveyed a broad reaching framework for the Socialist Democratic approach leadership. He also openly embraces new platforms of communication, and advocates new ways to bring the party into the future.

I loved this book because it gave me a clear sense of what a Sanders presidency would look like and gave me useful insight into the ways that he thinks.

His choice to organize the book in a series of dates gave the book a clunky feeling that did not lend well to effective story telling. Additionally, the book was lacking in personal touch. I confess I did not read his first book, and I can only guess that there is more personal background in Our Revolution. However, since I am only judging the books I have read, I am going to have to knock of some points for entertainment for this omission.

Entertainment Rating

Utility Rating

Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris 

Kamala Harris’s book, The Truths We Hold, is similar to her healthcare plan: interesting and detailed but ultimately lacking direction and message. Her book centers around her career as Attorney General of California and details her work on issues such as accountability in the financial sector, gay marriage, and criminal justice reform.

Her perspective on criminal justice reform is the most notable portion of the book. Raised by activists and educated in the same schools as many prominent civil rights leaders, Harris undoubtedly has a strong connection to the black community. However, as a prosecutor, she was also a key player in a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerated people of color. The tension between these two sides of Harris are not easily reconciled. Harris tries to balance her duty to protect victims of crime while also preventing the victimization of citizens by the criminal justice sys tem.  She is not the only prosecutor on on this list, but I think she handled the topic the best.

With the exception of climate change, Harris’s book covers all of the ideological bases both progressive and moderate factions would like to see in a candidate. However, when it comes to actual policy, she is noticeably vague. This vagueness has thus far enabled her to be the anybody’s-candidate of the race, but it could ultimately hurt her in the long run. After finishing this book, I still did not feel as though I knew Harris better than before I read it, and I attribute this feeling in part to her policy greyness. 

Entertainment Rating

Utility Rating

This Fight is Our Fight by Elizabeth Warren

It is not new to hear politicians talk about rebuilding the middle class. Like job creation and ecnomic growth, it is one of those goals that makes a good talking point but is rarely the central issue for most candidates. For Elizabeth Warren, growing the middle class is more than rhetorical.

Warren is by far the wonkiest candidate in the field, but she does not let that get in the way of building a strong case for consumer protections and supporting the social safety net. Warren has a strong belief in the power of government to reign in Wall Street, and she makes clear thoughout that her top priority as president is to bring cops back on the beat in the financial sector.

This book got off to a bumpy start. Warren begins with a scene straight out of her announcement video. Standing in the kitchen with a beer in hand, Warren talks about her love of the show Ballers to seem more relatable. The entire opening made me cringe. But once she got into the meat of her arguement I could not find many flaws.

Warren’s greatest strength as a communicator is her ability to frame issues. In one passage, she describes how low minimum wages enable multi-billion dollar companies like Walmart use the social safety net to subsidize labor costs. This fresh perspective opens up new lines of discussion and helps her stand out in a field crowded with candidates that all have something similar to say. Because of its density, this book is a tougher read than the rest of the books on the list, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Entertainment rating

Utility Rating

The Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttegeig 

When told I was reading this book, a former professor of mine laughed. “He’s 37 and already has enough for a book?” Apparently so, and enough for a pretty good read at that. The Shortest Way Home is both a story about a midwestern city’s social and economic recovery and a compelling tribute to civic responsibility.

With degrees from Harvard and Oxford, most people in his position would turn their back on their humble roots. However, for Buttigieg, his elite pedigree drove him to turn to a life of service. Returning to Indiana, he commissioned in the Naval Reserves and moved back to a hometown still reeling from the loss of the auto industry.

As mayor of South Bend, Buttigieg demonstrates his prowess as a systems thinker with an eye for detail. This same spirit is ever-present throughout the book. With enthusiasm, he throws the reader into the minutiae of his morning runs as well as the South Bend sewer system. Each vignette bringing the city to life.

Written with a clear voice and compelling story, this book was one of my favorites from this challenge. Nevertheless, it is not without its flaws. Buttigieg has a clear vision to address the needs of the city, but the book does not detail his perspective on many of the national issues that are now central to his campaign. He does not speak much about healthcare, climate change, immigration, or income inequality, so readers are forced to look elsewhere for his stances.

Entertainment Rating

Utility Rating

United by Cory Booker

United is a testament to the power of hope, humility, and unshakable optimism. Moving from Yale Law School to a public housing unit in Newark, New Jersey, Senator Cory Booker finds himself on the front lines of benign neglect, the drug trade, and gang violence. This book follows Booker’s journey to City Councilman and Mayor, showing that real change requires getting one’s hands dirty. United calls on the reader to live their values and lead with love.

I found one passage in particular to be particularly striking. During one of his first encounters with his mentor, Virginia Jones, tells him, “If all you see are problems, darkness, and despair, then that is all there is ever going to be. But if you are one of those stubborn people who every time you open your eyes you see hope, you see opportunity, possibility, you see love or the face of God, then you can be someone who helps me.”  

This sentement remained central to Booker’s approach to governance. Regardless of his status, he remained a resident in the area’s toughest neighborhoods. His living situation helps him stay true to his mission and see how his policies are working on the ground.

His story is heavily focused on Newark politics, and while there is some overlap between his local and national priorities, there was a wide range of issues that went unaddressed. I would have loved for him to spend more time on his career in the Senate, talking about the national causes he championed.

Overall, I was surprised to find this book among my favorite from this challenge. His story is unique and interesting, and he seems to have a real passion for public service.

Entertainment Rating:

Utility Rating

The Senator Next Door by Amy Klobuchar

As the name implies, Senator Amy Klobuchar sells herself as a hometown, Senator from the heartland. Her love of Minnesota is clear throughout as she details her life in public service. This book is par for the course in political memoir writing. She provides the reader with vingettes into her early life and career and offers some modest insights into the political process. Overall, the book is just generic.

Klobuchar has consistently marketed herself as the champion of midwestern common sense as one of the moderate candidates in the field. The second half of the book is filled with examples of her ability to work across the aisle with the likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham. While she speeks to a few of the major issues facing the country today, she mostly focuses on niche isolated policy accomplishments like successfully regulating pool filters. As a result, I did not put this book down feeling like I knew more about her big ticket possitions better than when I started.

She closes the book off with a rallying cry for moderation and civility in politics, and I wish that theme were more present throughout. While it is clear that this is the keystone of her approach to politics, she was not dilligent in aligning her life story with this principle. This conclusion seemed like an afterthought.

Overall, the book accomplished the minimun standard for decent political memoirs but does not go above and beyond.

Entertainment Rating

Utility Rating

An Unlikely Journey by Julian Castro 

The story of the American Dream is retold in a new voice by the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro. An Unlikely Journey challenges the individualism that is usually central to stories about the American Dream. For Castro and his family, success is inter-generational.

After watching the second debate, I was really excited to read this book. To my dismay, however, the book did not live up to my expectations. Castro glosses over almost all of his time in public service. His entire career in HUD gets a measly three pages compared to an entire chapter detailing his election to student government in college. I could have excused the lack of detail had the book not been published so close to the time he announced his presidential campaign. It was clearly intended to be a piece of campaign litterature, yet it fails to provide any notion as to where his policy preferences or his political priorities are.

Entertainment Rating

Utility Rating

The War on Normal People Andrew Yang 

The robots are here and they are coming for everyone’s jobs. Reading at times more like a sci-fi book than a political memoir,  Andrew Yang’s The War on Normal People forecasts a dark future for the American labor market in the face of growing automation. From the industrial and transportation sectors to the legal and medical fields, Yang claims that the progress of artificial intelligence threatens any job with routine and logical tasks. So how do we survive the robot-pocolipse? Yang suggests that we institute a Universal Basic Income (UBI) of $12,000 annually along with a new currency of social credits. 

I credit Yang’s ability to grasp the big economic picture rather than focusing on distinct policy areas like many of his peers. I also have no doubt that Yang’s description of the economy-of-tomorrow is well founded. However, I will leave it up to the reader to determine whether his solutions are realistic. He is not clear as to how he arrived at the number of $12,000 for a UBI and does not fully explain how it would account for wage adjustment. He also does not fully explain how the UBI will spur job creation in the face of automation. 

Entertainment Rating

Utility Rating

Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments below!

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