As much as we’d all like to take a moment and enjoy the end of the 2018 midterms, the reality is that November 7 was not the last day of election season; it was the first day of the 2020 presidential campaign. Politics is an never-ending game.
And you’d better believe the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries are going to be a circus. The field of candidates who will run is shaping up to be nearly as large as that of the Republicans in 2016, which was the largest number of candidates in a presidential primary in American history. It’s not too early to begin thinking about who those candidates will be.
Indeed one candidate, who may be considered “serious,” already has officially declared his intention to run: U.S. Representative John Delaney of Maryland. Delaney is likely to go the way of Martin O’Malley in 2020 (notwithstanding the fact that Martin O’Malley himself may reappear in 2020 to run), and inevitably he will be joined by other “also-rans” with no viable shot.
Still, expect no shortage of major candidates fighting for the lead in each of the major ideological lanes of the Democratic field.
In the post-2016 world, it makes the most sense to view any future presidential primary through a lens of “insiders” versus “outsiders,” with perhaps a few other candidates somewhere in the middle of this spectrum between the establishment and the populists. First, there is the high-profile battle for the blessing of the party elites.
A Veep Sweep?
As numerous nationwide and statewide polls have already shown, the apparent frontrunner is former Vice President Joe Biden. Having previously run in 1988 and 2008, a third run in 2020 would be the latest in a long American tradition of vice presidents taking up the mantle of their party after the president they served under has been termed out of office.
Biden is hardly a sure-thing, however. His age (he’s three years older than President Trump) and his reputation for remarkably stupid gaffes may prove to be serious barriers. And, in the era of #MeToo, don’t be surprised if his creepy, touchy-feely approach with women becomes a campaign issue.
As far as the hard numbers go, CNN analyst Ryan Struyk has pointed out that Biden’s current lead is only half of what Hillary Clinton’s polling lead was at this same point going into 2016. In fact, it’s closer to where Republican polling placed Mitt Romney in 2014, making him the apparent frontrunner. Trump wasn’t even considered a longshot at that point, and Romney, of course, took himself out of the running altogether.
At the same time, although Biden has seniority and the executive experience that insiders crave, he is not ideological enough to scare away the more far-Left crop of candidates who inevitably run in order to vie for attention. While Biden’s connection to the Obama Administration is more personal, younger and more diverse candidates inevitably will try to take up the mantle of being the next Obama, rather than merely the guy who went along on Obama’s ride.
One such example would be California’s junior Senator Kamala Harris. Coincidentally, in recent statements on the subject of 2020, Harris was the one and only person that Biden mentioned by name as a possible nominee. And this reflects the latest in a consistent trend that started almost as soon as Harris was elected in 2016: The party’s donor class, which overwhelmingly backed Hillary in 2016, is lining up behind Harris.
Harris checks off a lot of major boxes for those in the party leadership. She is a triple-minority, being half-black, half-Indian, and a woman. Hailing from the socialist utopia of California, she boasts some extremely far-left views on such issues as gun control and immigration, while at the same time cozying up nicely to the party brass. In that sense, some see her as a potential cross between Obama and Hillary, and perhaps the best possible answer for the growing divide between the party leadership and the far-left base as a result of the 2016 primaries.
Aside from the preemptive backing of a potential Harris candidacy by the party’s donors, another big move by the establishment seems to signify the party’s efforts to give Harris an early edge in winning the nomination: Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill moving the state’s presidential primary election from June to the beginning of March. With Harris having the home-state advantage—and perhaps the only candidate from the Golden State—a victory would almost certainly launch her into frontrunner status.
Through her antics during the Kavanaugh hearings, Harris seemed to all but confirm her presidential ambitions. Not to be outdone, New Jersey’s Senator Cory Booker also seized the opportunity to audition for a big role in 2020, though Kirk Douglas can probably rest assured that Booker’s reprisal will not top his original performance.
A few years ago, back when Barack Obama was still president, Booker was widely seen as a favorite to succeed him. Another young, African-American senator from a blue state who undoubtedly would appeal to the same voters that loved Obama, he also briefly flirted with vice presidential aspirations in 2016, allegedly making the shortlist for Hillary’s running mate before she selected Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia.
In the past two years, Booker has tried (and only partially succeeded) to keep up with the party’s leftward lurch in his voting record and his rhetoric. A Politico profile focused on how his past reliance on positive rhetoric and refusal to fight dirty would be a detriment in a potential presidential run. And although he seems to have shed his “nice guy” image in the wake of Kavanaugh, it may be a case of too little too late for Booker, as others like Harris snatch the spotlight and the microphone away from him.
If Booker were to run, he could best be described as the 2020 Democratic counterpart to Florida’s Marco Rubio in 2016: Once considered a rising star and serious contender, but he has long since faded.
One other major candidate hailing from a deep-blue East Coast state is Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren has been a darling of the establishment for quite some time, and was also a favorite to be Hillary’s running mate in 2016. Like Harris, she is seen as a possible bridge between the establishment and the party’s progressive base. Warren talks like a populist and often votes like a socialist.
There is no denying, however, that the same base that loved Bernie Sanders loathes Warren, despite their ideological similarities. The Sandernistas view Warren as a “sell out,” who backed Hillary over Bernie out of pure political expediency.
At the same time, just as Biden is unable to avoid saying stupid things, Warren has made herself all too easy for Republicans to lampoon thanks to her now-debunked claims of Native American heritage; her recent efforts to keep pushing this lie have even earned her the ire of many in her own party. In identity politics poker, Warren foolishly exposed her weak hand. Somewhere, Harris and Booker (and their consultants) are smiling.
Nevertheless, Warren has attempted to boost her credentials with the base as she stumped for numerous progressive candidates in the midterms. But as The Wall Street Journal noted, the vast majority of candidates she endorsed lost. This could be a testament to her endorsement being more of a hindrance than an advantage, her poor choice in candidates, or her ineffectiveness as a campaigner; any one of these things does not bode well for a possible 2020 run.
Passing on a Wet Torch
Although polling data and historical precedent seems to depict Joe Biden as the frontrunner, there is actually a strong chance he will opt not to run. Expect the former vice president to repeat the same song he sang in 2016: He will be the center of prolonged speculation of “will he or won’t he” before ultimately deciding against it, ostensibly to pass on the torch to “the new generation.”
If he does this, he will most likely make his endorsement at the same time; and if the current behavioral trends of the party leadership serve as any indication, he too will support Kamala Harris. Although others like Booker and Warren will still run trying to woo the party elite, it will be Harris who gets their imprimatur.
By cementing Harris as their new mascot, the Democratic establishment will be forging an unsteady alliance with the grassroots, as California undoubtedly is viewed as the epicenter of #TheResistance and a hotbed of rabid anti-Trump rhetoric. Once again, the mantra will be that “California is the future.” They just won’t mention that it happens to be a very, very bleak future.
With Harris cozied up with the party’s bigwigs, expect there still to be some actual resistance from #TheResistance. Many in the far-left base will not be satisfied, and will continue to demand an actual outsider, an avowed socialist who makes the party’s leadership squirm.
Who is most likely to lead this category, and headline the second act of this insane circus? That will be answered in the next part.
Photo Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images