Members Only | March 4, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

We Have Enough Democratic Candidates. Please Stop

Time for more focus on the Senate, less on the presidency.

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John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, said Monday that he’s running for president. He’s the 14th Democrat to make his intentions official. Today is, therefore, a good time to talk about parties and candidates with blunt honesty.

Are there too many candidates to win? Probably not. I’m generally confident that the Democratic Party can institutionally handle the volume. “Winnowing” is a term we’re going to hear more about. That’s the word political scientists use to describe how parties sort through candidates according to a shifting range of criteria. As time goes by, and as some candidates clearly catch fire and others clearly don’t, we’re going to see that “winnowing” taking place. It’s a good bet, though not a sure bet, that by the time we get to New Hampshire, we won’t have as many candidates as we see now.

Can an outsider take advantage of this many candidates? That certainly would upend my faith in the Democratic Party’s infrastructure. But I don’t think it will happen. Bernie Sanders is the only (nominal) “outsider” who could be plausibly compared to Donald Trump’s rampage through the Republican Party. Sanders is no Trump, though.

One, he’s not a Democrat. That matters to Democrats who are going to select the party’s nominee. Two, this is a liberal party. If the base has a unifying ideology, it’s pragmatism, a yearning to pick someone to beat Trump. Three, the Democrats do not have a counterpart to Fox News, which means a demagogue like Sanders can’t use partisan media against the Democratic Party the way Trump did against the GOP.

What about the party’s turn toward socialism? Won’t that empower an outsider to take advantage of a big field? Anything’s possible, I suppose, but a lot depends on what “socialism” means. If it means uncompromising ideology, that might be a problem for the party and for governing once the party takes back the White House. If it means exploring novel ideas for the purpose of solving complex social problems, that’s not so bad. If it means getting behind popular ideas, great! The reality is probably a mix of all the above, but in any case, “socialism” won’t matter when it comes to winnowing, not for 2020 anyway. One big thing makes 2020 different from other years in which the party’s ideology would be more important. That one big thing is Donald Trump.

The illusion of presidential omnipotence

Again, I don’t think a big field is a problem in terms of picking a presidential nominee, but I do think it reflects the sense among Democrats that the presidency is the most important thing, that winning it back will solve our most pressing problems. It won’t.

It will create different problems.

Regular readers know of my admiration for the late columnist Lars-Erik Nelson. In a 2000 essay for the New York Review, he said that Democrats habitually fall victim to “the illusion of presidential omnipotence.” That’s as true today as it was 18 year ago. Because we fall victim to this illusion, we aren’t seeing, or can’t see, what really happens. After you win the White House, you lose pretty much everything else.

Barack Obama won 2008, and thus sparked a long chain reaction in which the Republicans took over hundreds and hundreds of national, state and local seats. The Democratic Party lost so much it looked like it would never recover—until Donald Trump won. Thus commenced an equal and opposite chain reaction in which the Democrats took over hundreds and hundreds of national, state and local seats.

Expect a similar pattern if a Democrat beats Trump.

Some argue that the party must pick a candidate who will prevent this, a moderate or centrist candidate. Nah. That’s not going to help. The Republican reaction will explode no matter who the next Democratic president is. The American electorate has a way of balancing the scales. Whichever party is out of power tends to exploit that.

While the Democratic Party can’t prevent a backlash, it can blunt its impact by focusing less on the presidency (which is not to say ignore it!) and more on the Congress. That means the Senate. Yes, knocking off Republican incumbents in places like Texas is damn difficult, but so is running for president. Losing a senate race can, however, reveal factors and information that could prove useful the next time around. After Beto O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz, for instance, Texas looked purpler than ever.

Hickenlooper might make a decent president, but do we need him? Not with a field packed with other equally viable candidates. What we need are high-profile and successful Democrats to challenge the GOP at home. Hickenlooper, from Colorado, has a chance to knock off Cory Gardner, a vulnerable Republican in that state.

Instead, he wants to be president.

—John Stoehr


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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