Because this is the future, running for president of the United States is now a fantastic way to rake in the bucks, whether or not you’ve got that name recognition thing going for you. If you don’t, whatever, CNN and MSNBC need to fill all 24 hours with programming because Andy Warhol was right. If you hold an elected office — or have lots of money already — and declare your candidacy, fear not: Wolf Blitzer’s hair will be calling you for an interview before the echo fades.
Montana’s conservative Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock just announced his entry into the 2020 presidential race. He is the 22nd Democrat (yes, including Bernie) to do so with more than a month to go before the first debates, nine months to go before the Iowa caucus, and 77 weeks to go before the general election, which means there is plenty of time for more doomed challengers to jump in. Outside of Helena and Butte, the national reaction to Bullock’s candidacy was two words: “Who?” followed almost immediately by “Why?!”
The second question is fairly asked. If Bullock should stumble on his path to glory, the Democratic Party’s center-right contingent will still be championed by (in alphabetical order) Sen. Michael Bennet (Colorado), former Senator and Vice President Joe Biden (Delaware), Mayor Pete Buttigieg (Indiana), former Rep. John Delaney (Maryland), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), former Gov. John Hickenlooper (Colorado), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), Rep. Seth Moulton (Massachusetts), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), and Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio).
That is 10 stalwart banner carriers for the “centrist” vision of whatever it is they see when they look in a mirror, all crowded together in a clump of half-loaf mediocrity, trying to distinguish themselves from the pack without (gasp) leaning too far to the left. Remember the phonebooth stuffing fad from the 1950s? Like that, but just so much worse.
So why, indeed? I suppose I could argue that they are all in it for high and noble purposes, to lead the nation out of the swamp of Trumpian mayhem and into a bright future where the ocean is not rising and Republicans play nice every day and twice on Sunday … and then I remember that they are all national politicians, and the only way to look at them, according to H.L. Mencken, is down.
A handful of them, I am sure, have the best intentions girding their candidacy. If you think they’re all in it for love of country or Constitution, however, you just might be a damn fool with a bunch of cheaply bought bridges in your portfolio. At minimum, you’re wrong; running for president is big business now, in more ways than one. Winning often isn’t the point, and a whole bunch of these people are looking for a piece of the action up where the air is rare.
Rep. Moulton is a fair example. I’m pretty sure he wants to be governor of Massachusetts someday, but he’s going to have to wait a while. Charlie Baker, the Republican currently holding that office, is the most popular governor in the country. As of January, Gov. Baker’s approval rating stands at a mind-bending 72 percent.
Rep. Moulton will have to maintain a holding pattern until Baker quits or disgraces himself, so he may as well run a quixotic campaign for president and raise his profile back home. It’s as good a way as any to kill two years, and besides, candidates get to keep the money they raise and bank it for future campaigns. Politicians and pro athletes: The only people who still get paid when they lose.
Even if (when) Moulton gets beaten like John Bonham’s drum set, it’s all upside for him if he plays his cards right. Depending on who eventually gets the nomination, there’s always the possibility of a cabinet position. Moulton is a former Marine officer who served four tours in Iraq and fancies himself a foreign policy expert. Secretary of State is a reach, but I don’t think he’d turn down the view from the big desk at Veterans Affairs.
There is also, of course, former Vice President Biden, avatar for the process of failing upward. Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1988 lasted a whopping 106 days and ended in a hailstorm of shame; he held on to his Senate gig afterward because the banking industry in Delaware dug a financial moat around his office in payment for his loyal years of service to them.
Biden ran for president again in 2008, polled in the single digits each and every day, and quickly bowed out after Iowa. Yet he caught the eye of rising political superstar Barack Obama, landed the VP gig, and now he’s running again. In point of fact, he’s the front-runner who is getting all sorts of unsolicited help from the man he seeks to supplant. Biden also believes the Republicans will change once Trump is gone, so parsing his reasons for running this time is probably an empty exercise.
The “Why so many?” question has the wheels spinning within the minds of some of my less-trusting compatriots, many of whom, for full disclosure, also happen to be supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). They strongly suspect the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Death Star of “centrist” Democratic Party ambition, is so deeply freaked out by the popularity of Sen. Sanders — and, to some extent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — that they have deployed an old-school tactic to thwart him known as the “Favorite Son Strategy.”
This ploy involves getting high-profile politicians from big-delegate states to run for the same office, usually in order to deny a different candidate an avenue to victory. On spec, my nervous compatriots have a case: Sen. Kamala Harris is running out of California, Senator Bennet out of Colorado, Senator Gillibrand out of New York (with New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio also contemplating a run), Senator Booker out of New Jersey, and former Rep. O’Rourke out of Texas.
If Sanders wins those primaries, he has a good shot at the nomination. If he loses them, he’s all but done. Having so many “Favorite Son/Daughter” candidates definitely harms his chances. The DNC screwed him once before, and the practice itself is hardly without precedent.
“Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called today on Governor Cuomo of New York and Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey to run as favorite-son candidates for President as a way to keep the 1988 Democratic Presidential race open until the party’s convention in Atlanta,” reported E.J. Dionne for The New York Times in October of 1987. “Mr. Moynihan’s comments reflected a widespread worry among party leaders about the Democrats’ chances in 1988 after the withdrawals from the Presidential contest of former Senator Gary Hart and Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.”
History cracks me up.
However, at the end of the day and with apologies to my friends, I have trouble crediting the DNC with the strategic wits to pull this off. This is the organization, remember, that could not figure out how to defeat the worst presidential candidate in the history of the known universe just two and a half years ago. How am I supposed to believe that, in such a short span of time, they have summoned the requisite candlepower needed to run a multipronged, multistate, multimillion-dollar campaign to matchstick the tires on Bernie’s campaign bus, and got a bunch of big-time ego-tripping national politicians to go along with it?
“Farfetched” is the word I’m groping for — although this is, after all, the era of “So That Happened,” when the ocean is coming, the moon is shrinking, the planet is running out of helium, and Donald Trump is the president of these United States. Even “farfetched” concepts like the “Favorite Son” theory may be worth considering, because stranger things have happened, like, yesterday. Fiction has been murdered by irony, and both were run over by the truth.
Still, when it comes to this wildly overcrowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls, I believe Occam’s Razor holds ultimate sway. If the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, we should look to the simplest and most commonplace explanation of all: Money.
Running for president has become an industry of its own, and a multibillion dollar one at that. “Across America, the business of politics now channels up to $10 billion a year,” report Dave Helling and Scott Canon for the Kansas City Star, “much of it pocketed by the pros who conduct the polls, craft the ads, buy the airtime, spin the news releases.”
The kind of bottomless spending orgy that typifies modern campaigning makes its own gravy, and is one hell of an incentive for political consultants who have the ear of high-profile politicians: Listen to me, Senator Frackeverything, I know there are 94 other candidates already running, but you can win! I just need $10 million for the ad buy to get you started. Trust me, this will be great! What big-ego politician doesn’t want to hear that? Plus, as stated, the candidates get to keep what they raise for use in future campaigns.
…and we’re off to the races, or in this case, the race. Raise your profile, maybe land a cabinet post, bank some cash for upcoming political endeavors, help the consultants who got you where you are take in a slice of the pie, and perhaps even do the right thing by accident. In other words, for a bunch of these presidential hopefuls, the 2020 race is just business.