These Democrats Aren't Ready to Run for President

(Bloomberg View) -- I'm getting extremely cranky about something happening on the Democratic side over the last several months, but I keep going back and forth about who I'm actually annoyed with: A handful of misguided politicians? Or the rest of U.S. political culture and media coverage, myself included? 

Way too many people are running for president. They have dubious credentials and/or low practical chances to win the nomination. If they care so much about Democratic causes, why don't they dedicate themselves to more realistic opportunities? They'll have better shots at actually getting elected and making an impact.

Let's start with an obvious, if obscure, one. Andrew Yang, why are you running for president?  

Yang is a New York businessman who is running on a platform of opposing automation. Sure, in the post-Trump age I'm not going to say anything is impossible, but it's not even especially likely that Yang will even get into the nomination debates. Why not run for Senate in New York this year? Sure, he'd have no chance against incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand in the primary election, but it would give him a forum for talking about his issue. Or he could run for some other office where he'd have a chance to win and actually try to implement some of his ideas. 

Next is a member of the House who is shooting way too high: Representative John Delaney, why are you running for president?

Delaney is from Maryland, an extremely Democratic state with a Republican governor. Sure, Larry Hogan is currently popular. But it's not as if winning the presidency is more likely than knocking off a Republican governor in a Democratic year in a Democratic state. Besides, Delaney, a former businessman first elected in 2012, barely has more conventional qualifications for the presidency than Yang. 

Now to a rising star of the party: Julian Castro, why are you running for president?

I live in San Antonio, and think that Castro was a perfectly good mayor. He was probably a fine secretary of Housing and Urban Development. But again: That's a far cry from having conventional qualifications for the presidency.

My crackpot idea for Castro wasn't even to run for governor of Texas, although that would have been a reasonable option. I would have liked to see him run for state attorney general (the incumbent has been under indictment for most of his term, but Democrats weren't able to find a high-profile candidate to challenge him). Castro might have had a good chance, and even losing that statewide race would have still left him positioned for a top cabinet position in the next Democratic administration.

Castro has a much better chance than either Yang or Delaney at actually winning the presidential nomination in 2020, but it's still a stretch for someone with limited experience. 

One more: Eric Holder, why are you running for president?

Okay, Holder hasn't exactly been camping out in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he is at least hinting at it (although a quick search indicates the only people who appear to be taking it seriously are Republican-aligned media). The former attorney general in the Obama administration probably would have little chance at the nomination, and doesn't have conventional qualifications. If he does want to run for office, however, there's a good one available: Holder, from New York, could take on incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo. A lot of liberals in New York have been unhappy with Cuomo, and Holder could run on a civil rights and voting rights platform that he could actually implement if he won. Indeed, just by running he might be able to push Cuomo on several issues Holder cares about.  

I could add Oprah Winfrey. If she was serious about a political career, the Illinois governor contest this year would have been an excellent target.

Trump's flukish win aside, the truth is that presidential nominations are usually won by those with statewide electoral victories under their belt -- folks such as Senators Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar, or Governors (and recent Governors) Martin O'Malley, John Hickenlooper, and Terry McAuliffe.  

The problem with all these longshot bids is that they are significant wastes of talent. The U.S. Senate could use a few more cranks. I don't know much about Yang, but he might qualify. Julian Castro is a very talented politician; Texas Democrats could use a few more talented politicians, even in a losing cause. 

And yet I'm not sure whether to place the blame on these candidates, or if we should instead find fault with a political culture and a political media which sees far too many things through presidential election politics. After all, I know about Yang because he scored an article on the front page of the New York Times Sunday business section. Would he have done so as a senate or gubernatorial candidate, even with a decent chance of winning? I don't know. 

The truth is, however, that while presidents may be the single most important policy-makers in the U.S. political system, they're hardly the only important ones. Senators, governors, members of the House -- even state legislators and other state and local officials -- can be highly influential, albeit on a much narrower range of policy areas.

All of us should do a better job of making that clear, and of telling their often fascinating stories. As long as we don't, we're shortchanging ourselves by making a less robust democracy. And we're setting up incentives for politicians who don't match the underlying incentives of the constitutional system. That creates the wrong incentives for politicians and wastes the contributions they could be making.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

  1. That is, they're doing the things now that presidential candidates would be doing at this point. In Josh Putnam's words, they're currently running for whether or not they'll actually be running in even in

  2. And no, it's not too early for this group and other serious candidates to be running. Like it or not, the invisible primary is an important part of the current system; it's how parties are able to vet candidates and secure commitments to the party agenda, while also giving the party a chance to fight out what exactly their priorities should be going forward. 

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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