When the votes roll in tonight for Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, perhaps the most interested observer will be outgoing Governor Terry McAuliffe. In part, of course, that’s because his legacy as governor will depend on securing a Democratic successor. And he’s most definitely invested himself in that successor being his lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, rather than former congressman Tom Perriello, even though the two candidates are pretty similar in their policy preferences, and either of them would begin the general election as a favorite.
But there is another reason McAuliffe may really, really want Northam to win: as a sign of his political chops, because, as Politico explains today, the Macker is thinking about running for president in 2020.
McAuliffe has his own PAC, and his own plans: throwing himself behind the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the job he can’t run for again (which would be an important way of protecting a record he’d want to run on), spending all of next year campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial candidates around the country (which just might give him important beachheads ahead of 2020), urging his party away from the purity test purge that’s all the rage these days (which would help protect him from the inevitable attacks that he’s not a true progressive, in touch with the presidential base).
His is not the first, second, or 15th name that comes to mind when you think of a strong consensus Democratic candidate for 2020.
[M]ention to top Democrats the White House run McAuliffe is cooking—by his account, still very much in we’ll-see territory, by another insider, almost down to the question of whether to announce in December ’18 or January ’19—and the word “really?” gets thrown around a lot.
Took the word right out of my mouth.
Given where Democrats are intellectually and emotionally right now, the idea of the man this same Politico piece refers to as a “happy huckster insider caricature” becoming the party’s choice to take on Donald Trump (assuming Trump is still in office) in 2020 seems, well, unlikely. Aside from angry Sanders supporters for whom McAuliffe wears horns, disappointed Clinton supporters who think perceptions of HRC as a stooge of Wall Street and other moneyed circles did her in (with a big assist from James Comey and Wikileaks) are not likely to cast yearning eyes towards a pol who examplifies a lot of what makes both Clintons maddening, even to those who love them and cherish their legacy. The most compelling rationale for McAulliffe 2020 is one that most Democrats would reject outright: “Maybe we need our own Trump.”
Whether or not it’s fair to treat McAuliffe as the Democrats’ own Trump, it is very likely the mogul’s 2016 victory is what makes all sorts of unusual people — including McAuliffe — think, “Why not me?” I mean, seriously, if Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Cuban and the Rock are mulling presidential bids made feasible by the precedent-shattering events of 2016, why not the sitting Democratic governor of Virginia? It’s not like the Macker wouldn’t know how to raise the necessary money!
But the comparison of McAuliffe to real-life celebrities shows the error of thinking Trump’s now made anything possible. In retrospect, he won the GOP nomination because he was vastly better known to the voting public than any available politician; had a particularly powerful knack for PR manipulation; and shrewdly exploited underappreciated fault lines in the Republican Party against a vast field of rivals who mostly did not get it. Terry McAuliffe is a celebrity in the tight world of Beltway potentates and fundraisers, but outside Virginia (and to some extent inside the Old Dominion), nobody in the real world is going to be able to pick him out at a lineup. Yes, McAuliffe has turned out to be a pretty good candidate for office: After a very disappointing performance in the 2009 gubernatorial primary, four years later he broke a long losing streak by candidates representing the White House party. But what great and distinctive progressive cause does he embody? To the question “Why not me?” comes an immediate counter-question: Why him?
It is true that this early in a presidential cycle all sorts of names get tossed around. And it is true there is no obvious Democratic champion for 2020 unless Elizabeth Warren runs. But the idea of McAuliffe 2020 is a sign that the net for viable candidates is being cast a bit too wide.