2020 elections

The 2020 Presidential Race Is Starting to Get Real

As she and we will very soon discover, Representative Tulsi Gabbard is not going to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

With the Iowa caucuses just over a year away, the 2020 Democratic presidential contest is about to transition from a “silly season” of wild conjecture to actual candidates putting together actual campaigns. Yes, it is far too early to make predictions about the likely order of finish in Iowa or anywhere else — or even to draw up a list of candidates who will be on anybody’s ballots. But pretty soon, anybody on this side of the Oprah Line (across which lie the people so famous they could instantly become viable contenders in the unlikely event that they chose to run for president) will have to take some concrete steps toward running if they intend to do so. As the Associated Press reports, we’re about to see an avalanche of announcements:

After months of speculation and secrecy, the 2020 presidential primary season is about to explode.

With several Democrats already in the race, a half dozen more are locking down final travel, staffing and strategy to launch White House bids in the coming weeks. While plans may change, the announcements are expected to come in waves, the first featuring a group of ambitious Senate Democrats including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who face pressure to join the race after Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s entrance two weeks ago.

The second wave will likely feature political heavyweights like former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose advisers believe they have sufficient financial backing and name recognition to join the crowded field on their terms later in the first quarter should they decide to run.

There are two different implications for the end of the “silly season:” highly implausible candidacies, whether it’s the Rock or Howard Schultz or Oprah herself, will begin to fade like the Cheshire cat’s smile. And some actually declared candidacies will begin to melt away with the heat of even superficial scrutiny. It’s already happening with one candidate making plans to announce her bid, U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, as Rolling Stone notes:

Though Gabbard has fashioned herself as an anti-Trump progressive, this past weekend was filled with revelations that could set her back in a crowded 2020 race that won’t afford candidates much margin for error. The latest came Sunday night when CNN reported that in the early 2000s Gabbard touted working for her father’s anti-gay organization, the Alliance for Traditional Marriage. The group supported legislation against same-sex marriage and promoted conversion therapy. Gabbard … worked for the ATM — which described homosexuality as “unhealthy, abnormal behavior that should not be promoted or accepted in society” — as she was running for a seat in the Hawaii state legislature. She was 21 at the time.

This side of Gabbard’s brief political past augments the problems she has created for herself by being known as Congress’s best buddy to both Bashar al-Assad and virulently anti-Muslim Hindu nationalists, as Mother Jones reports:

In 2017, a Washington Post columnist dubbed her “Assad’s mouthpiece in Washington …”

According to the Intercept, Gabbard has embraced American supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and they have embraced her as a pro-Modi force in Congress. Modi, a nationalist politician, has a history of fostering violence against religious minorities. In 2002, an outbreak of violence resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Muslims in the state where he was chief minister.

In December 2013, Gabbard opposed a House resolution calling on Modi to protect “the rights and freedoms of religions minorities.”

This is all likely to destroy whatever prospects Gabbard had earned from her connections with the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and her unusual status in Congress as an Iraq War veteran and an actual surfer.

Who knows what other dark horse Democratic candidates in a potentially vast field will similarly hit the skids and be “winnowed” the first time they are publicly vetted? Certainly some will founder thanks to fundraising woes or an inability to set up serious operations in the early caucus and primary states. Not to pick on any one obscure candidate from the House, but we should soon know whether there’s some hitherto undiscovered constituency for California representative Eric Swalwell in the potluck circuit of Iowa Democratic activists. And before long, the sheer number of highly qualified candidates will make those with slim résumés stand out, and not in a good way. I’ve met South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, and found him to be exceptionally impressive; he could be a strongly viable candidate in, say, 2032, when he’ll still be a quarter-century younger than Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are today.

Others on the list of “mentioned” proto-candidates may not be pushed off the stage entirely, but could be assigned to a lower tier in media accounts, which have a way of influencing donors and other media. That could also matter a great deal if Democrats wind up having to limit primary debate competitions to candidates who meet some kind of viability benchmark (or consign some lower-tier candidates to a “kiddie table” debate the way Republicans did in 2016). It’s tough to climb tiers or even to stick around, unless, say, you are former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and can self-fund your own campaign and are already famous. In the end, the ex-Republican and stop-and-frisk champion may be no more viable in a Democratic presidential contest than Tulsi Gabbard, but he can stick around if he wants.

So, at this point, for all but the top-tier candidates, the prime objective is survival, until things like fundraising totals and organizational achievements and then debates and then actual votes begin to winnow the enormous 2020 field. With a few exceptions, it’s not like anyone will perceive a vacuum if some of these birds don’t fly.

The 2020 Presidential Race Is Starting to Get Real