Remember when 17 Republicans running for their party's 2016 presidential nomination seemed like a lot? The field was so overly crowded that early primary debates had to be divided into two, with the 10 candidates with the highest poll numbers in one televised event and the rest shunted off to a "secondary debate" given much less coverage and attention.
Well, if you thought the GOP's 2016 clown car was too crowded, wait till you see the Democrats' 2020 crew.
By my count, no fewer than 30 people could end up running for the Democratic nomination in 2020. Maybe the early forums and debates can make use of risers — you know, the kind you see at choral concerts, with 10 or so candidates standing side-by-side three rows deep. (If we're lucky, they'll start the night by breaking into a rousing rendition of "We Shall Overcome.")
Of course, this would have to be a long affair. One-minute opening statements would take more than a half hour. Giving each candidate a grand total of five minutes of speaking time on top of those intros would produce an event considerably longer than three hours, whereas breaking the mob into three separate groups to allow more time for each candidate would most likely produce something approaching six total hours of debating.
If the Democratic and Republican parties were stronger, this wouldn't be happening. The GOP in 2016 would have approved a limited number of candidates to compete, and the Democrats would be doing the same for 2020. But in an era of free-agent politicians, with some of them (like President Trump) treating the presidency as an entry-level position, the exercise of such control is impossible. All candidates need to do, besides forming a campaign committee, filing paperwork with the FEC, and getting themselves included on primary ballots, is appeal to voters directly via social media and cable news. That incredibly low barrier for entry — combined with the enormous potential windfall in attention and, in the event of a win, power — is now generating a small army of presidential aspirants. (Trump's perceived electoral weakness is also playing an important added incentive this time around.)
In the interest of helping voters make sense of the scrum, I give you the Democratic field, divided into seven distinct categories.
1. The washed-up has-beens desperate for one last shot.
I put Hillary Clinton in this group, along with John "Reporting for Duty" Kerry, and, yes, everyone's well-meaning, well-qualified, but nonetheless slightly creepy uncle, Joe Biden. About two years out from the November 2020 election, their average age is just shy of 74. All of them have run for president in the past and come up short (Clinton and Biden twice). And all of them, despite their distinguished, honorable records of public service, are relics of an earlier time in our politics, long before the populist furies of the present. It's long past time for them to shuffle off the stage. We'll all be better off if they decide to sit this one out.
2. The handsome, charismatic vessel for vaguely defined progressive hopes
Democrats have a real soft spot for men (always men) who fit in this category. Think JFK. Think, more recently, Barack Obama. This time around, the beneficiary looks likely to be Rep. Beto O'Rourke (Texas), whose premier accomplishment in public life is to have lost an election against an unpopular Republican incumbent (Sen. Ted Cruz) by a narrower than normal margin (2.6 percentage points).
3. The fellas who made it in New York and assume they can make it anywhere
This would be New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. It's hard to imagine either of these guys catching fire much west of the Hudson River, but that may not stop them from giving it a shot. After surviving and even thriving in the acid-bath of New York's ferocious tabloid-driven media, who can blame them for considering themselves invincible?
4. The very serious senators
Let's rank them in order of electoral seriousness: Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Cory Booker (N.J.), and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). Aside from Sanders, who towers above the rest of the pack by virtue of having ignited a left-wing insurgency in the party that rages on to this day, I'm fonder of those who don't hail from the Northeast, with Klobuchar and Brown showing the greatest broad-based potential among those who aren't socialists from Brooklyn. But all of these options deserve be taken seriously; all are likely to make it into the early A-list primary debates.
5. The brand-boosters
Rumor has it that Donald Trump initially ran for president not to win but simply to raise his public profile and enhance his ability to monetize his name. Actually winning was just a bonus. There are usually a few people who stick their toes in the water early on to enhance their public stature, and this time around there may be far more than a few — perhaps a baker's dozen, in fact. So far all of the following people have at least expressed an interest in running: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Obama HUD Director Julian Cástro, Rep. John Delaney (Md.), Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio).
6. The rich guy would-be centrist saviors
Are economically comfortable Acela-corridor moderates underserved in American politics? If they responded rapturously to an appeal from a buttoned-down billionaire, would anyone else join them in the swoon? Beats me — just as I assume these potential candidates will be easily beaten at the ballot box. I'm talking about former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Starbucks boss Howard Schultz, and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. Bloomberg used to be a Republican, Schultz is the "quintessential corporate Democrat," and Dimon was last heard inveighing against Barack Obama for showing insufficient deference to big business. If the mood in the country shifts away from populism in favor of plutocracy, maybe these guys will gain traction. Otherwise, color me skeptical.
7. The celebrity-redeemers
And that leaves us with the final category of candidate, the one for those who reside in the firmament above and beyond mere politics and yet appear to be contemplating the possibility of emptying themselves for the sake of entering the political fray and offering salvation to their fellow citizens. The most prominent person by far to be pondering such a move is Oprah Winfrey, though there may be others as well. In a healthy political system, a New Age guru and daytime talk-show host with no political, legal, or public policy experience at all would have no chance of winning a race for the highest office in the land. But ours is not a healthy political system. It is a political system several decades into a process of assimilating itself to the culture of celebrity. And with the Democratic primary electorate possibly dividing its votes among a couple dozen options, it wouldn't take much for the most famous person in the field to walk away with greatest number of delegates.
If a know-nothing, trash-talking real-estate mogul and reality-show star can land himself in the White House, then maybe it makes sense that he be taken down by a spiritual, moral, political nemesis who knows how to play the same media game on the highest levels.
The 2020 race for the White House may turn out to be bewildering, but it's exceedingly unlikely to be boring.