Maybe the Democratic presidential field has gotten too overcrowded.
When former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke announced his candidacy back in March, I suggested there was still plenty of room in the field, even though the list of announced and likely candidates had grown to nearly a dozen individuals. "Bring 'em all on," I wrote. "The large number of candidates isn't an obstacle to winning in 2020 — it's a sign that the democratic process, even in these challenging days, still has some vitality."
I might have been wrong. The number of Democratic candidates has about doubled in the last two months since O'Rourke's announcement. Luckily, it's this overcrowding problem can be solved by bringing even more democracy to the process.
Let's step back and examine how we got here. Perhaps because President Trump has been so deeply unpopular, Democrats across the nation have decided they're ready to challenge him for the Oval Office. In just the last week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock have both entered the race. It would seem the field is now full, but who is to say there aren't a few more Democrats out there considering a run? We're still half a year away from the primaries and caucuses, after all, and more than a year away from the general election. There's still time.
It's difficult not to wonder if there's not a bit too much democratic vitality in the Democratic Party — or, at least, a lot more ambition than good sense. Which raises two questions: How many candidates are too many? And if there are too many candidates in the field, what can be done about it?
There probably isn't a precise answer to the first question, but it's safe to say that if there are too many candidates for a voter to reasonably track — or even identify — then there are too many. Can you name all the Democratic candidates from memory? It's not clear if most political reporters can, and they get paid to do this stuff.
I want an honest response: how many of these people can you name based only on this photo set. pic.twitter.com/siOORppCOA
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) May 15, 2019
There's a solution to this problem: A primary before the primary.
This November, Democratic voters should go to the polls and narrow the field down to the top half-dozen candidates or so. The winners can then compete in 2020's caucuses and primaries, the losers are free to go back to work or run for some other office in the meantime. Democrats certainly need help strengthening their field of Senate candidates for 2020; some current presidential candidates might be steered toward making a congressional run instead of a futile race for the White House.
The benefits of a pre-primary primary are clear: Instead of the debate candidates being decided by some arbitrary method, the voters themselves would get to narrow down the field of candidates — as they should. And a field of a half-dozen candidates allows major figures to run while leaving room for a dark-horse candidate to sneak into view.
The downside? There are technical and budgetary problems that come with adding another election to the calendar, but those can be solved. A potentially bigger issue: This proposal would seem to extend the presidential campaign calendar a bit. That would matter more — we deserve a break from politics now and again — except for one thing: The presidential election cycle is now perpetual. Democratic candidates have already been featured in "town halls" on Fox News for weeks — it was Pete Buttegieg's turn on Sunday — and it's not even Memorial Day of the year before the election. Maybe it can get worse, but for now it seems like it might be more helpful to put that extra campaign time to productive use.
There are varied reasons people run for president. Some do it because they actually want to become president. But that may not always be the case. Other candidates seem to believe the race will position them for another gig, perhaps in the Cabinet or elsewhere. In 2016, Trump was reportedly considering starting his own TV network after the election; Ben Carson was selling a book at the same time he competed for the GOP nomination. Running for president, it turns out, is a good way to get famous fast. A primary before the primary would let the pretenders get in front of the public, then exit in time to let the real contenders duke it out for the nomination. All Democrats have to do is let the voters decide.