Weeks, months, and years of intense speculation precede presidential elections in the United States. Almost immediately at the outset of a president’s four-year term, political pundits and politicians themselves direct their attention to the next electoral process. Reelection weighs heavily on the incumbent’s mind, and potential opponents gear up for the battle four years away. The presidency of Donald Trump has been exceptional in the overwhelming sense of anticipation for 2020. Now, we find ourselves in the early stages of the primary process for each party. While Democrats have been vociferous in their resistance to the Trump presidency, the party must be vigilant about the pitfalls that lie ahead. A massive, congested pool of Democratic hopefuls in the primary along with the vicious party infighting that could come with it stand as the most dangerous traps for Democrats’ hope of winning the presidency in 2020.
As of the writing of this article, ten candidates have announced their candidacy for President within the Democratic Party, along with one independent. Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard, Pete Buttigieg, Richard Ojeda, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, and Howard Schultz have already announced their intentions to run in 2020. At this early stage of the process, this number already far surpasses the number of Democratic candidates who ran in 2016 — a slim quartet that included Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee. Many more individuals have strongly hinted at 2020 candidacies, including Beto O’Rourke, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Stacey Abrams, Michael Bloomberg, Sherrod Brown, Eric Holder, Andrew Gillum, John Kerry, and Mitch Landrieu. Even a fraction of these potential Democratic candidates would skyrocket the pool of Democratic candidates for 2020.
Democrats must avoid the realities of a massive candidate pool that includes everyone and anyone who has the slightest interest in holding the Presidency. Given the recent history of the massive 2016 Republican primary featuring seventeen candidates and the nature of the 2020 election, Democrats need to sustain a primary that allows for meaningful, constructive debate around substantive issues to find a candidate who can forcefully oppose Trump. The current momentum of announcement after announcement of individuals intending to run will lead to confusion, ingenuine politics, and a weak front against Trump.
When the pool of candidates is so congested, the primary process becomes a contest among politicians to outdo and outperform each other to the extreme. In order to secure airtime in the media and to ensure a spot in the primetime televised debates, candidates will say and do anything to gain attention. This dynamic translates into a battle in which politicians are pushed to the extremes in policy stances, rhetoric, and conduct so that they remain relevant above the rest. In many ways, this dynamic allowed Donald Trump to garner substantial amounts of transfixed media attention and center stage positions in all televised, primetime debates. Others such as Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush attempted to play Trump’s game against him, but all efforts failed.
While a parallel dynamic for the Democratic primary before 2020 would likely be tamer and less bombastic, it could still spell the pushing of candidates to extremes. The undeniable progressive steps of the Democratic party in the last few years are welcome and representative changes to a political party that had distanced itself from the people. With respect to criminal justice reform, social issues, healthcare, and immigration, the Democratic landscape has been widened and reinforced with more creative, more ambitious, and more progressive policy proposals. The dark side that could come to light in 2020 is that candidates inauthentically declare support for such causes simply because they know voters want to hear it. Rather than have genuine debates on the merits of a policy such as Medicare for All, candidates will simply attempt to outdo each other in who can be more progressive.
While some could argue that this race to progressivism could ultimately benefit the American people with more effective policies in healthcare, education, and immigration, I would say that progressivism demands passion and devotion to its causes, rather than calculated, political gestures toward certain policies. The endurance and integrity of such progressive ideals would be muddled by the partisan battles for the nomination.
In a larger sense, a massive pool of Democratic candidates for 2020 — potentially an even larger pool than that of the Republicans in 2016 — would prove unsuccessful because of the nature of the upcoming election itself. For the duration of the primary process, Democrats would have to engage in competitive, intense, and at times vicious battle with one another in order to secure the most votes and delegates for the nomination. While this routine process of division within the party before the Democrats rally together in unity behind the nominee has proven the course in years past, 2020 presents different challenges. Given the nature of Trump and his presidency, this kind of intraparty division would significantly hurt any opponent of the incumbent President. Democrats need a unified, substantial, and powerful front against the President. From the beginning of the process, the ultimate and underlying goal of Democrats should be to speak to the American people and present a worthy and forceful opponent to Trump. The primary process should be the stage for presenting the American people with sincere options for the future, with policies that will carry the nation onwards.
Democratic candidates should not be individually concerned with defeating their fellow party members in order to selfishly win the Presidency for themselves. While this might seem a particularly cynical stance to take, I only hope to caution against the potential for politicians to subvert the process. At this time in our country, intraparty conflict and selfish competition for the Presidency will only lead to more distrust, more contempt, and more suspicion of government. Democrats have the opportunity to foster a primary process that shifts away from fierce antagonism and vicious attacks to frank discussion and progressive, policy-centered dialogue.
The progressive growth, unity, and strength that the Democratic party seeks to embody against Trump can only come out of a primary process that fosters substantial partnership and teamwork among Democrats. While it might be too late to curb the number of candidates who will run, Democrats must focus now on fostering a genuine debate of policy proposals and meaningful paths forward for our nation. In order to counter the fatigue and extreme infighting that can arise from a swarming primary pool, candidates must resist the temptation to reignite the strategy of Republican candidates in the 2016 primary. By avoiding a strategy of disingenuously outmatching each other, all Democratic candidates can engage in hearty and invigorating debate surrounding the policies for our country and the path we will take moving forward.
This process should reflect the hopes of cooperation and democracy writ large — an effort among politicians and the people to propose policies that will genuinely improve the quality of life in this nation, to foster a dialogue concerning the direction of our country, and to find the path towards an America more devoted to the ideals it enshrines.
Kaveh Badrei is a junior Wilson School concentrator from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.