Are you planning to run for president on the Democratic ticket in 2020? If not, why not? Everyone else is. Seventeen Republicans ran in 2016, and the nominating process winnowed them down to the least qualified and most deranged. Now, Trump looks pretty beatable, so a bewildering assortment of A, B, C and D-list Democrats are lining up to run, from strong candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand to a Maryland congressman we are told is named “John Delaney” to Mark Cuban, maybe.
A recent Politico roundup of potential candidates included 36 names, ending with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Aim for the moon and you’ll land among the stars, or at least among the minor cabinet secretaries.
The nationalization of American politics and an overemphasis on the top of the ballot is a nationwide sickness, but it mostly afflicts the Democratic Party. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and then forgot about the rest of politics — the state legislatures, the governors’ mansions — and, as a result, they spent much of the next decade in political hell.
Democrats lost control of the state legislatures in charge of redistricting, which begat election wipeouts, which meant that they lost many potential candidates for higher office. Making matters worse, Obama raided the states to stock his cabinet, a sort of political brain drain that left a shortage of good candidates to run for governor and Congress. Now, their prospects for the next years look a bit better. Democrats, taking advantage of the president’s unpopularity, stand a chance of winning control of more state legislatures in 2020 and building the foundations of their party, just as Republicans did in 2010. It’s a great opportunity, and yet Democrats seem singularly focused on the upcoming presidential primary. Democrats, God bless them, are slow learners.
The prospective field includes at least two Texans: one who drafted himself, and one who is being drafted by his followers. The first is Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He’s written a book, which seems to be a necessary precursor these days, and he’s building a PAC. Then there’s Beto O’Rourke, whom the media has been urging to run for president since at least this summer. (He said at a town hall on Monday that he and his wife “made a decision not to rule anything out.”)
Castro was, and in some quarters still is, seen as one of Texas’ great Democratic up-and-comers. O’Rourke started his campaign with little chance of success, but fought like hell. Castro, on the other hand, has stayed on the sidelines, which makes his ambitions for the presidency all the more odd. For years, Castro told allies he thought he could win a close statewide race, perhaps for governor or lieutenant governor or attorney general. But he didn’t like his chances if he started with a 10- to 20-point deficit. Given Democratic performance in Texas, it didn’t seem like his time had come yet. Beto, by contrast, jumped into what looked from the start like a 20-point race. Through Herculean effort, he closed it to less than a three-point gap. When it became clear that Beto was doing something real, many Democrats privately grumbled that Castro hadn’t run for governor or another statewide office.
Texas Democrats should fervently hope that neither Castro nor O’Rourke runs for president, for the simple reason that Texas needs them a lot more than the nation does. It’s important that a Democrat beat Trump in 2020, but only one person can win the nomination. Most failed presidential campaigns are high-risk bids for personal glory and a waste of time and money. Meanwhile, state government and Congress bend and shapes people’s lives in unseen ways. Texas is in dire need of strong Democratic candidates who can run good campaigns and reverse the damage that decades of Republican control has done to the state. In 2020, Senator John Cornyn will be up for re-election, and the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and other statewide offices will be chosen by voters in 2022.
One thing the 2018 election results made clear is that Texans have a real chance to make this a purple state. Good Democratic candidates can win. There’s work to be done here, and it’s important work. Run for president, and the message is that you’re not especially interested in that work. And, just maybe, Texans shouldn’t be that interested in you.
A version of this column appears in the December/January 2018-2019 issue of the Observer.