As discussed on today’s Three Martini Lunch podcast, Michael Goodwin’s column speculating that Hillary Clinton may run for president in 2020 is based on some pretty thin evidence — basically that Hillary Clinton’s Super PAC, Onward Together, has sent out five messages in a month asking for money or encouraging participation in protests.
But Goodwin’s second point — that Clinton might have a less difficult road back to the nomination than some may think — is more plausible. Democrats are likely to have a lot of presidential candidates in 2020. Even if big names like Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders take a pass, you’re probably going to see bids from Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Eric Holder, Terry McAuliffe, Martin O’Malley, Andrew Cuomo, Deval Patrick, Eric Garcetti, Mitch Landrieu . . . and Maryland congressman John Delaney is still running.
And when characters like former Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenetti start talking about running in 2020, it becomes increasingly clear that presidential campaigns are now an attractive option for a C-list political figures who want to rise to the B-list. These non-serious campaigns are basically just bigger book tours, a quasi-reality show that runs concurrently on the campaign web site and political news coverage. Cable news and talk radio have air time to fill. There’s no shortage of reporters eager to follow around a lively personality for a day or two and write overwrought profile pieces about how “[Insert candidate name here]’s long-shot bid is ready to shake up American politics.” Ever since Mike Huckabee got his weekend show on Fox News, a certain segment of the political world has seen long-shot presidential campaigns as basically extended auditions for cable-news gigs.
All of this adds up to a lot of noise that a lot of candidates will have a hard time being heard over. Good luck to the lesser-known senators, governors, and mayors who think they’ll stand out in the first debate because of the power of their ideas. In 2016, Republicans had no mechanism to say to candidates like Jim Gilmore, “You’re not going to be president, so stop wasting everyone’s time.” Democrats won’t have one either.
The Democratic presidential primary in 2020 could feature ten, 15, or maybe even 20 candidates. That’s an absolute crowd. Standing out in that crowd will require unique attributes — and Hillary Clinton would be uniquely positioned to say, “I’m the one you should have picked, America.” She could pitch a third candidacy as “a chance to fix the biggest mistake in American history.” (This wouldn’t appeal to me, but remember, we’re trying to persuade Democratic primary voters here.)
It wouldn’t win over all Democrats, and perhaps not even a clear majority, but it’s not hard to imagine the “Let’s elect Hillary and undo 2016” argument winning over 30 to 40 percent in a Democratic primary, while the rest of the crowd beats each other up while fighting among themselves for the remainder. In other words, Hillary Clinton could use a version of the Trump 2016 strategy in the Democratic primary — enjoy total name recognition, dominate the media spotlight and the debates, and just power through the rest of the field by attrition. I’m not predicting that it will happen, but it could happen.