Sanders, Zuckerberg and Oprah: the Democratic race to topple Trump in 2020

The problem is that there are too many candidates.

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Have you heard of John Delaney? No? Well, he’s running for president of the United States. The multimillionaire Maryland congressman became the first Democrat to formally enter the 2020 presidential campaign in late July and now holds the record for the earliest candidacy declaration in US political history.

Delaney won’t be the Democratic nominee, of course. But in an era in which a property-developer-turned-reality-TV-star is sitting in the Oval Office, how do you tell any candidate they’re not good enough to run? Or that they can’t win?

This is the big political headache for Democratic strategists. The sooner the party can unite behind a viable candidate to beat Donald Trump, goes their argument, the better. But that just isn’t going to happen. 

The problem for the Democrats is that there are too many candidates who want to take on Trump – the Hill newspaper listed 43 possible names in May – and too few with the profile and vision required to defeat him. It won’t be easy. Ask Hillary Clinton. She didn’t think Trump could beat her – but he did (in the electoral college, at least). The former Secretary of State, with her history of scandals at home and support for wars abroad, was the wrong candidate for the wrong election. The front of her book about the 2016 campaign juxtaposes the title, What Happened, with the byline, “Hillary Clinton”, prompting several wags on Twitter to point out that it is the first book to contain both the question and the answer on the cover.

Former vice-president Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who ran a remarkable insurgent campaign against Clinton in last year’s primaries, have said they believe they could have defeated Trump. The two men are now the frontrunners in the Democratic race for 2020, with their respective supporters stressing their appeal to the “blue collar” Americans who voted for Trump in droves. But are they too old to be president? Come November 2020, socialist Sanders will be 79 and gaffe-prone Biden 77. Elizabeth Warren, the banker-bashing senator from Massachusetts, who is perhaps the only other Democrat with national name recognition, will be 71.

Age, of course, shouldn’t be a barrier to success. And remember: Trump himself will be 74 come 2020 while Ronald Reagan left office a few weeks shy of his 78th birthday. Nevertheless, it is difficult to disagree with Politico’s verdict on the dilemma facing the Democrats: “Old but well-known vs fresh but anonymous.”

The “fresh but anonymous” brigade includes centrist senators Kamala Harris of California (who will be 56 in 2020) and Cory Booker of New Jersey (who will be 51). Both have signed on to Sanders’ ambitious Medicare-for-all universal healthcare bill in an attempt to win brownie points with an increasingly progressive Democratic base. Yet both have records that bother the left: as California’s attorney general, Harris refused to prosecute Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank over foreclosure violations, while the Wall Street-aligned Booker attacked Obama in 2012 for daring to impugn the good name of… Bain Capital.

Then there are the outsiders who might run – tech billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, and celebrity billionaires and millionaires such as Oprah Winfrey and, I kid you not, WWE-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Zuckerberg is definitely considering a presidential bid. But Facebook is currently embroiled in the massive political controversy over whether or not Russia influenced the result of the 2016 election. And also: The Zuck has all the charisma of a potted plant.

Oprah oozes charisma. But she wouldn’t be crazy enough to run for president, would she? Don’t be so sure. “If you need to set a thief to catch a thief, you need a star – a grand, outsized, fearless star whom Trump can neither intimidate nor outshine – to catch a star,” wrote conservative columnist John Podhoretz in the New York Post in September, describing Winfrey as the Democrats’ “best hope”. And Oprah’s response? “Thanks for your vote of confidence!” she tweeted to Podhoretz.

If the Democratic primaries were held tomorrow, it is Sanders who would win by a country mile. As I have noted on these pages before, the Vermont senator – who, as an independent, isn’t even a member of the Democratic Party! – is the most popular politician in the United States right now. But the primary campaign won’t begin in earnest for at least another 70 or 80 weeks. In Trump’s chaotic America, a week isn’t a long time in politics – an hour is. Things could change fast on the Democratic side.

Finally, there is the political elephant in the room. It just might not matter whom the Democratic candidate is because sitting US presidents tend to be re-elected. Twenty presidents have stood for re-election since 1900: 15 of them were returned to office and only five were defeated. The past three presidents – Clinton, Bush, Obama – have all been two-term presidents.

As Hunter S Thompson observed in his classic book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, “Any incumbent President is unbeatable, except in a time of mushrooming national crisis or a scandal so heinous – and with such obvious roots in the White House – as to pose a clear and present danger to the financial security and/or physical safety of millions of voters in every corner of the country.”

The Democrats must be hoping that Trump, as president, continues to personify national crisis and scandal and danger. It might be their only chance of winning back the White House in 2020. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions