Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has to know that is he almost certainly not going to be the Democratic Party presidential nominee. That is not a huge knock on Castro. It’s math. More than 20 Democrats may well end up running. Only one can win.
But it’s not just math. Castro’s path is harder than most. He’s never been a governor, senator or vice president. Every Democratic presidential nominee has served in one of those three capacities since 1924. The 2020 field will include plenty of candidates with more polished résumés from which to choose.
Yes, Donald Trump proved the old rules don’t always apply. Maybe Castro cuts just the right profile for 2020. Maybe Democratic voters will see the grandson of immigrants as the perfect foil to America’s foremost champion of border walls. Maybe after months of bloodletting among the top-tier candidates, Castro’s youthful, high-wattage smile will feel like a tonic. Maybe if Beto O’Rourke’s dental overshare is too much for primary voters to swallow, Castro can pick up the Texas torch and make the case that he’s the one who can turn the state blue.
But candidates like Castro have to know the more likely scenario is that they lose the primary and do not become president. So why run at all? Beyond the hope that everything will break just the right way, a presidential campaign is presumed to be a fantastic profile booster. You may snag a choice Cabinet post, a cushy cable TV contract, or even the vice presidency—and the VP would get a complementary VIP pass to the presidential primary top-tier, redeemable in 2024 or 2028.
There’s just one problem for Castro and political comers like him: It doesn’t always work out that way.
Presidential campaigns can be noble endeavors, but they also can be forgettable ciphers or worse, scandalous embarrassments. Some say to those considering a presidential bid, “What do you have to lose?” There’s an inconvenient answer: “Your entire political future.”
Sure, after their 2008 Democratic primary defeats, Joe Biden became vice president and Hillary Clinton became secretary of state. After 2004, Howard Dean redeemed himself as Democratic National Committee chairman, and Al Sharpton overcame the taint of the Tawana Brawley hoax to become a premier civil rights leader and TV host.
But not everyone lands so elegantly. Scott Walker’s tepid and brief presidential campaign helped turn the conservative hero into a governor marked for defeat. Retired General Wesley Clark, a 2004 front-runner for about a week, had to retreat to the lobbyist sector. Carol Moseley Braun, who lost her Senate seat after one term, couldn’t find redemption in 2004; she followed up her fizzle with a weak fourth-place showing in the 2011 Chicago mayoral race. And think twice, Tulsi Gabbard. Several House members who ran for president and performed badly—such as Dick Gephardt, Dennis Kucinich, Bob Dornan, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann and Tom Tancredo—soon after quit Congress or lost reelection.
Do I even have to mention John Edwards?
But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Not true! All the usual spoils available to presidential also-rans are also available to the politicians who don’t run for the highest office in the land. Most vice presidents and Cabinet officials didn’t first try to hit all 99 Iowa counties. And if you really want a cable TV contract, here’s an easier path: Win a seat in Congress if you don’t already have one, then quit in a huff and complain about dysfunction in Washington.
Nevertheless, a slew of ambitious Democrats like Castro are going to take the presidential plunge, knowing deep down that they are really in it for the parting gifts and consolation prizes. What can they learn from past runners-up?
The most important thing is to run a positive campaign that treats your primary competitors with respect.
Only kidding! You can tear your opponents to shreds and still enhance your post-primary stature.
When John McCain came up short in his bitter battle with George W. Bush in the 2000 primary, he didn’t earn a Cabinet post. But he did build his own “maverick” political brand and base of support. During the Bush presidency, McCain used his continued popularity to pressure Bush into signing a campaign-finance reform bill into law. He also refused to back Bush’s tax cuts on fiscal responsibility grounds. And despite these apostasies, McCain won the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. (Perhaps McCain’s experience gives Bernie Sanders, who became a progressive rock star by lacing into Hillary Clinton and the existing Democratic Party establishment in 2016, hope for 2020.)
In 2004, Sharpton didn’t just go after Dean, he also played a significant role in denying Dean the nomination. In a debate shortly before the Iowa caucuses, the New York civil rights activist skewered the former Vermont governor for failing to have any people of color in his Cabinet. (Sharpton’s aggressive strategy was shaped in part by Republican operative Roger Stone. “I saw Roger’s fingerprints all over that,” then-real estate developer Donald Trump told the New York Times.) Thanks to Sharpton’s combative yet witty style, he transformed his reputation and became a welcome figure in Democratic Party circles, on top of scoring a TV show on MSNBC.
There’s a big caveat to the slash-and-burn strategy. While you can rise in stature by punching up, if your broadsides are leveled against the eventual primary winner, chances are the winner won’t return the favor and make you the vice-presidential nominee. What prospective president wants a bitter, ambitious rival peering over his or her shoulder for the next four to eight years?
The last vice-presidential nominee who threw real roundhouses against the eventual top of the ticket was 1980’s George H.W. Bush, who memorably dismissed Ronald Reagan’s belief that tax cuts raise revenue as a “voodoo economic policy.” Reagan looked past the jab, though only at the last minute after former president Gerald Ford passed on the vice presidency.
Since then, former rivals have rarely gotten the call, save for Edwards in 2004 and Biden in 2008. Edwards’ youthful buoyancy and Southern background earned him “rising star” status. Plus, Edwards made a point of campaigning with positivity, minimizing bad blood with Kerry. Kerry privately thought Edwards was a self-serving phony, but relented, later regretting he didn’t choose a different running mate, Dick Gephardt.
Biden followed a different path to the ticket. Early in the 2008 race, he had clumsily patronized Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American” who was “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” That fed the perception of Biden as an undisciplined and out-of-touch gaffe machine. He never got any traction and dropped out after Iowa. Yet running a clunker of a campaign may have ultimately proved beneficial; he wasn’t around long enough for any enmity to develop between him and Obama. In other words, while running a close second might seem like the best way to become a ticket’s No. 2, don’t discount the value of completely tanking.
However, Biden didn’t need a strong primary showing to bring something to the ticket, because he had already accumulated decades of Washington experience to justify being a heartbeat away. Unlike Biden, Castro and several other 2020 candidates with light résumés will need to make their mark on the campaign trail in some fashion, or else they will be forgotten.
And when you end a presidential primary as a forgotten footnote, that’s the worst ending of all. (Unless you impregnate your mistress on the campaign trail while your spouse is dying of cancer. Have I mentioned John Edwards?) Presidential candidates who fail to make an impression, fail to have political futures.
Look at some of the failures to launch of 2016 and where they’ve ended up: Martin O’Malley was a popular two-term governor of Maryland who never recovered from being the Democratic primary’s third wheel. Carly Fiorina enjoyed a moment when she was taken seriously; now she’s about to publish a self-help book. Bobby Jindal regularly shouts into the wind behind the Wall Street Journal paywall. Lincoln Chafee is handy when you need to make a good metric system joke.
This presents a conundrum for those trying to keep the vice-presidential door open. You need to be nice to the eventual winner so you’ll get put on the shortlist. But if you’re so nice that nobody pays attention to you, or if your attempted attacks are so tentative and tepid that they are ignored, you may become no more than a trivia question.
For some candidates, a presidential bid is a capstone of an already impressive, if not exactly perfect, political career. Chafee, for example, was already a senator and a governor in Rhode Island, but he had burned his bridge with his original political home, the Republican Party, and he left the governor’s mansion with terrible approval ratings. With nowhere else to go, why not take a swing at the top job?
But for younger candidates who do have other places to go, a presidential campaign risks permanent ruin. O’Malley could have had the inside track at succeeding the retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski in 2016. Instead, O’Malley is now reduced to begging Beto O’Rourke to jump in the 2020 race.
Like O’Rourke, Castro could be running for the Senate in Texas right now. John Delaney could be plotting a run for Maryland governor. Richard Ojeda, the fire-breathing West Virginia populist, could be taking another stab at winning a House seat, or considering other statewide office. Pete Buttigieg, the gay millennial military veteran and South Bend, Indiana, mayor, could be leveraging his intriguing backstory for a congressional or statewide run. Granted, most of those paths are all uphill battles in reddish areas. But plenty of savvy Democrats won on red turf in 2018. Circumventing local political challenges for an all-or-nothing presidential run can—and more often than not will—leave you with nothing.
For those who discount my caution about the presidential crapshoot, what’s the best way to proceed? Stand for something that’s distinctive, even if it causes controversy.
Dean may have gotten burned by Sharpton and others for saying during the 2004 campaign he wanted to be “the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” But that was part of Dean’s consistent argument that Democrats should be confidently campaigning on their economic agenda in all 50 states. And that concept is what propelled Dean to the DNC chairmanship. Likewise, McCain’s break with the right on issues like campaign finance and taxes, Sharpton’s forceful calls for diversity throughout all levels of government, and Bernie Sanders’ proud embrace of democratic socialism were all clear positions and personas that helped them cultivate a base of loyal supporters and preserve their political viability.
Castro is casting his quest as a fresh chapter in a biographical tale about making it in America from immigrant roots. It’s nice, it’s heart-warming, it’s safe. But safe isn’t the way other long shots broke out of the presidential pack and changed the trajectory of their political careers for the better.
At some point, he and his fellow second- and third-tier candidates will need to stand for something significant, and do it in a way that no one else in the field is willing to do, if they want their presidential adventure to be remembered as more than a punchline or the end of a once-promising career.