For the celebrated 100th Run for the Roses in 1974, a sprawling field of 23 three-year-olds lined up for the Kentucky Derby.
It was too many. Everybody said so. Out of the gate, the track looked like I-25 and Sixth Avenue merging just south of downtown Denver.
The following year, the rules were changed. Henceforth, the field would be limited to a maximum of 20 horses.
So think of the congested field of Democrats vying for the 2020 presidential nomination as the party’s Kentucky Derby. The candidates are not three-year-olds, but it’s sometimes hard to tell.
There are 23 of them (as of this writing). Twenty will be permitted in the first debates later this month. Debates is plural because there are too many candidates to put them all on stage at the same time. So they’ll be divided into two groups, with the leaders in the polls — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, et. al — split between them in hopes of keeping an audience the second night.
Self-evidently, 23 candidates are more than most of us can keep straight. The other night, my son and I quizzed ourselves on how many we could name without resort to the Google machine.
We came up with 18. It would have been 19, but I thought John Delaney’s name was John Mulaney.
John Mulaney is a standup comic. My apologies to him.
(We missed Delaney, Steve Bullock, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton and Marianne Williamson.)
Nowhere is the excess more obvious than in the entrants from Colorado. Even in a field of 23, it is hard to understand why we need two white-bread, white male, centrist longshots from the 21st-most populous state in the union. Couldn’t these former pals have played rock-paper-scissors for it?
John Hickenlooper has had a particularly hard time enumerating reasons why voters should choose him, perhaps because he had no discernible political ideology through two terms as Denver mayor and two more as Colorado governor. He was quirky and likable, and that was enough.
Remember three months ago, when he was the “I don’t like labels” guy?
“Would you call yourself a proud capitalist?” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked him in early March, just after he announced.
“Ha-ha. Oh, I don’t know,” Hickenlooper replied. “You know, again, the labels. I’m not sure that any of them fit.”
Scarborough: “Let me break it down even more. Do you consider yourself a capitalist?”
“Again, the labels,” Hickenlooper said.
A few days later, on “Face the Nation,” Margaret Brennan of CBS offered him the opportunity to clarify.
“I think it’s kind of a silly question,” Hickenlooper said.
“Sure, but you understand that it is a main Republican talking point to label Democrats right now as anti-business socialists,” Brennan said.
“But that’s ridiculous,” Hickenlooper said. And a minute later:
“Once you get back into these labels — am I a capitalist, am I a socialist, how much of a capitalist am I versus how much of a socialist, it becomes kind of silly, doesn’t it?”
Fast-forward three months. Getting no traction in national polls, Hickenlooper decided labels were just the thing to get a little attention.
Before California Democrats, who moved up their primary to Super Tuesday next year so the nation’s biggest state could have an impact, Hickenlooper declared that in the effort to defeat President Trump, “socialism is not the answer.”
Andrew Gillum, the former Tallahassee, Florida, mayor narrowly defeated in a bid for Florida governor last year, was among a number of Democrats who said Hickenlooper was unhelpfully parroting a Republican trope.
Sen. Michael Bennet, Colorado’s other entrant in the presidential derby and Hickenlooper’s former chief of staff, has been singing from the same hymnal, recently telling a New Hampshire audience that he sprang from his seat to applaud President Trump when he declared during a State of the Union message that America “will never be a socialist country.”
What are they talking about? Well, between them they mention three items — a jobs guarantee, a housing guarantee, and “Medicare for all.”
A number of Democratic presidential candidates are on board with some type of guaranteed minimum income in response to automation, globalization and America’s foundering middle class. They range from Andrew Yang’s $1,000-a-month “Freedom Dividend,” which would replace other federal subsidies, to Bernie Sanders’ “Jobs for All” plank.
None of the 23 presidential aspirants is proposing a housing guarantee that I know of, although all want to address issues around supply and affordability. The notion of a guarantee comes from the Green New Deal resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward Markey, where it’s an aspirational goal with no specifics.
The third and highest-profile issue on the trail is single-payer health care coverage. Bennet and Hickenlooper both say it would wipe out the private insurance coverage that many Americans get through their employers. They say a public option — the right but not the obligation to buy into Medicare — is a better path.
It’s not clear that their premise is true. About one-third of existing Medicare enrollees carry so-called Medicare Advantage plans, which are private insurance supplements to Medicare coverage. Private insurance plans offered by employers might well morph into similar supplementary coverage in the event “Medicare for all” was ever enacted.
It was Hickenlooper, remember, who called the socialist and capitalist labels “silly.” They are no less silly coming out of his own mouth. Medicare exists today. Is it socialism already, or only if it expands to cover more people?
When it comes to matters of political philosophy, we are essentially illiterate. From the far right, Democrats are accused of emulating both Hitler — the Nazis identified themselves as “national socialists” — and Stalin.
By branding socialism as the ultimate bogeyman, a rationale for the two greatest mass murderers in human history, conservatives hope to frighten voters in much the way Joe McCarthy did more than 60 years ago. By going along, Hickenlooper and Bennet help to reinforce this scare tactic.
In fact, the great ideological wars of the 20th century had very little to do with health insurance. But it was largely the fear of being branded as socialists that caused Democrats to coalesce around Republican Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care model without so much as a public option in 2010.
When Americans like Sanders talk about “democratic socialism,” they are referring to the blend of capitalism and socialism that exists in pretty much every Western democratic republic — the effort to produce economic growth through capitalism while protecting those left behind through a socialized safety net of health care, old-age pensions and the like.
These Western democracies are scattered along a fairly narrow range of the political spectrum where capitalism and socialism are blended in various ways. Many of them have single-payer health care systems, which has not yet led to genocidal dictatorships in Canada or South Korea.
No doubt Bennet, a very smart guy, knows this. Whether Hickenlooper does is hard to tell. Both claim their centrist policies will allow them to reach across the aisle and work cooperatively with Republicans.
Bennet makes this a historical argument. He wants to bring back the good old days when the Senate was a happier, more cooperative, more productive institution.
Hickenlooper makes it a biographical argument. He claims to have a unique personal ability to bring people together.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was unable to hide his incredulity in a recent interview.
“When people talk about bringing people together, the question I always ask is, what sort of magic do you have, or what trick have you figured out that everyone else hasn’t? Barack Obama, I think everyone agrees, whether they liked him substantively or not, is one of the most talented politicians in recent memory. Had a huge mandate, had huge majorities. And Mitch McConnell [the Republican leader in the Senate] basically did everything he could to obstruct him. In what universe does John Hickenlooper not encounter the same problem?”
“Well, I think that in part it’s who I am,” Hickenlooper replied. “I’m probably the one person running for president that never ran for student council in high school or college.”
Hayes broke in: “Wait a second. Do you really think, like, your personality is such that Mitch McConnell is going to bring stuff up to a vote because of who you are?”
“No, no,” Hickenlooper said. “Mitch McConnell is the exception. And when we took on the NRA ….”
Hayes laughed and interrupted again. “He’s a powerful exception. He controls one of the two legislative branches of the United States Congress.”
“I understand that,” Hickenlooper said. “And you’d certainly have to go talk to him just so that the people that follow him and respect him wouldn’t feel diminished. But in the end you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get stuff done. And I think both as a small businessperson — I spent 17 years as an entrepreneur and a small businessperson — you learn different skills in negotiation and you build relationships in ways that other people don’t.
“Look at Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan. They hated each other at first, right? They were at each other’s throats. And yet, in the end, over a period of time, they came to know each other and they got big things done.”
“Right,” said Hayes, “but Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan . . . it’s just a different political era. … There’s all sorts of structural things in 30 years that have changed. I think the argument the people on the other side of this debate have is that if you go into these structurally polarized politics thinking with a 1983 model, you’re going to get the floor wiped with you.”
Hickenlooper replied, as he so often does, with tales of the miracles he spun as a mayor and governor. He doesn’t seem to appreciate how minor-league these tales sound on the big-league stage.
Unlike Hickenlooper, Bennet has witnessed our current political dysfunction up close in the Senate. His analysis of the problem is less naive, though that’s not a high bar. But, like Hickenlooper, he can’t really explain how centrism solves the problem.
“Let me be clear,” he told Rachel Maddow in his first national interview after joining the derby last month. “I do not believe the Freedom Caucus can be negotiated with. I do not believe they can be compromised with. … When I think about Mitch McConnell, I think of a guy who’s completely immune to give and take unless he’s taking everything, which he often does and he often has over the 10 years that I’ve been in the Senate.
“But I represent a state that’s a third Republican, a third Democratic, and a third independent. And I don’t think those Republicans and independents are represented by the Freedom Caucus in Washington. I think the Freedom Caucus in Washington is supported by a few billionaires in this country and by Fox News. And so is Donald Trump, by the way.
“And at a certain point, we’ve got to find a way to beat them. … And I think the way to do that is by isolating them and then by pursuing a set of policies that are popular to the broad swath of the American people.”
Of the two, Bennet has the more realistic view of the problem. But he’s no closer than Hickenlooper to a solution. The candidates they’re both trying to demonize as “socialist” generally argue that the way to beat McConnell is to do to him what he’s done to them — win the Senate, keep the House, and then force through progressive legislation and judicial appointments using the same bare-knuckle tactics McConnell has used in service of his conservative agenda.
As in horse racing, where huge fields in the Derby often dwindle down to small casts in the Preakness, the Democrats now appear likely to winnow their presidential field rather quickly. New eligibility rules for the third round of debates in September probably mean most of the also-rans will be eliminated from the main stage by then.
Anything can happen in politics, of course, but at present Hickenlooper and Bennet both look like longshots for the September debate stage. Their relative lack of personal charisma has something to do with it. But mostly, it’s because neither has articulated a persuasive case for his candidacy.
Increasingly, Hickenlooper comes off as an egotist who thinks his personal charm can transform our polarized politics. Bennet more accurately diagnoses the national problem and says Democrats have to find a way to beat Republicans at their own game. But his prescription relies on building a broad national consensus in an era of extreme polarization.
It remains a mystery why the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Colorado politics both felt they had to run. Bennet acknowledged to Maddow that the huge field made it easier for a relative unknown like him to say, “Why not?”
Alas, that doesn’t look like a good enough reason for either of them.
Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger