Bonfire of the Democratic Party’s Once-Rising Stars

Twelve Democratic U.S. presidential candidates debate during the fourth U.S. Democratic presidential candidates 2020 election debate in Ohio, October. 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Let the 2020 cycle be a warning to political correspondents who write glowing profile pieces on the next great Democratic party hope. For some of us, the best part of this cycle so far is watching the slow-motion implosion of so many wildly over-hyped “rising stars” of the Democratic party — relentlessly trying and failing to gain traction against a trio of well-worn septuagenarians. This primary is turning into a giant bonfire of once-promising political talents who could make national reporters swoon.

As far back as 2017, Vogue and other national glossies gushed over the presidential potential of Kirsten Gillibrand.

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Beto O’Rourke was the favorite subject of glowing profiles in national publications throughout 2018.

Julian Castro spent much of the past decade being touted as “the Latino Obama.”

Cory Booker was the subject of documentaries and a social media star . . . and like the rest, he’s an afterthought.

And as our John McCormick notes, Kamala Harris’s campaign may be reaching the stage of an M.Night Shamalayan character — long since dead, but still walking around in denial of this difficult truth. Harris stands out from the others because in early summer, she appeared to have reached the top tier, or at least be knocking on the door. But difficulties in defending her record as a prosecutor have her well behind everywhere, even in her home state.

Some of the blame for these crash-and-burn campaigns goes beyond the candidates. It’s tougher to stand out among twenty-something candidates than among a half-dozen. Booker spent much of his career emulating the early Barack Obama and trying to cultivate a post-partisan problem-solver image, and with the election of Donald Trump, Democrats aren’t as interested in that — consider him a species that could not adapt to political climate change.

But the other lesson is that running for president is really hard, and a lot of these candidates have spent most of their careers in heavily Democratic areas and states where the political wind was always at their back. Gillibrand certainly wasn’t going to sweat Senate races in New York. Booker’s Newark and statewide races never had that much tension. Despite the redness of Texas overall, San Antonio and El Paso were dots of blue, meaning O’Rourke and Castro never faced tough general elections. (Credit O’Rourke for coming close against Cruz, but in the end all of that glowing coverage wasn’t because the media expected him to just “come close.”)

In a way, getting good press is just not that difficult for a young-ish Democratic lawmaker with decent public speaking skills. Just invite a big newspaper or magazine reporter to hang around for a few days, let them marvel as you charm little old ladies and speak some eighth-grade Spanish to a local Latino organization, offer some trite observations that “technology changes everything” and “government can do so much more if we only have the will,” and then roll up your sleeves and pose for your looking-off-in-the-distance photo shoot. Presto! Instant presidential “buzz.”

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