The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Surveying the murky 2024 Democratic field

Vice President Harris visits Children's National Hospital on Monday. (AP Photo/ Carolyn Kaster)

Surveying the Republican field for 2024 last week, I found a clear front-runner in former president Donald Trump and plenty of bench strength. There’s a front-runner on the Democratic side, too — if President Biden wants another run, it is hard to imagine anyone taking him on, no matter their personal misgivings.

If Biden doesn’t run, Vice President Harris is as prohibitive a favorite as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is in a Trump-less GOP field. But leading a pack is never an enviable position. Everything gets thrown at the leader. Third or fourth is fine at this stage. So who could seize the nomination from her if the president retires — as seems likely to many.

Start with senators: Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, New Jersey’s Cory Booker, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, and Colorado’s Michael F. Bennet and John Hickenlooper have all displayed the Oval Office itch before; it never goes away. Sanders running at 81 or 82, much less winning at 83, seems at best improbable. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg hasn’t distinguished himself in the Cabinet — yet — but unsnarling ports and supply chains could still turn out to be his calling card. Democrats will find it hard to deny the stage to anyone who has run before.

I’ve written before that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has a formidable combination of intellect and charm, and should he romp in the Keystone State governor’s race this fall — he narrowly outpolled Joe Biden statewide in 2020 — he might earn a slot on the national ticket, much as Harris did in 2020. Stacey Abrams will show up on most lists if she takes the Georgia governor’s office this fall — and perhaps even if she does not.

That leaves open the billionaire lane. No, not Mike Bloomberg, who demonstrated an almost unique ability not to win votes with suitcases of self-funding cash in 2020. What about the owner of this paper? Did anyone else notice Jeff Bezos’s recent tweets about inflation? Inflation is a career killer for incumbents at the federal level, and even sitting governors get splattered with its mud. But not executives of unquestioned success, especially someone like the Amazon founder who not only can speak to supply chains but who has built them. He has so far has been nimble in his public appearances, and while he is no longer chief executive, his company has proved that it can deliver for people. Amazon’s response to the draft decision in the pending Mississippi abortion case — it will pay travel costs for employees seeking abortions — is going to become a progressive “must have” from corporate America.

There are other billionaires, of course, but cash must come with charisma. Bring the voters a story, and a backstory, and even more besides: known achievement. Bring us what made Buttigieg plausible in 2020: brains and a fluid delivery.

Most of presidential politics has boiled down to the ability to deliver in the moment that the national audience tunes in. Voters want to see clear leadership under pressure, so they can have some confidence of their choice in a real crisis. That’s what made Bill Clinton and Barack Obama two-term presidents, the only Democratic presidents to be reelected since FDR. Some Republicans and not a few pundits are obsessed with the possibility that Hillary Clinton could run again — in part because they have always over-feared her and because she triggers the Never Hillary wing of the GOP in 50 ways. More than one television executive drools over a Trump-Clinton rematch for one reason: ratings. It’s all about the ratings. But all that misses how exhausted and impatient Democrats are with the gang from Chappaqua, N.Y., and Little Rock — and have been for years.

It’s not my tribe though, and I thought Ted Kennedy was going to take down President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 primaries. I thought Clinton was going to best Obama in 2008, and I assumed that Harris would clear the field in 2020.

It’s a strange business, presidential campaigning, and the leftward migration of the party has older Democratic operatives such as James Carville warning that the drift has gone too far. That’s a sign that it is unlikely to stop now.