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It's easy to laugh at Congressman John Delaney of Maryland, the little-known House Democrat who announced, to the opposite of fanfare, that he intends to run for his party's presidential nomination in 2020. FiveThirtyEight, a site for political junkies, joked that they couldn't remember his name and concluded, "This whole thing is a little nuts." Politico greeted him with the headline, "What is John Delaney thinking?" The Republican research firm America Rising offered a one-word statement in response: "Who?"
But Democrats should feel unnerved by the fact that no one around Delaney can persuade him that this is a bad idea. The party is full of better-known, semi-known, and even comparatively little-known figures who might think they can do themselves or their career some good by announcing a presidential campaign. And it's not hard to imagine the bunch of them taking the plunge, creating another unruly stampede of candidates drowning one another out, and leaving the most outlandish candidate standing at the end.
Democrats should prepare for the double-decker debate stage that Republicans endured in 2016. Start with the well-known, instantly serious candidates. Former vice president Joe Biden (1) told the Washington Post this spring, "Do I regret not being president? Yes." Vermont senator Bernie Sanders (2) may or may not want to run again, but he would begin with 13 million Democrats who voted for him last time, and he has to at least pretend to be interested in order to avoid the political equivalent of being put out to pasture. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren (3) has been the Democrats' presidential candidate of the future since 2011.
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It's not true that every Democratic senator and governor is being mentioned as a potential candidate; it just feels that way. California senator Kamala Harris (4), formerly her state's attorney general, is getting a lot of attention; Democratic donors tell The Hill she's "absolutely going to run." New Jersey senator Cory Booker (5) spent much of his early career setting up Silicon Valley–focused centrist cred, but he's veered to the left since Trump took office. Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar (6) visited Iowa.
Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (7) says he might run for president. Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley (8), whose campaign went nowhere in 2016, is polling Iowa caucusgoers for 2020. Montana governor Steve Bullock (9) is giving his party advice and is one of the few names on this list who can boast of winning a "red state." Quite a few Democrats think New York governor Andrew Cuomo's ambitions will drive him to run (10). California governor Jerry Brown (11) will be 82 and doesn't sound likely, but he says he's not ruling out a presidential run.
Politico reports that former president Barack Obama wants former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (12) to run.
Over in the House, Chris Matthews asserts that Representative Adam Schiff (13) of California, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, will run for president. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts (14) is getting a lot of buzz, considering his low name ID. Back in December, the New Yorker declared that Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii should run for president (15). Oh, and then there's Delaney (16).
Buzz about a presidential bid surrounds two mayors, Eric Garcetti (17) of Los Angeles and Mitch Landrieu (18) of New Orleans.
We're up to 18 candidates, and that's not counting the celebrities and media figures who might think Trump demonstrated that political experience is not only no longer required, but a liability: Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah, Mark Cuban, and so on. Quite a few Democrats see Trump's victory in 2016 as a fluke, a historical accident, a twist of fate that can be explained only by Russian mischief. If President Trump's job approval remains low, a lot of Democrats will conclude that the 2020 race will be the easiest path to the presidency in their lifetime.
For the lesser-known GOP candidates of the 2016 cycle, the dual-tier debate format turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Candidates polling poorly, usually with the lowest name recognition, were consigned to the 6:00 p.m. "undercard debate," the political equivalent of preseason football, with fewer viewers and fewer opportunities to break out. Even in the prime-time debates, there were only so many ways for candidates to say that Obamacare was a mess, taxes needed to be lower, they opposed abortion, and they would never "lead from behind" on the world stage. Long stretches of the debates turned into repetitive rhetorical sludge.
A discerning primary voter could fairly ask some of the lesser-known, longest-of-long-shot, uninspiring, cookie-cutter candidates . . . "Why are you here?" (Anderson Cooper came close to this in one of the early Democratic presidential debates when he pointed out to Lincoln Chafee, "You've only been a Democrat for little more than two years.") Their agendas, campaign speeches, and commercials were similarly indistinct; the senators and retired governors all started blurring together into HuckaSantoruGilmorePatakiGraham.
One chunk of the field convinced itself there was an "establishment lane," leaving Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie all elbowing each other for the same base of support that proved insufficiently influential. On the other side, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker tried to occupy the "conservative lane." Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina competed with Trump for an "outsider lane." But in the end, it turned out there were no real lanes, just a traffic jam. Every non-Trump candidate's determination to be the last one standing against Trump was the strategic miscalculation of the cycle.
America has many politicians who are unremarkable beyond their inexplicable adamancy that they deserve to be the next president of the United States. For several cycles, these wannabes have treated our presidential primaries as book tours with bigger crowds and more balloons, eating up air time and media oxygen, certain that even if they failed miserably, a television gig, higher speaking fees and maybe another, bigger book deal awaited them after the marathon. The primary electorate's serious duty of sorting through genuinely qualified candidates is made harder by these globs of candidate cholesterol clogging up the arteries of democracy.
Don't laugh, Democrats. Your own version of Jim Gilmore is coming. At some point in 2019, the media and primary voters will gather in a large room for a televised debate and listen to some unknown lawmaker who everyone knows will not finish in the top ten of either Iowa or New Hampshire stammer through a two-part question on Social Security. That unknown lawmaker might very well be John Delaney . . . not that you'll be able to remember his name anyway.
Commentary by Jim Geraghty, a senior political correspondent at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @JimGeraghty.
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.
©2017 National Review. Used with permission.