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Slim Pickings for the Democratic Establishment

Deval Patrick is the latest moderate to announce he won't run for president, leaving Joe Biden and Beto O'Rourke as the favorites of Team Obama.

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By this time next year, dozens of Democrats will have declared their candidacy for president; by this time next year, it’s possible that a dozen or more will already have dropped out. Party leaders are expecting “30+ candidates” in what Axios reports will be “the biggest strategic free-for-all in modern political history,” outpacing even the GOP’s 2016 clown car primary. Rumored candidates include lefty senior citizens Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, billionaire neophytes Tom Steyer and Howard Schultz, and rising stars (and recent campaign losers) Beto O’Rourke and Andrew Gillum.

But two Democrats who were considered potential frontrunners will not be among them. Over the last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick both announced that they will not seek the nomination. Their announcements came as something of a surprise, given that they’ve long been thought to have presidential aspirations and are experienced governors at a time when the Democratic field is thin on executive experience. Cuomo easily defeated a progressive challenger on his way to a third-term victory, and Patrick had a powerful ally in a potential candidacy: Barack Obama.

But Cuomo and Patrick likely realized that with the party’s shift to the left over the past few years, their path to the nomination was narrow. They’re both corporate-friendly Democrats without immediately apparent constituencies (outside of the donor class). Their absence, however, tells us a great deal about how the Democratic field is shaping up—specifically what the party establishment is looking for in a candidate.

A Cuomo presidential campaign, were it to materialize, would look a lot like his recent run for a third term as governor of New York. He cast himself as a Lyndon Johnson figure—a master dealmaker willing to get his hands dirty in pursuit of concrete accomplishments. “I am not a socialist. I am not 25 years old. I am not a newcomer,” Cuomo told reporters when asked if he worried about younger, left-wing Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “But I am a progressive, and I deliver progressive results.” Running against Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic primary, Cuomo touted legislation on gay marriage, gun control, and free college as proof that his brand of pragmatism works. His message was similar to Hillary Clinton’s approach during the 2016 primary, when she defended her own incremental approach to politics.

But Cuomo has also spent his time in office stifling progressives in his state, going as far as to prop up Republican control of the state senate so that a number of measures never made it to his desk. Cuomo has touted his business-friendly bona fides, culminating in his successful wooing of Amazon, while advocating for tax cuts and often seeming indifferent to social spending. He also has ethical baggage. Two of his top aides were convicted on corruption charges earlier this year. “For any other governor in America, this would be earth-shattering, but in Andrew Cuomo’s Albany, it was just a Thursday,” Nixon said after Cuomo’s economic guru was convicted on corruption charges in July, in a line that likely would have been repeated in a Democratic presidential primary.

If Cuomo’s progressive record as governor was debatable, Patrick’s was almost non-existent. He had a mixed, unremarkable record: He was instrumental in the defeat of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, but expanded charter schools and legalized casinos. His most ambitious plan, a $1.9 billion tax increase to fund a statewide rail expansion, went nowhere. And he accrued political baggage almost immediately after leaving office in 2015 by joining Bain Capital, the private equity firm whose role in outsourcing jobs helped cost former partner Mitt Romney the presidency in 2012. Still, Patrick is popular among former Obama administration officials. “If you were to poll 100 notable Obama alumni, the only two people who would win that 2020 straw poll right now are [Joe] Biden and Patrick,” a former White House aide told Politico last year.

Given the leftward drift of the party and the criticism Clinton and Obama received for cashing in on Wall Street speeches, it’s perhaps not surprising that Cuomo and Patrick decided to back out. In a crowded primary field, their records would immediately come under fire; indeed, they would likely be synonymous with the corruption of the party’s elite. The party’s donor class perhaps would have kept their campaigns aloft for a time, but ultimately Cuomo, very much the machine Democrat, and Patrick, who has been out of politics for three years, would not have an immediate base of support. Big-donor dollars can only get you so far, especially against candidates like Sanders and Warren who are proven small-donor powerhouses.

With Cuomo and Patrick bowing out, the Democratic establishment appears to be focusing its attention on Biden and O’Rourke. For months, Biden has been cited as a favorite of former Obama officials. While there’s a bumper crop of progressives, centrist Democrats have few options—and none with Biden’s name recognition. O’Rourke is hardly the insider that Biden is, but he has been wooed by Obama in recent days and was publicly urged to run by former Obama aide Dan Pfeiffer. Both potential candidates have in spades what Patrick and Cuomo lack: charisma and authenticity.

Both have flaws as well. Biden will be 78 in January of 2021, when he would assume office if elected, and has a long, checkered legislative record. “Among the potential trouble spots is a 2005 bankruptcy law he championed that made it harder for consumers and students to get protection under bankruptcy,” USA Today explained, “and the 1994 crime bill that created financial incentives for states that imprison people, affecting many black and Latino youths.” Biden also played a pivotal role in the shameful treatment of Anita Hill when she brought sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991.

There is less to say about O’Rourke, a relatively inexperienced politician who has not distinguished himself in his three terms in the House. O’Rourke became a Democratic darling during his run against Cruz, but there are doubts about his progressive bona fides. While serving in the House, O’Rourke was a member of the centrist, corporate-friendly New Democrat caucus. Despite calling for universal health care on the campaign trail, he notably did not sponsor the House’s Medicare for All bill. On health care and the environment, O’Rourke’s statements have been mushy and thin.

Still, many in the party’s elite—particularly former Obama staffers—are looking toward Biden and O’Rourke as their best hope. Both O’Rourke and Biden could be counted on to pursue a more moderate course than many of the other leading candidates, particularly Sanders and Warren. But they also appear to command loyalty, with Biden still beloved from his vice presidential days and O’Rourke having become a national sensation during his run against Cruz.

“That ability to make people feel invested in [O’Rourke’s] campaign and his story does remind me of Obama ’08,” former Obama speechwriter David Litt told The Hill. “You see the crowds and the enthusiasm, the kind of movement that isn’t about me but about us ….” Another former Obama aide said, “The party hasn’t seen this kind of enthusiasm since Obama. There isn’t one other potential candidate out there that has people buzzing. And that’s exactly why people supported Obama and why they’ll support Beto.” O’Rourke, who pledged that he would not run for president while running for the Senate in Texas, recently said that he was open to 2020. Biden, meanwhile, is expected to make up his mind soon.

If one thing is clear, it’s that the party’s establishment isn’t much interested in policy—at least not yet. Instead, those urging Biden and O’Rourke to run are doing so with emotional appeals. The two men would be greeted with skepticism from the party’s left flank, but they’re seen as authentic in a way that almost none of the leading progressive contenders are, minus Sanders (and perhaps Warren). If the party’s elite gets behind one of them, they’ll be betting on personality more than policy.