Witcover: Jumping the starting gun on 2020

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, in announcing her 2020 presidential candidacy a full year in advance, gets the ball rolling amid uncertainty whether President Trump himself will survive the investigations against him to seek re-election.

Indications of a larger Democratic field suggest a desire of even more competition than what occurred on the Republican side in 2016, when 16 presidential hopefuls — including longshot Donald Trump — entered the starting gate.


Also in 2016, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, with a huge lead in fundraising and a growing women's movement behind her, had little serious opposition beyond democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who made a good showing but was never a realistic contender.

Vice President Joe Biden chose not to enter the 2016 race, but this time around he has said he should not be counted out. In fact, he leads the Democratic flock in the polls with as much as 30 percent to only 10 percent for Mr. Sanders. He has substantial fundraising interest and potential.


Biden at 76 now would be the oldest elected president, but Warren, 69, and Sanders, 77, are in the same range, with Americans these days leading longer lives. But Democratic middle-agers, such as recently overwhelmingly re-elected Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio at 66, are lining up to enter the competition.

Even a comparative youngster, Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas, at 46, a surprisingly very narrow loser to re-elected Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in November, has Democratic hearts palpitating.

But all these Democrats will likely be overshadowed in public attention in 2019 by the news media spotlight and attention on Mr. Trump's struggle for political survival in the Oval Office over the remaining two years of his first term.

Despite all signs of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation closing in on the sitting president as well as a separate federal inquiry in New York's Southern District against him, Mr. Trump soldiers on with the assumption or hope he will survive and run for a second term.

Unlike the unrestrained Democratic surge of candidate interest in their party's 2020 presidential nomination, few Republicans known to have White House ambitions have dared to invite the ire of the incumbent who has re-made the once Grand Old Party in his own image.

Of these, the most and credible so far is retiring Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, an 18-year veteran of congressional budgetary wars in the House who was the last of the 2016 challengers to Trump's successful campaign for the nomination and the presidency.

The Republican leadership in the House and Senate, former House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, obediently and conspicuously rolled over for Mr. Trump in his first two years in Oval Office. Their reputations and those of other complying Republicans on Capitol Hill accordingly also suffered, amid the shrinking and toothless establishment there.

In all, the early start of 2020 presidential politics two years before the next election augurs a wearying prelude to the real thing throughout the primary election preliminaries in 2020.


Predictably, the new year will be marked on television, and particularly on the prime cable channels like Fox, CNN and MSNBC, with nonstop talkathons heavy on political what-ifs based on surmise.

Political reporters, including yours truly, will gaze diligently into our crystal balls and convert what-ifs to what- may-bes, as viewers and readers suffer through a long pre-election year awaiting the 2020 election itself.

Meanwhile, the important question throughout will remain: Will Donald Trump somehow escape the clutches the legal sleuths here in Washington and Southern New York, long enough to allow him to go before the nation's voters a second time to seek their approval in November 2020?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who regained that critical post after an eight-year Repulican occupancy, has confirmed that the new House Democratic majority will make optimal use of the Constitution's grant of "oversight over the agencies of government," meaning a barrage of subpoena power to obtain essential documents in the quest for evidence of Trump corruption. It augurs the welcome dawn of a new day on Capitol Hill.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is