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What To Make Of The Crowded Democratic Field

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Who thought Democrats did not have enough presidential candidates? Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick clearly thought so. He entered the race this week, and he may not be alone. Matt Bennett is co-founder of the center-left think tank Third Way, and he's in our studios. Thanks for coming by.

MATT BENNETT: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Good morning. Was there a wing of the Democratic Party who thought, wow, 17 candidates is not enough?

BENNETT: Apparently someone has said that to people like Governor Patrick and maybe to Mike Bloomberg because they're now talking about getting in. But it was surprising for many of us who felt like, you know, we started with something like 28 and we're down to 17, that did seem sufficient.

INSKEEP: But I guess it's not the number that they're worried about, it's whether the options fit their politics. Is there a part of the Democratic Party that's uncomfortable with a candidate like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders being at the top of the polls - is that what's happening here? - or near the top?

BENNETT: There's certainly that. There are plenty of people who are not comfortable with either Senator Sanders or Warren. But, of course, Joe Biden is leading in the polls and...

INSKEEP: Who is seen as a more moderate figure, so to speak.

BENNETT: Exactly. So it's not clear that there is a wing of the party looking for alternatives that aren't in the field. I will say that Democrats always are kind of hand wringers, and we're always looking for somebody else to magically come along on a white horse. At this stage in the race, and then generally by the time the voters start voting, we get comfortable with the people who are leading.

INSKEEP: I'm also just thinking, you know, a lot of voters clearly like Elizabeth Warren, a lot of voters clearly like Bernie Sanders. And if you didn't, if you're more of a Biden figure and you're fearful that Biden is slipping a little bit, maybe isn't going to make it, aren't there other moderates already there? Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar - we could name several.

BENNETT: There are indeed. And it was, I think, surprising for those of us following the race closely that people would be demanding somebody else because there are plenty. And there plenty of people who aren't even on the debate stage yet, like Steve Bullock and Michael Bennet.

INSKEEP: But there's got to be somebody who's saying to someone like Governor Patrick, listen, we can support you, we can help you, we've got money for you. I mean, he doesn't just dive in randomly, does he?

BENNETT: He does not. And he's a very well-respected figure in Democratic politics. People all across the spectrum really like him, so clearly there were people saying exactly what you said - we're going to get you the money you need, and we're going to help you ramp up quickly. But boy, he's got a long row to hoe.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that because Tom Perez is the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and he was asked about this late entry. Let's listen.

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TOM PEREZ: We've got an incredibly deep bench of candidates running for president. People say, wow, this feels late. Well, then-Governor Clinton entered the race for president in October of 1991. So this is not unprecedented for people to get in a little bit later on in the process. And I welcome that because everybody's going to be talking about the issues that matter most to people.

INSKEEP: Chairman Perez makes it sound like this is plenty of time - worked for Bill Clinton, might work here.

BENNETT: Yeah, 1992 is a long time ago. I worked on that campaign, and all of the things were different. So, for example, when I worked for Wesley Clark in 2004 and when we got in, it was two months earlier than this, and it was still too late. Just - if you think about Iowa for a moment. There are 99 counties in Iowa, there are thousands of precinct sites. You need people at every one of them. It's almost impossible to build a team like that getting in this late.

INSKEEP: If you're Deval Patrick, do you also call up your old friends, your former campaign workers, your former managers and say, hey, I'm ready to run - and they have to say, I'm sorry, I'm already committed to some other candidate at this late stage?

BENNETT: Yeah. If you have a pulse in Democratic politics, you have a job at this moment. There are so many candidates. So I don't know where he's going to find people to work for him. Now, he did find a very good campaign manager coming off of other races, but getting past that is going to be hard.

INSKEEP: Should Democrats be worried about a large field at this point?

BENNETT: No. I think that eventually it will winnow itself. The political marketplace will take care of that. But I do think that there were some tough choices being made at the DNC, for example, about who gets on the debate stage. Whether those choices are the right ones or not, we'll have to debate.

INSKEEP: As co-founder of what's seen as a fairly centrist think tank, are you worried about this primary campaign pushing the Democratic Party much too far left to win?

BENNETT: Yes. I think if you look at what has happened this year, 2019, it's been kind of the year of the activist and all of the incentives for the candidates have been to go to the left. I think you saw that during the debates, but now as we round the bend towards Iowa and the voters start weighing in, I think you're going to find that more moderating influences take over.

INSKEEP: Don't people just want big change? I mean, Barack Obama - big change, Donald Trump - big change. People still seem dissatisfied, maybe they want a big change.

BENNETT: There is no doubt they want big change, and any of those candidates will offer enormous change from Donald Trump. The question is, what does that change look like?

INSKEEP: Mr. Bennett, thanks so much.

BENNETT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Matt Bennett is co-founder of the think tank Third Way. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.