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A free-for-all destroyed the Republican Party. Could Democrats be next?

A free-for-all destroyed the Republican Party. Could Democrats be next?

I’ve been in Los Angeles this week, where the young and telegenic mayor, Eric Garcetti, is actively mulling a run for the Democratic presidential nomination — unless of course California decides to secede, in which case maybe he’ll settle for running a breakaway republic.

In years past, it would have been hard to imagine what Garcetti might be thinking. The only mayors who’ve run for president in either party (John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani) have come from New York, where at least you get a national spotlight, and the results have been wretched.

But there’s a feeling in Democratic politics that anything’s possible in 2020, and maybe anything is. Mayors and rappers, movie stars and moguls, Oprah and Kanye — all of them are eyeing (or at least pretending to eye) a leaderless party whose ballot line is up for grabs, along with a celebrity president who proved that you no longer need the right résumé — or any résumé at all, really — to take over a party.

If half the untested politicians and zillionaires who’ve signaled some interest in the Democratic nomination actually follow through, we’ll have to turn around the debating halls so it’s the moderators who sit on the dais and the candidates who pack the house.

All of which might be good for Democrats, whose public brand could certainly use a little reimagining. But I see a very real danger here for them, which is that if no one in the upper echelons of the party starts thinking about how to contain this field, they might be setting themselves up to relive the Republican experience of 2016.

Believe me, I get why Democrats seem excited about the idea of an unprecedented free-for-all. Last time out, the party’s governing apparatus rallied fiercely to the side of the establishment favorite and actively sought to marginalize resistance. Look where it got them.

Democrats have concluded, reasonably, that there’s a lesson to be learned from the last war, which is that the establishment can no longer dictate choices to the electorate and expect to win.

It’s possible, though, that you can overlearn one lesson of the 2016 campaign while completely failing to take note of another.

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