What You Gain by Losing Quickly

Recognizing that his presidential bid was going nowhere, Eric Swalwell showed better political sense in getting out of the 2020 race than he did in getting in.

Justin Sullivan / Getty

America will not long remember the presidential candidacy of Representative Eric Swalwell.

The California Democrat’s bid for the White House lasted a day less than three months; more than twice that amount of time will go by before voters cast the first primary ballots next year. Swalwell failed to register more than 1 percent in a single poll, and when he dropped out yesterday, it was so early in the race that candidates from his own state were still getting ready to jump in.

If this year’s Democratic primary race is a slightly smaller version of the NCAA basketball tournament, Swalwell didn’t just get knocked out in the first round—he lost in the play-in game.

Yet in leaving the race when he did, Swalwell managed to demonstrate a political attribute many presidential contenders lack: the sense of a graceful exit. He didn’t drag it out, or stagger penniless and irrelevant through to the Iowa caucuses as a candidate in name only. The congressman saved himself the embarrassment of possibly being excluded from the second Democratic debates later this month—he didn’t even wait for the release of the second-quarter fundraising reports next week, which likely will show him collecting only a paltry sum.

“We have to be honest about our own candidacy’s viability,” Swalwell said as he announced his exit in California.

He had centered his campaign around taking aggressive action to combat gun violence. And in the grand political tradition of claiming even the smallest victories, Swalwell celebrated his success in gaining entry to the first debates last month, and in “moving the needle” by getting three of the front-runners on the stage with him—former Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris—to publicly support a government buyback program to eliminate assault rifles. “So we’ve achieved that,” he said.

Swalwell’s more memorable debate moment came when he took on Biden directly and told the 76-year-old it was time “to pass the torch” to a younger generation. It was his one haymaker, an obviously prepared bid for a viral moment that would launch him into relevancy. But even there, Swalwell was one-upped by his California colleague, Harris, who lit into Biden over his opposition to federally mandated busing in the 1970s. If Biden is forced to pass the torch, it likely will go to Harris, not Swalwell.

Swalwell knew the debate was his one shot, and when he saw that neither his polling nor his fundraising budged in the weeks afterward, he pulled the plug. He explained his decision to leave now as partly a way of demonstrating that his candidacy was not “a vanity project” or merely an attempt to boost his name ID for another campaign—as some California Democrats recently told me they suspected it was. And for that, Swalwell was rewarded with laudatory statements from his higher-tier rivals that treated his short-lived candidacy with more respect than it probably deserved.

“You’re a great fighter for the people of California,” Harris tweeted to him. “We are a stronger nation because of your work to protect our children and our communities from gun violence.” Biden praised his “passionate campaign” and his “influential voice” in Congress.

Few were surprised at Swalwell’s early exit back home in California, where Democrats told me there was an increasing expectation that he would run again for his House seat despite his initial pledge not to. A state senator, Bob Wieckowski, had quickly jumped into the race for Swalwell’s seat but withdrew to seek another office just a few weeks later—which local Democrats took as a sign that Swalwell was coming back. Swalwell could have waited until December to file for reelection, but that could have complicated his chances to win another term in Congress. Among several hopefuls is a young Hayward city-council member, Aisha Wahab, who last year became the first Afghan American woman to win public office in the United States.

“If he waits too long, some of these people might get ahead, and he might not be able to win his seat back,” a Swalwell supporter, Crystal Araujo, told me last month.

Swalwell may hold the unfortunate distinction of being the first legitimate Democratic contender to withdraw from the race, but he didn’t necessarily come in last. He made the first debate stage over Montana Governor Steve Bullock and one of his fellow congressmen, Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. Bullock likely will take Swalwell’s place in the next debates later this month, while Moulton’s path just to get into the top 20 remains uncertain. That result doesn’t vindicate Swalwell’s questionable presidential candidacy, which didn’t go far enough to make him a sought-after endorsement for his rivals. But in ending his bid quickly and decisively, and ahead of too much humiliation, Swalwell at least showed better political judgment getting out of the race than he did in getting in.