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Hillary 2016: sucking the air out of the Democratic room

May 5, 2015

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

Hillary Clinton’s shadow looms large on the Democratic primary for the 2016 presidential election in the United States. So large that, even before she announced on April 12th that she was officially giving the White House another try, there was speculation that she had already cleared much of the Democratic field from other possible contenders. At this point, it looks like only a handful of her fellow party members might still jump into the race. Though they have real differences of opinion with Clinton on crucial issues and could therefore offer a credible alternative to her for certain subsets of liberal voters, her far superior name recognition and fundraising prowess make it highly unlikely that any of them will give her a serious run for her money. Barring any major new scandal or campaign faux pas by the Clinton team in the next few months, she therefore seems to have already clinched the Democratic nomination far in advance, with a little less than a year to go before next year’s primary season even begins. For Clinton, this carries both opportunities and risks, but on balance it will probably favor her. It doesn’t, however, bode too well for the future of her party.

As of today, there is one other Democratic candidate already in the running and three more lawmakers still toying with the idea: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (who is technically an Independent, self-styled American socialist) announced he would join the race for the party nomination on April 30th, while the other possible contenders are, first and foremost, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who has been eyeing a White House bid for years and who is said to be gearing up for a formal announcement in Baltimore in late May, followed by former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee, who stepped down from being Governor of Rhode Island in January and is also not an original Democrat, having joined the party after being elected as an Independent (he had previously been a registered Republican).

“The one wild card is Vice President Joe Biden,” says Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor of the electoral predictions website Sabato’s Crystal Ball, produced by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Considering his multiple runs for president, there’s little question that he craves the office. But with Clinton in the race and Democrats lukewarm toward a Biden run, it’s hard to see him getting in.” The same goes for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is thought of as the acting standard-bearer for American progressives. Many on the left have been pleading with her to give it a go but so far she has been steadfast in asserting that she is not interested. “While it remains possible that Warren could run, every day the possibility becomes more and more remote,” says Skelley. “She’s been adamant that she won’t run, and as it stands there’s little reason to doubt her sincerity.”

In general, it is especially to the left of Clinton, on issues from the tax code to financial regulations to the minimum wage, that the other contenders for the Democratic nomination, whomever they may be in the end, could carve some space for themselves and truly appeal to primary voters (who tend more toward the extreme of the political spectrum than general election voters). As a former Senator from New York, Clinton is viewed as a little too close to the titans of Wall Street. And as the protagonist of the national political scene for well over two decades, including as a very visible First Lady and, more recently, as Secretary of State, she is seen as closely connected to Democratic policies and positions, including on trade and defense, that progressives are far from enchanted with.

To distance themselves from Clinton, O’Malley and Sanders are already making their opposition known to ongoing negotiations by the Obama administration on two major free trade agreements – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union. For the other two, it is Clinton’s realist – some would say hawkish – approach to foreign policy that represents a possible angle of attack. “Webb is in a fairly strong position to critique Clinton’s foreign policy views and history, given his background in the military, experience as Secretary of the Navy in the 1980s, and his foreign policy work in the US Senate,” says Skelley. “As for Chafee, he can also go after Clinton on foreign policy – whereas she voted as a Senator to back the Iraq War in 2002, Chafee was the only Republican to vote against it.” Finally, that she is such a clear favorite and early frontrunner clashes with the voters’ normal desire to root for an underdog at least for a while, which in turn might help at least one or two of her rivals gain some momentum.

In all likelihood, none of this will really make a difference in the end, because of Clinton’s unmatched fundraising might, the strong base of support she already enjoys and the fact that only she has the chance to make history as the first woman president of the US –  an added bonus which will excite many voters in and of itself. But it could make for a more lively primary campaign, as we are already bound to have on the Republican side, with a more substantive debate on the issues.

If, instead, no other credible Democratic candidate were to emerge in the next few months, the complete absence of a party primary could play alternatively to the advantage and disadvantage of Clinton, depending on how one looks at it. “On the one hand, Clinton needs to be questioned on some issues that she will have to deal with in the general election,” says Skelley. “Her tenure as Secretary of State, her email system, the Clinton Foundation’s donors, these are things that will dog her all the way to November 2016 – assuming she’s the nominee.” From this perspective, being challenged by a fellow Democrat might help her perfect her answers to the Republican offensive she is certain to be subjected to ahead of the general election. Having to participate in the grueling daily exercise that is a contested primary would also help her hone her campaigning and people skills, not necessarily her strongest suit. At the same time, Clinton is already so prominent a personality, and has been for so long, that she has been withstanding GOP attacks for years, and will continue to do so in this campaign regardless of whether other Democrats join the fold. Running uncontested toward the nomination might give her the time she needs to convince skeptical progressives of her bona fide credentials and truly unite all Democratic constituencies behind her.

What this means for the Democratic Party is an entirely different matter. Clinton’s status as the overwhelming favorite for 2016 is in itself a symptom of the lack of young, rising Democratic prospects. “The next generation of Democratic leaders has already been somewhat curtailed by the fact that Republicans have done so well in midterm elections during the Obama era,” says Skelley. “As governorships and the US Senate are two of the most common jumping off points for presidential contenders, these Republican successes have meant fewer Democrats taking those presidential preparation posts.” As a result of the 2010 and 2014 midterms, Republicans hold 31 of the 50 governorships and have gained 15 net Senate seats.

Clinton’s long and eagerly anticipated run for the presidency, which has been expected pretty much since the moment she lost to Obama in 2008, has probably only contributed to making this situation worse, by overshadowing all other ambitious Democrats (particularly women such as Elizabeth Warren and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) and, in practice, sucking the air out of the Democratic room.

At this point, regardless of what happens with Hillary Clinton next year, whether or not she wins her party’s nomination and even becomes the next president of the United States, one thing is sure: it is imperative, for its own future success, that the Democratic Party begin again to pay closer attention to its younger cadres and to nurture a new generation of leaders. The Barack Obamas of 2020 or 2024 are unlikely to emerge on their own in a vacuum.

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