In the last few days Washington experienced what could only be called Hillary Week, as the decision of the former first lady to give her first public speeches since stepping down as secretary of state sent the chattering classes into ecstasy. With 2016 fever already in full bloom only a few months after President Obama’s re-election, the anticipation that Clinton will be the next Democratic standard bearer is intense. While it would be madness for any presidential contender to declare their intentions three years in advance of the race, the presence of a claque of organized cheerleaders bearing printed signs declaring that they were “Ready for Hillary” at her first appearance this week removed much doubt that the formidable Clinton campaign machine was already starting to rev itself up.
However, the assumption that Clinton is the inevitable Democratic nominee is getting some pushback. At the Washington Free Beacon, Matthew Continetti has written a column detailing all the reasons why the notion that Hillary is a can’t-miss candidate may be far overstating her strength, and much of it is both smart and persuasive. As he rightly notes, eight years ago pundits were making the same assumptions about Clinton and the 2008 presidential election which, as we all know, turned out to be somebody else’s historic election.
But while I agree with Continetti that Clinton is not a shoo-in to be the next president, I don’t share his skepticism about her chances of winning her party’s nomination. The Democratic Party has become, as Seth wrote last week, a highly disciplined operation with little of the organized anarchy that once characterized it. The reason why many people are speaking of a Clinton candidacy clearing the field of potential challengers is because that is exactly the governing dynamic of Democrats in the age of Obama. If she runs, the odds of a formidable challenger emerging are minimal.
In response, Continetti and other Hillary skeptics remind us of what happened the last time Clinton was the inevitable nominee. She turned out to be, as he rightly notes, a “paper tiger” who was soundly beaten by a better candidate and campaign as the Democrats became the wholly owned subsidiary of Barack Obama rather than the property of Bill and Hillary. Continetti says if it happened once, it can happen again. My response is that while anything is possible, a repeat of 2008 is highly unlikely.
The first reason is that there doesn’t appear to be anyone remotely like Obama waiting in the wings to challenge Clinton.
Once Clinton lost the nomination in 2008 it became fashionable to label her campaign a flop, but that’s more than a bit unfair to her supporters. Clinton’s campaign failed in some important respects. It took the caucuses for granted and allowed Obama to swipe some states through better organization. But it is often forgotten that Clinton actually won more primaries and more votes than Obama. Finishing second in what turned out to be a two-person race after pretenders like Chris Dodd and Joe Biden dropped out is no great honor. But Clinton really was a strong candidate. The result was probably a foregone conclusion after February, but even with the growing sense of Obama’s inevitability, Clinton continued to win important states like Pennsylvania.
The only reason why Clinton was denied the nomination was because she ran into the Obama phenomenon, a factor that many Republicans were still underestimating as recently as last fall’s election. Absent his historic candidacy and enormous personal appeal, there is no way that Clinton would have been denied. The 2012 election, where not even a marginal Democrat dared challenge Obama from the left in the primaries, has set a pattern which could well be repeated.
The woods may be full of would-be Democratic presidents but none of those contemplating a run next time are anywhere close to Obama in terms of political appeal, let alone his claim on the imagination and the enthusiasm of rank and file Democrats. Continetti cites governors like Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper as candidates who could give Hillary a run for her money. But all three are political pygmies in comparison to Clinton. In 2016, Clinton would not only have the full backing of the Democratic establishment but the sense that it is time for a woman president, a dream that was deferred in 2008 in order to elect the first African-American.
Even more to the point, the sense of deference to authority that now prevails among Democrats is such that any of these lesser candidates might be fearful of having their future prospects destroyed by a challenge to Clinton. I doubt any of them would even think of taking her on. Even Vice President Biden, who knows that he wouldn’t have a chance against Clinton, would probably draw the same conclusion.
As for Continetti’s thesis that Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick could repeat Obama’s feat by seizing the minority vote from Clinton, there are two problems with that thesis. The first is that Patrick is no Obama in terms of political talent. The second is that only one man can be the first African-American president; no future black Democrat, even one as appealing as Newark Mayor Corey Booker, will ever be able to harness lightening in a bottle in the way that Obama did. Neither Patrick nor any of the other governors whose names are being bandied about would have a prayer of competing with Clinton for major Democratic fundraisers.
Essential to this process is the edge that Clinton will have with the liberal media. As influential as the mainstream media is in determining the winners of general elections, they are even more crucial in Democratic primaries where the voters really do care what liberal editorial pages and talking heads are saying about the candidates.
It is true that Clinton’s history of blunders at the State Department could catch up with her. But concern about the Benghazi fiasco is limited to Republicans. Clinton was on the wrong side of the big issue in 2008 because she voted for the Iraq War while Obama had been a consistent critic. She will have no such problem this time around as she will stick to the liberal party line on every conceivable issue—as her announcement of support for gay marriage indicated. No one is getting to her left as Obama did.
Continetti is right that Clinton’s finances and business relationships as well as those of her husband will be intensely scrutinized in 2016. But those are issues that will affect the general election, not Democrats who will be as eager to line up to back the first woman president and ignore her flaws. There will be plenty of openings for the GOP to exploit, but nothing that would do a Democrat any good against her.
Whether Clinton can then win a general election after eight years of a Democratic incumbent rather than a Republican, as was the case in 2008, remains to be seen. But the betting here is that Hillary will win the nomination in a cakewalk from a party working in lockstep if she wants it.