Are Democrats bored by the prospect of not having a presidential nomination contest in 2016? That’s the upshot of a statement made by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick yesterday on CNN’s State of the Nation program in which he wondered if the “inevitability factor” would hurt Hillary Clinton’s prospects:
She’s an enormously capable candidate and leader. But I do worry about the inevitability because I think it’s off-putting to the average voter and I think that was an element of her campaign the last time. As an enthusiastic Democrat, I just hope that the people around her pay attention to that this time.
The need to learn the lessons of her disastrous failure to make good on similar predictions of inevitability before 2008 must haunt the Clinton camp. While Hillary doesn’t need Deval Patrick to remind her of this, the truth is, she is hoping that this time the boredom factor will work in her favor. Clinton and her backers haven’t had to do much to discourage other potential Democratic contenders from entering the race and most appear to have taken the hint, including potential troublemakers like California Governor Jerry Brown and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. The Clintons have to think that the unexpected emergence of Barack Obama in 2007 is a once-in-a-lifetime fluke that cannot possibly be repeated this time around and it’s difficult to argue the contrary case. The only other obvious Democratic possibilities for 2016 are Vice President Joe Biden, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and perhaps an outlier like Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders or Montana’s Brian Schweitzer.
Neither Biden nor O’Malley—who is being openly mocked for asking Hillary’s permission before starting preparations for a candidacy—appear to scare the Clintons, and Sanders has no chance of being anything more than a gadfly left-wing alternative. Unless something completely unexpected happens, there is no reason to believe the 2016 Democratic race will be anything but a coronation. But the assumption that this will be an advantage in the general election may not be so smart.
Clinton is hoping that Democrats will enjoy the relative quiet of a non-competitive nomination race to prepare for whoever it is that the Republicans wind up nominating that year. That’s the edge President Obama enjoyed in 2012 as the GOP contenders tore each other apart in a seemingly never-ending series of debates and a bitter primary season leaving Mitt Romney somewhat compromised by the process politically as well as financially.
But what Clinton needs to remember is that while she will be burdened with the disadvantages of incumbency in terms of being tied to Obama’s record and voter dissatisfaction with the president’s policies and the direction of the country, she will not be doing so with the trappings of the commander in chief as the man who beat her in 2008 did two years ago. Clinton will have a compelling, indeed, an unanswerable argument for her election as the first woman major party candidate for the office. But she will also have to deal with the burden of being a relic of the last two Democratic presidents. That’s no real problem for most Democratic primary voters who can’t wait to anoint her as their standard bearer. But the lack of a genuine debate about Clinton’s qualifications in which she can make her case not only in terms of her resume but also as a candidate who can take a punch as well as dish one out won’t help prepare her for the fall campaign.
That’s why the ideal scenario for Clinton is for some not terribly formidable Democrat to oppose her in the primaries without actually mussing up her hair. Seen from that perspective, the best possible scenario would be for Clinton to face off against O’Malley. He wants very much to be president but may see a run as the best way to prove himself in the competition for the vice presidential nod or a major Cabinet post and thus can be relied upon to drop out after a brief fight and then endorse Clinton.
Sanders would give her a much harder time and could not be counted upon to avoid hitting her hard on embarrassing issues such as her lack of achievements as secretary of state. He would also push her farther to the left than is prudent, much in the same way that Romney’s opponents pushed him to the right.
But the real problem with being Mrs. Inevitable in 2016 is that Clinton has yet to prove herself capable of winning a tough election. Should the GOP put up a candidate who will not lead them down a right-wing rabbit hole, Clinton will need to do more than to wave the flag of feminism. The boredom among the Democratic political class as well as among many rank and file voters may ensure that she will not face a stiff primary challenge, but it won’t help gin up enthusiasm for candidacy in the way Obama’s triumph over her did for his presidential hopes. That’s especially true since her success-free tenure as secretary of state has not so much burnished her resume as provided her opponents with more ammunition. While any presidential contender would like to have her problems, the notion that she can merely drift along until it is time to turn on the engine and start running a general election campaign is a mistake she will need to avoid.