Is Hillary Clinton Inevitable?

Hillary Clinton

Is Hillary Clinton Inevitable?

By R. Alan Clanton | published Wednesday, February 12, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

Democratic strategists want to keep the road to 2016 free of obstructions, diversions and, if possible traffic cones. So far they have had good luck in managing just such a feat.

Such is not the case for the GOP, where lane closures and other interruptions to the traffic flow have disrupted what Republican leaders had hoped would be a more orderly procession. Once, less than 60 days ago, some polls showed New Jersey governor Chris Christie in a dead heat—or holding his own—against presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. No other Republican had enjoyed that clout.

And though Christie continues to fight back against the latest round of charges (those non-specific allegations from former Port Authority administrator David Wildstein that the governor knows a lot more than he has told reporters), the New Jersey governor has seen his standing in national polls take a mild hit lately, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that his presidential chances for 2016 are in serious jeopardy.

Despite Christie’s defenders rightfully pointing out that there is no smoking gun, the combined weight of the allegations grows with each week, and may ultimately make the issue of what the governor approved (the time-honored question “what did he know and when did he know it?”) irrelevant. If Christie’s presumed presidential bid falters, the GOP must begin its search for the next savior.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is coy about the next few years, and when pressed on the subject she has continued to day that it is too early to think about another run for the presidency. And as anyone who knows anything about national politics will tell you, that means yes, in fact, she is running—flat out, full steam ahead. Otherwise the answer would come back no.

Clinton enjoys a pre-cycle level of approval that is the envy of many presidential hopefuls, past and present. Recent polls by CNN show her leading Democrats as the party’s first choice by 70% or better. Polls conducted by the Washington Post/ABC News in late January showed her pulling 73% of Democrats, with Vice-President Joe Biden trailing with only 12%. Clinton has few, if any, serious rivals.

After rumors swirled around for several days last week and over the weekend, current Secretary of State John Kerry sought to put the chatter of his own potential presidential bid to rest.

“I’m out of politics,” Kerry, now 70s, told CNN, “I have no plans whatsoever.” Kerry ran for president in 2004, but was defeated by President George W. Bush. He had served in the United States Senate for 28 years before being tapped to replace the retiring Clinton for the top post at State.

Vice-president Joe Biden has also had his name, unofficially, in circulation as a potential candidate in 2016. Many analysts say that he is unlikely to challenge Clinton once she makes her candidacy official, which could come as early as next year. But Biden is understandably reluctant to close the door completely, and for some Democratic strategists, that hedge may be useful—especially if problems swirling around the tragic Ben Ghazi episode continue to plague Clinton.
Or, in the unlikely event that Clinton simply decides not to run.

For Democrats, Biden is a good fallback option: lots of name recognition, no major baggage from his years serving as Obama’s number two guy, and a better-than-average track record of choosing sides craftily and smartly when it comes to the sweeping social changes which have occurred over the last four to five years (same-sex marriage, immigration). Biden’s occasional misfires and gaffes, which have always been a part of who he is as a politician, present no problem that cannot be overcome with humor and grace (though who can say what misfires might ensue over the next year or so). And Biden is a formidable, cool debater.

Biden also earns the automatic inheritance of a small piece of Obama’s veneer and graces, much in the same way that George H.W. Bush got his own get-out-of-jail-free card when he ascended in the winter of the Ronald Reagan years. Bush absorbed a bit of Reagan’s Teflon; Biden gets a bit of Obama’s popularity.

In short: Joe Biden becomes the Democratic Party’s default position if Hillary Clinton chooses retirement.

But the downside is that Biden is not Obama. Nor is he Hillary Clinton, or even Al Gore, for that matter. Biden may inherit some good will for being Obama’s VP, but he still lacks charisma and style. How soon we forget 2008: those debates in which Biden found himself stuck in the third tier, alongside Christopher Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, and behind even Bill Richardson and John Edwards. When viewed in that context, Biden shrinks.

Furthermore, Biden may seem like a good second choice to many Democrats, but he inflates instantly into an object of target practice for the GOP. On issues like gun control, you can bet on Republicans will pounce. And GOP tacticians may find the gaffe-prone, malapropistic Biden easy fodder for negative sound bites.

But who is out there beyond Clinton and Biden? Al Gore is not likely to emerge from his semi-retirement—nor would he necessarily be welcomed by all Democrats. John Edwards’ once-promising track as an energetic, Bobby Kennedy-style progressive has been derailed. Neither Nancy Pelosi nor Harry Reid is viewed as presidential material, nor have they allowed any talk of a candidacy to gain traction.

Some progressives within the party, still stinging from what they view as a lukewarm embrace of a larger, wider liberal agenda by the Obama administration (see “Obama’s Progressive Deficit”; Thursday Review), seek new fertile ground in Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, by far the most progressive of the high-profile Democrats currently under discussion. Warren, who defeated the popular Republican Scott Brown in 2012, is unapologetic about her populist and progressive bona fides. For Democrats whose heart and souls are decidedly left-of-center, Warren fills the bill nicely—even better, a few might argue, than a calculating pragmatist like Hillary Clinton.

Warren, a former Harvard professor and a skilled debater, would easily rally the party’s progressive base and generate excitement.

But there are downsides: she has little experience (a similar complaint was made against the young Senator Barack Obama in 2007-2008), and her populist agenda and sometimes shrill talk might become an easy target for Republicans. Warren’s words can be eerily similar to the speeches of Frank Church, George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy—a compliment perhaps to Warren and her staff, but a gentle warning that GOP candidates will make easy sport of a “1970’s style socialist radical from Harvard.”

For decades the name Cuomo has loomed out there at the edges of serious political talk. From the mid-80s through the mid-90s, it was Mario Cuomo, a New York governor who frequently flirted with his presidential ambitions. These days the talk is instead centered around Andrew Cuomo, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and currently the popular governor of the Empire State, and seen—like Biden—as a good fallback position in a race without Clinton. Cuomo’s strengths are substantial: high name recognition; a good track record as governor of a large and diverse state; and, indeed, the state of New York, which carries a hefty reward in the Electoral College. In the electoral arithmetic, Cuomo can be expected to easily carry a cluster of other northeastern states, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

But Cuomo, the old school pragmatist and careful conciliator, does not draw much enthusiasm from the progressive wing of the party. Save for his support of same-sex marriage rights in New York, many of the same Democrats who are excited about the name Elizabeth Warren are lukewarm when the talk turns to Cuomo. Also, polls do not show Cuomo scoring well against theoretical match-ups against names like Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan or Rand Paul.

The list often stops there, with those names: Clinton, Biden, Warren and Cuomo. But after a few more cocktails the loosened lips around the dinner table or the bar might produce the names of three other governors: Deval Patrick of Massachusetts; Brian Schweitzer of Montana; and John Hickenlooper of Colorado. All three were given prominent speech slots at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in 2012. Of the three, Deval is obviously the best, most energetic speaker, but Schweitzer seems the most intriguing for his robust, western cut and his rugged political narrative (though Montana carries only slight electoral weight).

None of the three have much impact in national polls, and they score poorly in name-recognition—though one can reasonable argue that Barack Obama had little traction in national polling when he first entered the fray in mid-2007.

So for Democrats, Hillary Clinton remains the only person in the top tier, in a class by herself and without any serious challengers. It’s very difficult to imagine any scenario in which a candidate from the aforementioned list could make the same sort of come-from-behind run that Barack Obama accomplished in 2008.

And with the widest pre-primary polling lead seen in decades, that makes Clinton just about inevitable. Which is almost the same thing that was said about her candidacy back throughout 2006 and 2007.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Bridge to Nowhere; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 1, 2014.

No Business Like Show Business (Except Politics); R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 18, 2013.