By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
With a scant 733 days remaining before the presidential elections of 2016, time is running short for the candidates. No, I am not trying to be funny or ironic—just stating a cold, hard fact.
2016 is what is known as an open year: no incumbents or past incumbents will be running, and unless Joe Biden makes good on his halfhearted attempt to generate talk of a candidacy, there will be no vice-presidents rising to the top of the party ticket. Dick Cheney’s too old, Al Gore’s out of the game, Dan Quayle won’t return our calls.
There are, of course, two household names in the room. Each name represents a long franchise, and each of those franchises can claim great success, but each also has baggage—lots of baggage.
Hillary Clinton is the presumed—and at the moment—the only front-runner for Democrats. She has been running for President more-or-less continually even longer than Mitt Romney, and her de facto candidacy includes deep roots—DNA which can be traced back more than a decade.
When asked outright at events and lectures and interviews, her obfuscations and evasions about her candidacy are, in fact, her way on confirming what we already know. She is running, flat out. Lessons learned from her bruising, bloody campaign in 2008, she may in fact use a similar playbook. Only this time there will be no mistakes. She intends to clear the room of all pretenders and challengers early—very early if possible. And this is why the talk has been so unnaturally limited when the subject of other Democrats comes up in polite company, or impolite company, for that matter.
The scuttlebutt is that there are still unhealed wounds and bad blood from 2008, when a bitter primary and caucus campaign pitted her against the upstart Barack Obama. That year, knives were traded for chainsaws; incendiary bombs exchanged for nukes. That the Democrats survived without a replay of 1968 Chicago remains a testament to how much the party truly wanted victory after eight years of George W. Bush.
So far this year, Clinton’s coy approach has worked well. A year of continuous scrutiny and round-the-clock talk of her as-yet unofficial candidacy has not fazed her. She has remained cool under a variety of pressures (try doing a talk show and a live auditorium appearance every day; then try three times a day, every day) and not a single Democrat—other than Biden—has stepped forward to express even a hint of interest in challenging her presumed candidacy. And there has been no reason for Clinton to rush—in fact, the longer she waits, the greater the interest in Hillary. To quote Willie Wonka, the suspense is terrible…I hope it will last.
One could say that things have gone swimmingly for Hillary Clinton. That is, until last Tuesday.
Though not torpedoed directly by Republican firepower, Clinton will nevertheless have to immediately initiate repairs and modifications. The GOP’s sweep of the map on Tuesday was not only swifter and wider than anyone expected, it came with breathtaking totality—most especially to the more than two dozen Senate and Gubernatorial candidates, sprinkled across the landscape, who sought refuge from the deep unpopularity of President Barack Obama by campaigning instead alongside Hillary Clinton. What seemed like a stroke of genius has now, on several levels, complicated life for Hillary and for Democratic strategists everywhere.
As we mentioned in our article the day after the elections, Obama’s low job approval ratings are not uncommon in the sixth year of a two-term presidency. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all faced this same scenario. Those low poll numbers can easily—and predictably—weigh down upon the midterm elections, often with serious effect.
But President Obama’s poll numbers also reflected a general feeling by many voters that the White House was particularly sluggish on handling the major issues faced by Americans this year: the Ukraine crisis, ISIS, a war between Israel and Hamas, the still-sluggish economy, a border crisis involving children and teenagers, the Veterans Administration, and even the Ebola Virus.
Enter the Clinton franchise. Bill and Hillary, always game for public appearances, speeches, and the talk show circuit, rode to the rescue of legions of Democrats facing tough battles with Republicans, most of whom had rebranded the election as a referendum on the President and his performance. The Clintons were everywhere, almost literally, standing next to candidates in places as diverse as Iowa, Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Colorado, Maine. There was Hillary hugging Michelle Nunn in Georgia, or embracing Bruce Braley in Iowa. Bill did his part too, including appearing in numerous slickly produced television ads—like the ones produced on behalf of Charlie Crist in Florida.
With Hillary Clinton attempting to burnish the brand name as much as possible—building loyalties, currying favor, tallying the brownie points, energizing the base, and rallying the party faithful—it seemed like a logical and useful way to keep her non-candidacy alive and on track. But, like those pesky credit-default-swap things that once helped wreck an economy, no one expected the market to go down. In this case, Team Clinton could not have expected this much carnage across so much of the battlefield. Republicans won in a rout, grabbing governorships, stealing the U.S. Senate, and upping their advantage in the U.S. House to a level not seen since Harry Truman was President.
That Red Tide swept through every region and every state, and left few island outposts standing. There was a similar GOP landslide back in 1980, but that was when Republican candidates—at almost every level—had grabbed a hold of the substantial coattails of Ronald Reagan.
So this raises the obvious question: lacking an Obama coattails, did Democrats ally themselves smartly when they bought into the great Clinton Franchise in 2014?
Or, as some might fairly suggest, should the question be reversed? Was it smart of the Clintons to have spread their valuable name into so many doomed quarters?
On the night of the elections, Kentucky’s Rand Paul—himself a presumed GOP candidate for 2016—suggested that the referendum voters faced was not about Barack Obama (that, he said, was already established), but about the future of the Democratic Party, and by extension the near future of its presumed standard-bearer. Hillary had chosen to very publicly and lavishly attach her name and reputation to two dozen major campaigns, only to watch as most of those elections ended the night swimming in that tsunami-like Red Tide.
One of Thursday Review’s political strategy contacts, who asked not to be identified for the purposes of this article (and also the article we posted on Wednesday) suggested that it is not so much a case of the Clinton’s spreading their goodwill too freely as it is a case of devaluing the endorsements and the co-option. Worse, this source said, it will make Hillary Clinton look like a loser even before her campaign has begun.
“It not only devalues the power of her name,” he said, “it shows her to be a poor judge of political conditions in the field, and that might be something Republicans can translate to mean she would turn out to be an inconsistent, erratic, or poor manager.” Others have suggested that Clinton’s share-the-stage debacle might be more problematic within her own party, inviting—horrors—other Democrats to consider stepping into the fray. If blowback from the 2014 fiasco continues to haunt the Clinton brand name for a few months, you can bet that non-top-tier (translation, non-Clinton) Democrats—Andrew Cuomo, Elizabeth Warren, Deval Patrick, Brian Schweitzer—will begin to weight their options for 2016.
For potential Republican candidates, many of whom are already hankering for 2016, the midterms—coupled with the Clinton brand name fiasco—makes the road ahead that much more appealing. The top contenders within the GOP were also spending a lot of time on the campaign trail in support of the brethren, and experts suggest that one can easily gauge which ones are serious by measuring the amount of time spent campaigning in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Though no Republican has officially declared their candidacy, it is widely assumed that the top tier consists of Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee. Also being discussed: Rick Santorum, Mike Pence, Sam Brownback, Tim Pawlenty, and Rick Perry.
But what about Jeb Bush? For many Republicans, the last name Bush still carries both weight and resonance. The possibility of a Clinton versus Bush rematch in 2016 has been discussed widely, including in these very website pages. Bush had been keeping his profile at a modest altitude for the last nine months or so, sticking to his business activities, promoting his book on immigration, and talking education. But a flurry of activity—mostly but others within the Bush clan—in recent weeks has again raised the possibility that he is seriously weighing a run for President. More importantly, if he was previously considering sitting on the sidelines out of a certainty that Hillary Clinton was inevitable in 2016, he may now be reconsidering the environment. In the view of some GOP strategists, all bets are off: not only are Democrats vulnerable over the next few years, but the leading Democrat—indeed the party’s presumed standard-bearer—just lost a major battlefield skirmish before war was even declared.
In the meantime, the press was busy today reporting that Washington was back to business as usual, with Republicans making high-profile pronouncements about finally breaking through the gridlock (by sending a record number of bills to the White House to be vetoed), and Democrats continuing to hold to the line that the elections were not a referendum on President Obama, nor Democrats, nor anything else for that matter.
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