When Mitt Romney spoke in front of a class yesterday, the question on many people’s minds was: Will he run? No one, not even Governor Romney himself, questioned whether Hillary Clinton will A) run and B) be the Democratic nominee. While the Democratic incumbent won’t be up for reelection, our primary process will likely mirror last election’s. But is that optimal for our party?
In many respects, this is a boon for the Party. Our presumptive nominee has more experience than any other candidate in the field on either side. Foreign policy? Check – she was Secretary of State. Legislative know-how? Check – she served as senator for eight years. Proven leader? Check – she commanded the first lady’s office.
For many Democrats and moderates, this resume is ideal. After eight years that even some liberals would call disappointing, a leader in the White House with significantly more credentials would be comforting. Obama was elected as a Washington outsider; perhaps a Washington insider is better equipped to manhandle Congress.
Moreover, Clinton may have the unique ability to unite a wide and vast party. Real Clear Politics’ recent polling finds that she’s the favored nominee for more than three in every five Democrats. In contrast, the most popular Republican contender, Jeb Bush, has the support of only one in every six voters in his party. While many women will be very excited by finally breaking the proverbial glass ceiling, Clinton appears to offer something for everyone. It’s hard not to buy in.
So what’s the benefit? Well, Democrats can be confident that we’ll hold the White House for at least four more years. In almost every prospective head-to-head, Clinton beats the Republican handedly. Against Jeb Bush, she wins by nine percentage points; against Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz, she wins by more than 15. Even in the closest race Real Clear Politics collects data on, she is ahead by eight points. While we’re still two years out from the election, a spring announcement isn’t far away. The momentum, if sustained, will be hard for any Republican surviving the primary to beat.
But momentum isn’t the only thing Clinton will be amassing. Her war chest will benefit from an easy primary. Ready for Hillary, a pro-Clinton, but unaffiliated super PAC, has already raised $10 million. The 2012 election will provide even more guidance. By July, Obama had about $90 million and Romney only $30 million. The difference isn’t that Obama simply outraised Romney – indeed, both raised about $1 billion. Instead, it is that Romney expended huge amounts of capital to win the Republican primary. The parallels to 2016 are clear.
So Democrats should be thrilled, right? Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and neither is there ever a free election.
The solidification of the Party behind Hillary is happening to a dangerous degree. Take, for example, the “Hillary: The Coloring Book” that this author was asked to review by its publisher. Indeed, Chapter 1 is titled “A Leader is Born,” and she is later called “the pride of Wellesley.” Ostensibly aimed at children, this book adds to the growing cult of personality surrounding Hillary Clinton.
This culture sets exceptionally high standards for Hillary, making it more and more likely that she won’t be able to meet them, if elected. After championing Obama as our savior and now doing the same with Hillary, any disappointment could push disillusioned voters farther away. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” they will say.
No candidate is perfect and it’s almost inconceivable that as the election continued, Hillary would make no gaffes and no skeletons would emerge. Accepting that these things will happen and that voters have a short memory, a rigorous primary would air out these faults and ensure Clinton is in tip-top shape for the general election. The intensity of the 2008 Democratic Primary is one reason Barack Obama was able to defeat John McCain.
But most importantly, the Hillary rally is shortsighted.
By failing to have a genuinely competitive primary, we risk failing to vet the next generation of Democratic leaders. Besides Clinton – who is currently 67 – who else comes to mind as potential Democratic nominees not just in 2016 but in 2020 or 2024? Biden is already 72, Pelosi is 74 and Reid is even older at 75. Here in California, our Senators have both been in their offices since before most current Stanford students were born (although Barbara Boxer announced today that she will not seek reelection in 2016).
Relative to the Republican Party, we have dearth of young, prominent leaders. Whereas three Republicans started an exploratory committee and 21 more have publicly expressed interest, those numbers are only one and nine for the Democrats.
With Hillary thinning out the field, we limit our options in the future. Looking back to 1988, 17 Democrats ran in the primary. While the context was slightly different, two prominent future Democrats earned their stripes in that primary. 1988 marked the first presidential run of current Vice President Joe Biden. Likewise, Al Gore finished third in the Democratic primary, carrying seven states. In fact, Bill Clinton has said that he considered running in 1988 as well. Not every candidate we field will be a winner, but the more candidates that get access to the public stage, the greater likelihood a future standard bearer will emerge.
While I myself will likely vote for Hillary in the Minnesota primary (and if she’s nominated, I’ll certainly do the same in the general election), we as a party must ensure a vibrant primary if we want to succeed not just in 2016 but in years to come.
Contact Nick Ahamed at nahamed ‘at’ stanford.edu