POLITICS JULY 2, 2013
On Sunday, The New York Times took a look at the emerging G.O.P. strategy against Hillary Clinton, and on Tuesday Politico offered an even more insider-y peek at what will happen to the Democratic Party if Clinton decides not to run for president. The general upshot of both stories is that the Republicans are excited by the prospect of Clinton not running, and Democrats are horrified at the idea of having to choose someone else. The fears of the Democratic Party are more interesting, and so it is probably worth distinguishing the two types of nervousness that Democrats are experiencing. One of them is overblown and the other is sensible.
The Politico story offers up the overblown fear in great detail. The piece is ostensibly focused on the disappointment that will set in for Democrats if Clinton declines to contest the nomination. This is probably literally true: Democrats will be disappointed. But the description of what would occur in a Clinton-less primary is wildly overstated:
[Clinton] has said she has yet to make up her mind, but few in the party believe that. The Clintons’ ambition and the chance to make history as the first female president, they figure, will overpower any reticence about another grueling campaign or spending her golden years carrying the burdens of the world’s weightiest job.
But if they’re wrong, there is no obvious replacement. And the party would be looking at a mad scramble to fill the Clinton void.
“We would be at sea in a lifeboat with no food, no water, and no land in sight,” said one veteran Democratic operative who has worked on presidential campaigns, and who, like most people interviewed for this story, asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the former first lady. “There is no Plan B.”
Another senior Democrat agreed, saying, “There’s Hillary, and then there’s, like, Plan K. There is no B or C or G or whatever.”
The article then moves on to describe the general bedlam that will befall the Democrats, which will be something akin to relocating millions of refugees after a flood: There will be "primary chaos" that can only be controlled by the Clintons and Obama. Stephanie Cutter is even quoted as saying that no one can win—it's unclear whether she means the primary or the general election or both—without Hillary's guiding hand. The article concludes with this quote:
“I think it will be a mess either way,” said the strategist, who stressed that it will be worse if Clinton doesn’t run. “It would be another open seat election where you have everybody … trying to get a slice of the pie if there’s no overarching favorite.”
The problem with this argument is that there is almost no evidence that a "chaotic" primary leads to a bad election outcome. Moreover, a "scramble," of the sort that occurred in 2008 for Republicans, or 1992 for Democrats, or in many other elections, would arguably be a positive, since it will test a number of candidates who remain new to national politics.
What Democrats should concern themselves with is who will run in 2016. And, speaking of candidates, my colleague Alec MacGillis has an excellent little essay in the current issue of the magazine about why Martin O'Malley would make a bad candidate in a Democratic primary:
O’Malley has a technocratic soul paired with one of the most progressive records of any governor in the country—and so far, he has shown little ability to reconcile those two things. This lack of a coherent political identity has not hindered him in Maryland, where the Republican caucus is so weak that he has barely needed to engage them. But there are big arguments still to be had in Washington, and O’Malley shows little sign that he has laid the intellectual groundwork to lead his party’s side of them.
I basically agree with Alec's argument—and preventing a weak candidate from getting elected is certainly the thing that Democrats should concern themselves with. My only caveat is how imprecise—or indeed wrong—our predictions about who is a "good" candidate tend to be at this point in the presidential cycle.
The two types of bad predictions were those that assumed a bad candidate would be good, and vice versa. In the first category, both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain were considered super-strong potential nominees in 2008, as were Fred Thompson and Wesley Clark (in 2004). Rick Perry, the supposed GOP savior last year, was an utter disaster. In fact, it's hard to think of someone who was considered a strong candidate at this point in time and turned out to be one. (Obama is a partial exception, although there were many, many doubts about his lack of experience, both politically and legislatively.) In 1988, Michael Dukakis was, early on, seen as the technocratic candidate who could save Democrats from a repeat of 1984.
What about the people deemed to be bad candidates before entering a presidential race? In 1976, Carter alternated between unknown and punchline before winning, and Reagan was considered outright disastrous. And just think about recent elections. It's true that Kerry never transcended his limitations, and neither did Dole or Romney. But George H.W. Bush won the presidency, and was extraordinarily popular before the economy went to hell, and no one thought he was a good politician. Bill Clinton was an object of mockery for his terrible convention speech in 1988, but he turned out to be a superb campaigner. John Edwards was a joke in 2004 before finishing a strong second in the primary. And in 2000 John McCain went from hot-tempered member of the Keating Five to quite clearly the best candidate in either party. Alec is right about O'Malley's limitations, but they don't seem much greater than the limitations of some of the people listed above. Trying to figure out if he can overcome them is an near-impossible guessing game.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.