Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Is Hillary the Right Choice for 2016?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY)
Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic nominee for President, because the Democrats won't accept anything else.  At this point, the Democrats have painted themselves into such a corner with Hillary that her not running would be earth-shattering, the equivalent to when LBJ and RFK were both out of the 1968 presidential race and the Democrats were left with the remains of who would be their nominee.  Clinton has the name recognition, the political backing of almost everyone of significance in the Democratic Party (including people who were fervent supporters of President Obama six years ago), and quite frankly she clearly wants to be the president.

However, the question that has been on my mind in the past few months during Clinton's questionable book tour and subsequent interviews is whether or not this is really the best plan for the Democrats.  I will admit before the article begins that if I were a Democratic consultant, I would definitely be advising for Hillary, as she's so clearly the strongest option in part because everyone keeps saying she is, but she's started to show severe vulnerabilities on a couple of points that she's going to need to shore up if she wants to become the 46th president.  Let's go through them below.

1. She Seems Unwilling to Correct Past Mistakes

Hillary has shown on the campaign trail (and let's not kid ourselves-the book tour and the recent series of interviews have been a proxy campaign for president) that she is not willing to change a number of her past mistakes.  She comes across as very distant when she's answering a question this is likely more an attack than a legitimate question on policy.  Compare that to someone like Paul Ryan or Elizabeth Warren (or especially Bill Clinton) and her body language doesn't instantly become relaxed, but instead quite tense and you see that this is someone who is still uncomfortable with the nastiness that comes with a campaign.  This may have been increased in recent years with her working at Foggy Bottom, which is largely non-partisan and where she was universally celebrated.

She's also not taking enough risks.  This is early in the campaign, and yet she's not reaching out to newer staff members and former Clinton enemies (the Clinton's famed long memories need to be erased immediately if she's going to get serious help from vital 2008 Obama supporters), she's not doing unfriendly interviews, and she's not hocking her book in unfriendly territory.  Her entire book tour looks like it was done in October of 2016-all friendly journalists, friendly states, and friendly audiences, so there is no risk of a tricky question or an awkward moment.  This is 2014-go on FOX News or do an intense interview with a hardcore political journalist like Chuck Todd or Dana Bash.  If the only reason you're avoiding these things is because you don't want to announce you're campaigning for president before the Midterms, at least show some playfulness like you did with the Hillary meme a few years back-go on a late night talk show and participate in a Jimmy Fallon skit.  Prove to Democratic voters that you learned that a tightly-run but rigid campaign is not what you're going to do in 2016 like you did in 2008.

2. She's Not a Team Player

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (right) hitting the campaign trail
with West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant
If you were to ask me the single biggest blunder of Barack Obama's presidency it would not be the poor rollout of the healthcare law or Benghazi or even some of the recent issues in the Ukraine and Middle East (or even his lack of action on climate change)-it would be the way that he was far too isolated from Congress and from supporting his fellow Democrats.  President Obama should have seen from the truly hateful way that the 2008 campaign turned out and the way that Mitch McConnell received him into office that the game had changed, and there are no longer friendly players on the other side of the aisle, and started to hit the ground harder for Democratic candidates.  In 2010 and 2012, President Obama didn't spend enough time on the campaign trail stumping for other candidates or raising mountains of money (he has admittedly, learned this in 2014 but it's largely too late for him now).  President Obama using his political machine and exciting the base in states like Ohio and Florida in 2010 may well have kept the Democrats in control of key redistricting states and given them a chance to win back the House in 2012, and had he helped marginal Senate races in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Nevada in recent years (all states he won twice, and by healthy margins) we wouldn't be discussing the loss of the Senate as a possibility this year.

What does this have to do with Hillary Clinton?  Everything, because as has been proven the past four years you can no longer just win the White House-you have to win both houses of Congress too, and you have to be willing to look out for more than just yourself to be successful.  You are no longer running just for the spot of Commander in Chief-you're also supposed to be running to get as many allies in Washington and across statehouses and state legislatures as you can, and Hillary has been wildly reluctant to campaign.  Her husband proved in 2012 what an asset a campaign stop from a Clinton can be, and there are Democrats like Pat Quinn, Bruce Braley, and Dan Malloy who would be dying to have Hillary stop by for a boost.  And one stop at Tom Harkin's steak fry is not enough.

Her potential 2016 opponents certainly realize that she's made herself incredibly vulnerable on this front.  Joe Biden has made a point of appearing at dozens of fundraisers across the country for state parties and for Democratic candidates, and has done it with little calculation over whether or not the candidates have a decent shot of winning.  It was recently reported that Biden has been out for people like Kevin Strouse in Pennsylvania and Jim Mowrer in Iowa-neither of which is at the top of the DCCC's best candidates list, but Biden is doing his part simply getting out with voters and helping marginal Democrats raise money.  Elizabeth Warren has done a phenomenal job of this, getting out and campaigning hard for her fellow senators and candidates for open and Republican seats.  And Martin O'Malley has taken every chance he can to score points for Democrats across the country (particularly, of course, in early primary states).  The thing that makes me the most nervous about casting a vote for Hillary in a primary is that I don't want someone who doesn't realize the importance of winning more than the White House to be our nominee.

3. She's not liberal enough

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a potential problem for Hillary in 2016
This is the last and possibly the strangest of the three titles, because Hillary Clinton is generally considered to be a fairly progressive candidate, but in some ways she hasn't kept up with the changing face of the Democratic Party.  The Party has become far more dove-ish in recent years, and Clinton's approach to foreign policy seems too interventionist and seems to reflect John McCain more than it does the modern Democratic Party (and it's not 2000 anymore-thanks to Jon Stewart and 2008, Democrats loathe John McCain now).  She's also far friendlier to Wall Street and doesn't remotely have the credentials for the Occupy wing of the Democratic Party to avoid them having a wandering eye.

This may be Hillary's biggest obstacle.  She can probably win the nomination even if she has a few gaffes because very serious candidates will not run.  Her lack of running as a big ticket Democrat won't hurt her in winning the White House (it'll just stop her from being productive in the White House).  This, though, could be a serious obstacle due to three people: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Rand Paul.

Warren has insisted that she isn't going to run for president, period, but in politics people make a living out of denying that they are running for president...and then run for president.  Warren is a huge problem for Hillary because the comparisons between the two are pretty stark and easy to make.  I already highlighted what a team player Warren is, but she's also someone that the base is absolutely infatuated with right now.  She is able to draw a thick line between herself and the Obama administration that is quite believable, and has been able to find a populist message that appeals across party lines when it comes to the banks and unfairness in the tax code.  It's also a message where she still can raise boatloads of money and doesn't have any issues with the Republicans trying to steal her popular message.  Even if she doesn't run, the ghost of Elizabeth Warren and what could be in four years hangs over Hillary's campaign in 2016.

Bernie Sanders has started to make waves by visiting early primary states and making direct attacks on Hillary.  Sanders is not a serious candidate for president-unlike Warren, there's little to no chance he would ever win the nomination or the White House.  However, he could make life hell for Hillary in 2016, particularly since she's going to have to stake out pretty liberal stances in order to combat him embarrassing her by outperforming in Iowa and New Hampshire.  There's also the chance that Sanders would run to her left in the general election as a third party candidate (he is an independent in the Senate), which would almost certainly give the White House to the Republicans.  Hillary needs to find some way to appease Sanders on the campaign trail in order to stop him from becoming "a thing."

Finally, there's Rand Paul, who is far more dove-like than Hillary, and while I think his recent comments that Democrats would abandon Hillary if he were the nominee are a bit presumptive (and have a flip side in that Chamber of Commerce-style Republicans would probably go blue if he were the nominee against Hillary), he has a point.  He's the only Republican option that seems somewhat viable as someone who could break open some long-held demographic lines that the Republicans have been desperate to overcome.  There's a reason that Paul is being talked about in the media for addressing Howard University and for his shockingly progressive stance on the recent protests in Ferguson-this is something we haven't seen from a Republican in a while, and that makes him a wild card-how will America react?

So, do I think that Hillary will be the Democratic nominee in 2016?  Yes.  Do I think that's the right decision?  Probably.  But do I think that the Democrats should be very worried about these three points regarding their presumed frontrunner?  Absolutely.  Hillary Clinton cannot be the candidate she was in 2008 and win the presidency-she's going to have a much harder time this cycle in the general than Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, and she needs to run a changed campaign to reflect that.  She needs to get in touch with Democratic voters of today and not eight years ago (when it was all about not being Bush) and she needs to get out and start campaigning for more Democrats because winning both branches is what the reality of today's Washington is.  She does these three things, and I think it's time to start measuring the drapes.

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