Who Wants to be the Next Bill Bradley?

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Rich promises great things for anyone who gets in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton.

Whoever runs against Hillary will, for at least some period of time, be the hottest thing in American politics. On the cover of Time. Interviewed on all the Sunday shows. A figure of fascination whose every move is followed obsessively by every political outlet in the nation.

He points out that Bill Bradley and John McCain in 2000, and Rick Santorum in 2012, were all able to land punches against frontrunners. That’s true: But they also all lost.

The more promising precedent for an anti-Clinton Democrat is of course Barack Obama. I think, though, that he was able to beat Clinton for reasons that will be hard for other Democrats to replicate.

I’m going to quote a passage I wrote in 2008.

Journalist Ron Brownstein wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times last spring on the tensions within the Democratic party: “Since the 1960s,” he said, “Democratic nominating contests regularly have come down to a struggle between a candidate who draws support primarily from upscale, economically comfortable voters liberal on social and foreign policy issues, and a rival who relies mostly on downscale, financially strained voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative views on cultural and national security issues.”

Democratic strategists, Brownstein noted, alluded to this division by referring to “wine track” and “beer track” candidates. One class of Democratic voters looks for a candidate who will be a “warrior” for their interests. Another class looks for a candidate who will serve as a kind of secular “priest” affirming their values. . . .

You can trace a line from the old Democratic party of Hubert Humphrey to Walter Mondale to Al Gore and, now, to Clinton. Obama, meanwhile, is leading the party that descends from George McGovern through Gary Hart and Bill Bradley. 

The weakness of the wine track/priestly candidates in the primaries has generally been their weak appeal to black and Hispanic voters. Obama was able to overcome this weakness because of his own race. 

The primary contest, then, pits the McGovern-Hart coalition plus blacks against the Humphrey-Mondale coalition plus middle-aged white feminists. 

Elizabeth Warren’s fans think of her as an economic warrior who can make a populist appeal to working-class voters, including minorities, against the Democratic establishment. I’m skeptical. But my main point is that an anti-Clinton to put together a coalition that’s hard to achieve.

Then again, in the spring of 2006 I thought Hillary Clinton would be the next Democratic nominee. . .

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