I’ll say it, happily: Democrats should be worried about Hillary Clinton, and moderately panicked about the immediate future of both their party and their cause.
This is not, of course, because Hillary’s latest scandale du jour is in any practical way going to “disqualify” her; and nor is it because leftward-leaning voters are likely to recall anything more from this rather awkward period in time than that the Clintons are as perennially sleazy as they ever were. Rather, it is because the last few days have underscored just how tenuous the Left’s grip on power and influence truly is in the waning days of the once-buoyant Obama era. At present, Republicans control the House of Representatives, they lead the Senate, and they enjoy pole position within a vast majority of the states. The Democratic party, by contrast, has been all but wiped out, its great historical hope having relegated himself by his obstinacy to the role of MVP on a team of just a few. For the next couple of years, Obama will dig in where he can, blocking here, usurping there, and seeking to provide for the Left a source of energy and of authority. But then . . . what?
After last year’s midterm elections, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait contended grimly that the sheer scale of the Republican wave had rendered Hillary Clinton “the only thing standing between a Republican Party even more radical than George W. Bush’s version and unfettered control of American government.” The customary rhetorical hysterics to one side, this estimation appears to be sound. On the surface, the knowledge that Clinton is ready to consolidate the gains of the Obama project should be a matter of considerable comfort to progressivism and its champions. Indeed, as it stands today, I’d still bet that Hillary will eventually make a somewhat formidable candidate, and that, despite her many, many flaws, she retains a better than 50 percent chance of winning the presidency in 2016. In part, this is because she is a woman, yes, and because she will play ad nauseam upon this fact between now and November of next year; in part this is because she has been distressingly effective at selling herself as a moderate, and because her husband is remembered as a solid caretaker and remains popular across partisan lines; in part this is because the Democratic party is currently benefitting from a number of structural advantages that Republicans will struggle to overcome, whomever they choose to be their standard bearer; and in part this is because the economy will almost certainly be doing well enough by next year that the “Obama saved us all” narratives will seem plausible to a good number of voters.
But — and this is a big but: Once we take Hillary out of the equation, the game looks rather different. As potent as it might be on paper, the Democratic party’s present edge within the Electoral College is by no means infinite, and it does not obtain in a personality vacuum. Such as they are, the current predictive models tend to presume less that the Democrats are bulletproof per se, and more that the party will field a strong and popular candidate in the mold of a Barack Obama or a John F. Kennedy or a William Jefferson Clinton and that this good candidate will start from a position of structural strength. Does the party have such a figure, other than Hillary? I cannot see that it does, no. Certainly, it is amusing for us to sing “Run, Liz, Run,” to tease Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, and even to pretend that Andrew Cuomo or Martin O’Malley could ever be elected president of the United States. But, idle levity to one side, there is ultimately no hiding from the recognition that Clinton is the only viable game in town. Historically, running for a third term is extraordinarily tough. Are Americans expected to return a nobody to the highest office in the land purely because the on-paper estimates favor his party?
In the last few days, we have seen a host of progressive commentators begin to call for an alternative. And yet for all the thrilling “Challenge!” headlines that this dissent has inevitably provoked, it remains the case that pretty much every single person who has called for a contested Democratic primary has chosen to rest his argument on the presumption that a nomination fight would help Hillary to improve, not that it would help her party to select a more appropriate candidate. A quote, from radio host Deborah Arnie Arnesen, sums up the pattern well:
“The Democratic base that isn’t wedded to her is nervous about it,” said Deborah Arnie Arnesen, a progressive radio host in Concord, New Hampshire. “It makes her more vulnerable. What is this anointed candidate getting us? A much more flawed candidate than we thought. And Republicans now have material they never thought they would have.”
“We need to litigate this in a primary so that she will be better at it, or it will be the Republicans who will be doing it for her,” she added.
This fear is well placed. Indeed, were I a progressive Democrat, I daresay I’d be saying the same thing. Suppose, arguendo, that I thought, as does Jonathan Chait, that there was quite literally one human being standing between my agenda and a sweeping set of market and political reforms that would destroy my dreams for a generation. Suppose I believed, as does ThinkProgress, that if a Republican president is given the opportunity to nominate two or three more Supreme Court justices, the dream of a progressive judiciary will be dead for a generation or more. Suppose that I considered Obamacare to be a great and historic political victory, and that I was desperate for an executive who would protect it against Republican — or popular — repeal. Wouldn’t I be rather worried that Clinton might . . . die? Wouldn’t I find myself lying awake at night, fretting that Hillary might become too sick to run? Would I not entertain with horror the possibility that this latest scandal might be the tip of the iceberg, and that Hillary might have one too many crimes in her well-stocked closet? Wouldn’t it occur to me that she might begin to stumble and fall on the campaign trail, the better to be shown up by a young and fresh-faced alternative from the right?
The old adage holds that only a fool elects to put all his eggs in one basket, and, for all our technological progress and social ingenuity, this remains as true now as it ever was. In the New York Times yesterday, Frank Bruni inquired of Hillary: “Does she have a political death wish?” He might well ask that of her party as well. The lights are going out across Blue America. The amplifying fear that there will be nobody viable to light them back aflame is grounded in reality. Time for a little sweating, perhaps.