Dems Yearn for ’16 Hillary Alternative… but Lack Credible Challengers

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Though Democrats are again yearning for an alternative to Hillary Clinton, who is embroiled in more scandals involving private email accounts and foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, they realize that Barack Obama—or his equivalent—is not walking through that door.

The Washington Post observed that “Democratic activists in early presidential nominating states say that new controversies swirling around Hillary Rodham Clinton have made them more eager than ever for alternatives in 2016.” But, the outlet added, “as they survey the landscape, few Democrats see other credible contenders.

“The problem is, there’s nobody out there who’s not Clinton who’s the equivalent of Barack Obama,” Larry Drake, chairman of the Portsmouth Democrats in New Hampshire, told the Post, summing up the sentiment of nearly every activist and organizer on the left that has been quoted. “He was a fresh face… and he gave great speeches and he turned out to be electable.”

CNN’s Peter Hamby noted that “Democrats clamoring for a Clinton alternative are once again speaking up about the need for a primary that will, at the very least, serve as a vetting process and prepare Clinton for the general election.” In his “conversations with grassroots Democrats around the country and in key nominating states,” Hamby found that “there is renewed concern that Clinton is saddled with too much baggage and dubious political instincts that could sink her against the GOP nominee if the kinks are not worked out in a contested primary.”

The problem for Democrats is that the only candidate who can challenge Clinton, who is dominating in the polls, have indicated they will not run. Democrats who are considering White House hardly have what it takes to pull off what Barack Obama did in 2008.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is accepting every invite on the rubber-chicken circuit to meet with party activists and tacticians. But O’malley seems like a politician who desperately wants the presidency but realizes he doesn’t have the personality to get there. He barely registers in the polls and puts audiences to sleep with his pandering platitudes. Former Virginia Sen. Jim “Born Fighting” Webb flanks Clinton to the left on foreign policy and income inequality. But he is too culturally conservative, especially on issues like affirmative action that matter dearly to salad-bowl ethnic groups, to win a primary. Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will, as I noted, just make Clinton seem more moderate to voters in the general election. Vice President Joe Biden is another gaffe-prone politician who has his share of stumbles and baggage from previous runs.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (unfortunately for Castro, South Carolina does not have Nevada’s demographics) are three Democrats who, on paper, could come to close to putting together that anti-Clinton coalition that propelled Obama in 2008. But all have indicated on numerous occasions that they will not run in 2016.

Hamby noted that South Carolina’s Dick Harpootlian, a Biden ally who will say whatever it takes to ensure he gets headlines, and New York’s Zephyr Teachout, a left-wing activist who tried to oust New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, have spoken out against Clinton this week, which many Democrats are still reluctant to do. But liberal activists realize that it took a perfect storm, including Clinton strategists who did not know the difference between caucuses and primaries and were holed up watching soap operas, to defeat the “inevitable” Clinton machine in 2008. And they realize it is unlikely that lightning will strike twice, especially when there is no candidate like Obama, who was a once-in-a-lifetime candidate who was running at the right time.

In 2008, Obama, who, unlike Clinton, opposed the Iraq War, won the hearts of many in the Democratic coalition and united the anti-Clinton wing of the Democratic party (or, as Howard Dean said, the “ Democratic wing of the Democratic party) that had been fed up with the politics of triangulation associated with Bill Clinton.

Though the mainstream press always played up Obama’s half-white and half-black roots, Obama defeated Clinton because he was half-South Side (Chicago) and half-Ivy League. Anti-war activists, youth voters, and black Democrats who dominate primaries in the early states and felt disrespected by the party’s establishment that Clinton embodied flocked to his candidacy. But Obama, who went to Columbia and then to Harvard Law School and feels at ease in those academic settings, also had coastal elites and academics that helped him behind the scenes. Democrats who helped Howard Dean’s insurgent campaign and those associated with tech companies like Facebook turned him into the Facebook/digital candidate. He also secured early institutional support from key Democrats like Greg Craig, the Washington insider who would later become his White House Counsel, who served as key establishment advisers. That allowed him to get the types of savvy operatives he who, for instance, worked out a deal with Bill Richardson supporters to help Obama in the Iowa caucuses.

Obama also got lucky. John Edwards took away even more of Clinton’s momentum by finishing percentage points ahead of her in Iowa, relegating Clinton to a third-place finish. Edwards, who, like Clinton, supported the Iraq War, apologized for it during a speech (“silence is betrayal”) at the the famed Riverside Church, invoking Martin Luther King on Vietnam. Edwards’s speech only made left-wing activists even more perplexed that Clinton did not express regret for the Iraq War.

When Obama’s campaign seemed to be on the ropes in 2011, he delivered his “fierce urgency of now” Jefferson-Jackson speech in Iowa that turned his campaign around. And after losing New Hampshire to Clinton, Obama gave his “yes, we can” speech, which may have been his most important address of the campaign, especially since his “yes, we can” framing inspired black primary voters in South Carolina and conveniently translated into “Si, Se Puede” in Spanish ahead of primaries with more Hispanic voters. But, as Obama message guru and strategist David Axelrod noted in his new book, Obama at first thought “yes, we can” was “corny” until Michelle Obama knocked some sense into him.

Obama was lucky and good as a candidate. Anti-Clinton activists seem to realize that no matter how lucky any of the potential ’16 Clinton challengers get, none will be good enough to inspire enough primary voters to topple the Clinton machine.


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