If we say that Hillary Clinton will “inevitably” win the Democratic nomination for President enough, does that actually make it true?
It doesn’t. But the fact that the name “Hillary” is almost always prefaced by the words “incoming Democratic candidate” more than a year before the Democratic National Convention should tell us something. The Democratic front-runner is a candidate that, although recognizably liberal, is still moderate enough to enrage the Democratic far left. And it’s at times like this that people start complaining about how Hillary’s inevitability hurts the ideological vitality of the Democratic Party. But is that necessarily the case? Why is Hillary Clinton the presumed nominee in March?
The easiest thing to say about Hillary Clinton is that she has been running for President since 1993, when she publicly spearheaded Bill Clinton’s drive for universal healthcare. Since then, Ms. Clinton has grown into one of the most recognizable brands in American politics. As a former Secretary of State and U.S. Senator, she has experience. And the Clinton organization’s network of supporters and talent is unparalleled within the Democratic Party – especially now that Planet Hillary is locking up key talent from the Obama organization as well.
Clinton should be leading. That network of donors and thinkers is what has given Clinton such a strong lead in the nascent Democratic race. Other potential candidates can’t get off the ground. They can’t raise money, they can’t build advanced organizations, they can’t take advantage of the data crunching that has defined 21st-century presidential politics. And to cap it off, the Democratic left has been to a large extent marginalized – Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders may say the “right” (well, in this case, left) things, but they’re not winning the nomination anytime soon.
The most important thing to note is that Clinton presents a special case – after Clinton, the Democratic field will likely be as wide open as it has been in years. But perhaps this exposes a deeper trend: a visceral disdain for the far left that is not wholly replicated in the far right. Republicans complain about stereotypes held by the far-left – that GOP voters and in particular Southern Republicans are simpletons or racists. But these views do not hold mainstream acceptance. On the other hand, now that Communists and harder socialists have been marginalized in numbers and in ideology, the word most strongly associated with the far left is “hippies” – and, fairly or not, mainstream voters on both sides of the aisle immediately discredit any “hippie” arguments. Coupled with the decline of American unions, Democrats have few powerful ideological and economic bases aside from their center. That center is dominated by Hillary Clinton.
But unity, aside from being a structural tendency, is also a Democratic priority in and of itself. The Democratic leadership still remembers the chaos of 1968, when party bosses nominated Hubert Humphrey for President, even though liberal star George McGovern won most of the primaries and 80 percent of primary votes had gone to anti-Vietnam War candidates; the subsequent riots exposed a deep rift between warring factions in the Democratic Party. Four years later, when the Democrats bowed to the left and elected the man who was unelectable, Richard Nixon thrashed McGovern 520-17. In any party, moderates and ideologues have to work together to achieve their objectives.
The Democratic leadership have established – by hook and by crook – that Hillary Clinton is the candidate that gives them the best chance to win. They’re more than happy to pick a frontrunner early, and it’s not just Ms. Clinton; as the National Journal points out, they’re trying to pick frontrunners in other races as well. And while there’s been very little official opposition to Secretary Clinton that would highlight her weaknesses, the party leadership is probably right.
Hillary Clinton running without any meaningful opposition is important, but not because it will make her an automatic nominee: even if Elizabeth Warren were to run, Ms. Clinton would slaughter her. But the Democrats’ unity is critical because without any opposition candidate running a tough, issues-based campaign, Clinton can avoid having to take any controversial stances at all.
For a frontrunner, there is little to nothing to be gained by saying anything in public or taking any but the most saccharine positions. Aware of this fact, Clinton is even considering delaying her official campaign launch by a full three months so that she will have fewer opportunities to get pelted by the verbal tomatoes of the Democratic left. Standing candidates have to go out and defend their views. They may make gaffes. They may get embarrassed. Shadow candidates don’t have to risk any of these things.
The luxury of silence is important. People talk a lot about how Mitt Romney had to move rightwards to win the Republican nomination and then had trouble returning to the center during the general election. Democratic unity doesn’t just give Hillary Clinton an easier path to the nomination, it allows her to avoid being embarrassed in the run-up to Election Day.
But even as Ms. Clinton can remain silent, the Democrats’ uncanny unity remains very, very loud. It raises a question, for both Republicans and Democrats: We don’t want party machines choosing our leaders for us, as in 1968, but we also want to find candidates that are electable, unlike 1972. The Democratic Party has generated candidates in the past that are electable, and they will likely do so in 2016 as well. The Republicans have done so at the presidential level, albeit in fits and starts.
But what about in Congress? Presidential politics have traditionally been far more moderate than Congressional elections. For example, the Republican right still has influence in Congress, even after major setbacks in 2014. How, then, can Republicans achieve the unity they need to utilize the Congressional majorities that they now enjoy? Long story short: stay tuned for next week.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu