January 24, 2014
Will Any Democrat Even Challenge Hillary in 2016?
Posted by John Cassidy
The 2016 election is still almost three years away, but, already, it can’t be avoided. Time magazine, in its cover story this week, asked, “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?” And now comes the Times with two more cover stories devoted to the former First Lady. In Sunday’s magazine, the writer Amy Chozick splashes down on “Planet Hillary,” and provides a very readable portrait of the many strange and wonderful creatures she finds there.
The real news in on the front of Friday’s paper, though, and it comes from Nicholas Confessore, who covers money and politics. Right now, twenty-four months before the Iowa primary, and at a point when not a single serious candidate has declared that she or he is running for President, Priorities USA, the Democratic Super PAC that raised and spent wads of cash in support of President Obama’s 2012 reëlection campaign, is putting its money and expertise behind—you guessed it—Hillary Clinton.
We shouldn’t be too surprised at this journalistic onslaught, and you can’t blame it all on political reporters desperately looking for something to write about. In the post-Citizens United world, Presidential campaigns are big business, and they never take a break. As the Times story indicates, decisions are being made today that will determine who runs the country—or, at least, the White House—for four years after President Obama leaves. So, suck it up and keep reading!
The most immediate implications of the decision by Priorities USA, which was founded by two former Obama-campaign officials, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, are for anybody who is thinking of challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Imagine for a moment that you were one of these hopeful souls. Here’s what you’ve just been told: don’t bother! This thing is already sewn up. If you go ahead with your foolhardy pursuit, you’ll be crushed. Not only will you be confronting the candidate with the most experience and strongest poll numbers, you will also be going up against practically the entire Democratic establishment: the best campaign managers, the wiliest spinmeisters, the biggest of big-name endorsers, the most modern technology, and the deepest pockets. Forget about it. There’s always 2024, or 2020 if Hillary loses.
During the 2012 Presidential race, Priorities USA raised more than eighty-five million dollars, most of which came to them by way of wealthy donors like Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood mogul, and Steve Mostyn, a Houston trial lawyer. Under campaign-finance laws, the nominally independent Super PACs aren’t allowed to formally coördinate their television ads and other activities with the campaigns of the candidates they endorse. In practice, though, they are on the same team—in this case, Clinton’s team.
“I think the numbers clearly show that she’s the strongest presidential candidate on the Democratic side. And Priorities is going to be there for her if she decides to run,” Jim Messina, Obama’s former campaign manager, who has agreed to serve as Priorities USA’s co-chairman ahead of the 2016 election, told Confessore. Mostyn, for his part, said that he and his wife, Amber, were excited about the prospect of supporting Clinton. “The first time was kind of a leap of faith for us—it was back when no one was giving Priorities money,” he said. “I think it’ll be easier with Hillary.”
The upshot of the story is straightforward: the Obama and Clinton forces, which fought each other bitterly in 2008, are now rallying behind Hillary. Who might be willing to stand in the way of this fearsome army? The more you analyze it, the more the answer appears to be nobody, or nobody of much note.
Let’s take some of the possible challengers in turn:
Joe Biden. According to many accounts, the Vice President harbored ambitions of succeeding his boss in the Oval Office. But as the prospect of him receiving Obama’s backing recedes, he appears to be dropping out of the picture. It is difficult to imagine that figures like Messina, loyal Obamaites all, would be publicly endorsing Clinton so early in the race if they hadn’t received at least the tacit approval of the President.
Elizabeth Warren. At an appearance in New York this week, the Massachusetts senator once again demonstrated how she can tap into the populist resentment, especially among younger voters, that spurred the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Bill de Blasio’s election victory. While it is hard to see her winning the nomination, the prospect of taking on an articulate, liberal woman with strong intellectual credentials is clearly not one that Clinton backers relish. But Warren has repeatedly said that she’s not running in 2016, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think she’s kidding.
Andrew Cuomo. It’s an open secret in Albany that the governor, who is set to be reëlected this year, has larger ambitions. In burnishing his credentials as a tax-cutting centrist, he has appeared to have at least one eye on 2016. But as long as Clinton is in the race he is snookered. The New York Democratic Party, and the New York money, will be behind the former First Lady. Going against them would be foolish.
Martin O’Malley. The personable governor of Maryland has racked up an impressive record over the past six years, and recently he’s been busy doing things that potential Presidential candidates do, such as speaking at Washington think tanks and appearing on talk shows. If Warren stays out, he could be the candidate of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. But does he want to earn the enmity of the Obama-Clinton forces by entering a race he’d likely lose? (He’s already annoyed some of them. One Wall Street Democrat told me he’d made a big mistake in being shown around New York by Eliot Spitzer.) Having just turned fifty-one, he can afford to bide his time.
Jerry Brown. There’d been some gossip that the governor of California, who has high approval ratings and who has already run for President three times, might give it another go. He has demonstrated over his career that he’s not the sort of fellow to be put off from doing something he wants. But, evidently, he’s not running. At a press conference in Riverside last week, Brown said, “No, that’s not in the cards. Unfortunately.” Come 2016, Brown will be seventy-eight years old. And he has apparently decided that’s too old.
Bernie Sanders. Last last year, the liberal-socialist senator from Vermont said that he might be open to challenging Hillary, especially if Warren doesn’t run. He told Playboy that the Clintons “live in a world surrounded by a lot of money,” and he said to Salon’s Josh Eidelson that, while he liked Hillary personally, “it remains to be seen whether she will be a forceful advocate for working families.” But Sanders only caucuses with the Democrats—he runs in Vermont as an independent—so he wouldn’t take part in the Party’s primaries.
Obviously, this list isn’t exhaustive. More candidates might show up, but the challenges facing them would be formidable. Ironically, the one thing Clinton has to worry about may be the growing sense that she already has the nomination wrapped up. Chozick, in her Times Magazine piece, asks David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist in 2008, what Clinton needed to do to win in 2016. This was the start of his reply: “She stumbled in 2007 when she was encased in a presumption of inevitability.”
Illustration by Morgan Elliot.