The Question Nobody Asks

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Democratic Party, Sanders and Clinton

John Kasich is supposed to be dropping out of the race any minute, which means Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. There is no reasonable way for the Republican establishment to choose someone else now, however much they may want to.

(Just to show how screwed the Republicans are, see John French argue in National Review that Trump really isn’t a better choice for President than Clinton. Or, at least, one is as bad as the other. In National Review, mind you.)

The irony is that people had been predicting a contested convention for the GOP, but it looks as if it’s the Dems who will not have an official nominee when the gavel opens their convention. However, I have no doubt Clinton will have the nomination in the first round of voting, barring some unforeseen catastrophe that causes a massive shift in public opinion between now and then. Possibly even that wouldn’t change much.

But I want to get to the question nobody asks. Here it is not being asked by Josh Marshall — someone wrote to him, saying,

I’m a little late to the party on the Sanders comments, but I think one additional perspective on the current state of affairs is missing: Sanders’ entire campaign was made possible by the fact that Hillary essentially cleared the playing field for him prior to the primary season getting started. O’Malley was never a serious contender, which left the entire “not-Hillary” space to Sanders. Given all of the Democrats out there that have misgivings about her (you included), the default vehicle for channeling their disenchantment was to feel the Bern.

To which Josh replied,

As TPM Reader JR noted in his last email, a big part of Sanders success was based on the face that Clinton so effectively cleared the field of other candidates. Once it was just the two of them, he was going to do pretty well. But that doesn’t explain the scope of his victories. Some of this is just the left-wing of the Democratic party which is always there. But the heavy weight of young voters supporting Sanders is a genuinely new thing under the sun. Sanders has managed to garner a huge amount of support for a range of policies and basic perspectives about market economies that would have seemed anathema to most Democrats or at least politically fatal only a few years ago.

I agree with this, yet the question was not asked — how did Hillary clear the field prior to the primary season getting started?

We know some of it was Debbie Wasserman-Schultz denying exposure to the challengers by scheduling few pre-primary debates and putting those on at weird times no one would be watching. The Hillary Victory Fund scam also has the effect of corrupting the primary process by making 33 state Democratic parties (even though they are being screwed now) and the DNC financially dependent on a successful Clinton campaign. But the bigger question nobody asks is how did Hillary become the only establishment candidate?

Think about it. It’s been obvious for four years — eight, really — that there would be an open seat in the White House in 2016. And it’s been obvious for about that long that the Republicans were not going to have a reasonably challenging candidate. Given that every politician in Washington must at least occasionally fantasize about being POTUS, how come the only candidates to step up and challenge Hillary Clinton were outsiders?

Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

The only time a non-incumbent Democrat has had so little presidential primary competition in my memory was 2000, when the only serious challenger to Al Gore was Bill Bradley. I don’t remember asking the question then, either, but the Dems seemed at tad demoralized at the time. I could understand not wanting to run against an aggressive and organized Right. But there’s no reason for them to be demoralized now.

There’s a big sentiment out there that this year was Hillary Clinton’s turn. But how did that happen? In 2000 Al Gore was the sitting vice president, and sitting vice presidents are often assumed to be POTUS candidates unless the POTUS really screws up.

It might have been argued that it is now Joe Biden’s turn, which he chose not to take. But I don’t see a logical argument that a former Secretary of State gets a turn.

I looked it up. The last former Secretary of State who was elected president was James Buchanan. That was 160 years ago. Buchanan was a really awful President, but perhaps that had nothing to do with his being a former Secretary of State.

So, how did it get to be Hillary Clinton’s turn?

There’s been kind of a whispering campaign that’s been going on since 2000 that someday Hillary Clinton would be POTUS, and that the only reason she ran for Senator was to make it a springboard for running to the White House. And the whisperers — in politics and in media —  have been saying she’s the inevitable candidate ever since. And I guess a lot of people just bought into that; you hear something often enough, it gets to be Revealed Truth.  I don’t see any other earthly reason for such widespread public acceptance of her almighty inevitability.

And here we are. I agree with Josh Marshall’s letter that a lot of the support that coalesced around Sanders initially was anti-Clinton sentiment — he seemed to be the strongest candidate who was Not Hillary. I also agree with Josh that Sanders turned out to be a lot more than the not-Clinton candidate; people really warmed to his positions. He has been calling out loud for things that Democrats dared not hope for just a short time ago.

More conservative and pro-establishment Democrats have frantically been waving the visage of Trump at us to get us into line. And I think a lot of people bought that, too. Hillary seems to be the safer candidate against a slate of right-wing crazies, so we’d better vote for her in the primaries or we’ll get Donald Trump. This writer says she knows people who voted for Clinton only for that reason, even though they sorta kinda preferred Bernie. If Trump had not been the nominee, Clinton and the Dems would have been in trouble. But now that he is they may be secretly relieved.

But had Clinton not been the only establishment Democrat in the race, I don’t think she would have had a chance to sell herself as the Trump-slayer. Any establishment Dem would have done as well. Certainly Joe Biden also would have been a credible threat to Trump. John Kerry is the current Secretary of State and would have been a respectable, if not terribly interesting, candidate.

One of the jobs of a party is to identify and promote good candidates for office so that they are well known, and well thought of, before the elections begin.  But this is something the current Democratic Party does not do well at all, and not just at the presidential level. They suck at identifying and supporting congressional and state-level candidates also. It’s why the Republicans run things.

Reason magazine was asking a year ago where are all the Democratic presidential candidates?  “Vox.com claims Clinton remains the only serious potential candidate on the Democrat side because she’s ‘crushing the opposition.’ Or she could be sucking all the air out of the room, preventing anyone else from lighting a match,” this article says.

What opposition? Ezra Klein wrote in March 2015:

Jonathan Bernstein and Reihan Salam have written two smart articles on the Democratic presidential primary — or lack thereof — that are best read in tandem. Bernstein’s article is meant to explain why it looks like Democrats don’t have a bench even though they do, and Salam’s article is meant to show who’s sitting on it.

Bernstein’s argument is related to the “invisible primary” theory of presidential elections. Hillary Clinton, he says, “has earned the support of the bulk of Democratic party actors, and gained the acquiescence of other Democrats who aren’t as enthusiastic about her.” The result is that the Democratic Party’s “perfectly viable other candidates either dropped out or never seriously considered the race.”

Perhaps a slightly clearer way to put it is this: in the invisible primary, when the contest is as much a draft as it is a campaign, Clinton is “opposed” by essentially every Democrat fit for the presidency. If the party’s powerbrokers didn’t want to support Clinton and instead really wanted Sen. Michael Bennet to run, or Gov. Andrew Cuomo to lead the field, they would be working toward that outcome. Instead, they’re lining up behind Clinton. In this telling, Clinton isn’t winning by default. She’s winning by winning. The absence of competition is the product of Clinton’s strong, successful campaign to win over Democratic Party elites.

Ezra also had polls saying that people viewed her favorably, but polls that far ahead of an actual election make very bad predictors of anything, I understand. The fact that so many people seized upon the only remotely viable not-Hillary candidate tells us something that those polls missed.

Jonathan Bernstein actually wrote in March 2015,

Clinton has (apparently) won the nomination fair and square, through hard work and political talent.

Get that — she won the nomination fair and square months before the primaries began.

That is why she has earned the support of the bulk of Democratic party actors, and gained the acquiescence of other Democrats who aren’t as enthusiastic about her.

So all those perfectly viable other candidates either dropped out or never seriously considered the race. Had Clinton chosen not to run, plenty of the others would have jumped in, and the field would have been comparable to what the Republicans have put together.

When Clinton has a bad week — and during a multiyear campaign, everyone has bad weeks — pundits will look around for something or someone to blame. But there are going to be many weeks in the next year when Republicans are squabbling, and commentators are going to talk about how lucky the Democrats are for avoiding a contested primary.

Ha. Shows what you know, Jonathan Bernstein.

The problem is, of course. that Democratic Party elites have their heads up their ass and are largely insulated from the issues a lot of us are facing. Thomas Frank — and I don’t always agree with Thomas Frank, but I do here — writes of the Democratic Party establishment,

Cool contentment is the governing emotion in these circles. What they have in mind for 2016 is what we might call a campaign of militant complacency. They are dissociated from the mood of the nation, and they do not care.

I mean this in ways both great and small. The party’s leadership is largely drawn from a satisfied cohort that has done quite well in the aftermath of the Great Recession. They’ve got a good thing going. Convinced that the country’s ongoing demographic shifts will bring Democratic victory for years to come, they seem to believe the party’s candidates need do nothing differently to harvest future electoral bumper crops. The seeds are already planted. All that is required is patience.

Hillary Clinton is more or less openly offering herself as the complacency candidate. The least inspiring frontrunner in many years, she is a dynastic heir who stands to receive the Democratic nomination largely because it’s her turn – the logic that made Bob Dole the GOP leader in 1996. …  Clinton’s unofficial slogan, “America never stopped being great” — supposedly a searing riposte to Trump’s “make America great again” – sounds like the kind of thing you’d see inscribed in a country club logo. In her words, we can hear the call of contentment, a would-be catchphrase for a generation of satisfied people.

Andrew O’Hehir has been arguing for months that both parties are splitting apart; it’s just happening more slowly on the Democratic side. The Democratic elite thought they were being smart by putting all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. Instead of giving a platform to a slate of candidates, the party tried to give us a single prepackaged candidate. This would have been a bigger marketing fiasco than New Coke were it not for the fact that the Republicans were imploding.

If Hillary Clinton becomes the next POTUS, she’ll have Donald Trump to thank.

Meanwhile, the young progressive folks who are the Dem Party’s hope are convinced that the Dems are hopelessly corrupt, that they rigged the primaries in favor of Clinton, and that neither party has anything to offer them.  Way to go, DNC.

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19 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Doug  •  May 4, 2016 @9:50 pm

    HRC was the presumptive nominee in 2008. Democrats accidentally let democracy happen with a bunch of debates, the media not lining up behind the narrative and an electorate with plans that the kingmakers did not share. Obama wasn’t hostile to the ruling class, but he passed up a bunch of money-making wars and tax-funded swindles that Clinton would have permitted.

    So the kingmakers behind HRC & DWS decided some time after 2012, that nothing would be left to chance. Superdelegates would be recruited and sworn in advance of the money-laundering scheme that bought off state organizations. Potential challengers were warned off – a primary challenge would be a career-ending decision.

    When I tried to put together a run against DWS, a friend with connections enquired for me with the pros – nobody would touch a challenge to DWS. Granted, I’m the world’s worst candidate, but Tim Canova who will beat DWS and is eminently qualified hit the same wall.

    The leadership behind the scenes who is pulling the strings of the DNC is loosing control of the democratic voters. Previously, they controlled the options which were offered to voters. Voters have discerned in large numbers that they are being force-fed options to the liking of the party leadership who will loyally screw the voters.

    Now we arrived at a historic moment. The GOP is disintegrating and the puppet-masters of the DNC have a rebellion which threatens the complete control they want, which is almost within their grasp. IMO, the near-desperation of some liberal pundits who want Berne & Co to shut up and get everybody to line up behind HRC & the DNC like good little soldiers shows how sold out to the party some credible pundits actually are.

  2. uncledad  •  May 4, 2016 @11:11 pm

    I quit.

  3. priscianus jr  •  May 5, 2016 @12:17 am

    You’re on a roll, Maha.

  4. Swami  •  May 5, 2016 @12:51 am

    But I don’t see a logical argument that a former Secretary of State gets a turn.
    The logic is .. Clinton getting appointed as Secretary of State was another way of Obama saying the next turn is yours. And you’ll have the Secretary of State accolade to beef up your resume when you claim your next entitled conquest. But she’s doing it for us! Magnanimity personified?

  5. priscianus jr  •  May 5, 2016 @12:53 am

    You’re asking the $64,000 question. And you answer it, but in a suggestive way. Not exactly an answer, but pointing towards the answer. The nearest you come, I think, is this: “The Democratic elite thought they were being smart by putting all their eggs in one basket, so to speak.”

    But who is “the Democratic elite”? Surely it includes the Clintons themselves. Surely the fact that Hillary had a “lock” on the nomination long before the primary even started implies that the Clintons had sufficient influence or control over the party in 2014 to bring this about.

    Second observation: mostly you speak of a kind of psychological operation. Convincing everybody, and certainly the MSM, that it was “her turn”. The very fact that she almost did this in 2008, but was bested by Obama (which was almost as amazing a feat as winning the election), meant that 2016 REALLY had to be her turn. And really it started long before 2008.

    But was it just psychological intimidation? Wasn’t it also political/financial muscle and careful organization? Doesn’t the story of the Hillary Victory Fund fit in here? Did she not line up her super delegates before a single vote was cast?

    Then there is also the question of what consolation prizes she wrested from Obama and/or the party for going away quietly, and to keep her and Bill on the reservation. One we know — he paid her campaign debts. Another we may at least suspect — he agreed to make her his SoS. A third we may now guess — she would be the nominee in 2016. Remember Bill’s brilliant speech at the party convention in 2012. It was for Obama — but we all knew it was also for Hillary.

    And note that henchwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz would eventually become chair of the DNC, which happened in May 4, 2011. The Hillary Victory Fund required her cooperastion. did it not? Just trying to connect the dots . . .

  6. MilitantlyAardvark  •  May 5, 2016 @3:01 am

    The only argument for a Clinton presidency is that it will show the young folk just how little the DNC Democrats care about anything except their own bank balances. Whether the young folks will be smart or determined enough to find something better for themselves is open to question. We are in an age where gutless, paranoid old fools want to make society “safe” for their own inadequate and greedy asses, and I suspect they’ll rig the system as hard as they can to keep themselves happy and screw everyone else. I wish the young people all the best, because they are the guiltless generation that follows the selfish angry generations that wasted earth’s resources, wrecked the environment and rigged our broken economy to suit their own purblind greed.

  7. c u n d gulag  •  May 5, 2016 @9:19 am

    The Democrat’s complacency is the result of not having a solidly conservative national opposition party. The GOP is no ionger that party, since they are now the party of bat-shit insane “Christianista’s!”

    And the GOP is now destroying this country from the bottom up, instaed of from the top down. They contol the majority of Goveror’s mansions and state legislatures, and make life difficult for women, minorities, gays, children, and seniors.

    I suspect that both parties will splinter in the coming years.

    What they will splinter into, is anybodies guess…

  8. maha  •  May 5, 2016 @9:50 am

    gulag — right now, I could see a huge re-alignment, with the neocon “free market” Republicans joining up with the neoliberal neocon “third way” Democratic centrists. This would basically be a centrist-conservative party not necessarily married to social conservatism and the religious right — something like what the Republican Party used to be, a few decades ago. The social conservatives and teabaggers eventually are going to be marginalized, although that may take a few more years. Progressives and genuine lefties could coalesce around a new party or take over the Dems. This is what I’m hoping for, anyway.

  9. Doug  •  May 5, 2016 @11:06 am

    gulag & maha nailed it in the last two comments. Both parties haven’t been in such a state of wild & dynamic flux in my lifetime. What will they change into and who will be in charge? For decades we’ve been watching the painfully slow lava lamp – so constrained and predictable on both sides and now it’s like Mount St. Helens has exploded. What will the landscape be when the dust clears?

  10. LongHairedWeirdo  •  May 5, 2016 @3:51 pm

    Well… here’s the question. Why did Barack Obama run in 2008? If we believe him, he said he’d promised his wife it was *one* run, and only one.

    Now: to run against Clinton, with their connections and influence, you have to feel that if you can’t win, you don’t run. And you have to balance running *now* against maybe running *later* when they’re not on the ballot.

    (“They’re” – when I said Against Clinton, I meant Bill OR Hillary.)

    Obama decided that running NOW was far better than running later, and planned exactly one run. He had nothing to lose – his “brand” was at its peak.

    This year, the only other serious candidate was someone like Bernie, who also has nothing to lose.

    Now: I’m not saying that Hillary didn’t work every lever to her advantage, and *that* is part of why no one wants to run against her – she’s got so many levers to pull, you don’t want her to pull the one that opens the trap door on your political career.

    I am suggesting that this isn’t *as* bad a thing as it might seem.

    It is, however, scary-as-hell to have a dynasty that can scare off all but the nothing-to-lose *twice*. I recall hearing a story about Rome or Greece, where, if someone was in power for too long, they could be voted out of the city for a year to keep them from amassing too much political power. Was it just a legend? Maybe – but that’s how I feel about the Clintons – it’s bad that that *can* do this, but I’m not sure how much of what they’re doing is bad, when viewed in isolation.

    (Keeping in mind that we *are* talking politics. A lot of stuff that would be bad to do to another randomly selected human being isn’t “bad” in politics. Hardball, dirty, nasty, ugly – but not too out of line with what the other person would do if they could.)

  11. Swami  •  May 5, 2016 @5:56 pm

    LongHairedWeirdo ….You mean like there is no honor among thieves?

    She’s doing it for us! Her spirit of sacrifice would make Nathan Hale seem like the epitome of selfishness.

  12. c u n d gulag  •  May 5, 2016 @6:59 pm

    Swami,
    ‘Give me liberry, or give me…. derp!’

    Who, exactly, were the alternatves to Hillary?
    Sure, Bernie,
    But who else?
    Kerry?
    Been there…
    Gore?
    Ditto.

    Andrew Cuomo?
    If anyone doesn’t like Hillary, they’d LOATHE Andrew!
    The Castro bros?
    Too young, too untested – though not as VP material.

    Elizabeth Warren? Sherrod Brown?
    NOT ENOUGH NAME RECOGNITION!
    And besides, they’re too valuable in the Senate.

    Sadly, she was the best candidate the Dem’s could put up!

    Obama will be the last great Dem POTUS.
    He was an outlier, who captured the hearts and minds of the Democratic voters.
    He may not have lived up to his hype, but he was the best POTUS in my 58 years!

    YMMV…

    One lasg thing:
    DWS HAS TO GO!!!

  13. Swami  •  May 5, 2016 @8:18 pm

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/paul-ryan-donald-trump-endorse_us_572b79cde4b096e9f090804f

    Dear candidate Trump,
    You are cordially invited to the official 2016 GOP leadership ring kissing ceremony. Attire is informal. Knee pads will be provided. We look forward to your subservience.
    Sincerely, the Leadership

  14. joanr16  •  May 6, 2016 @8:33 am

    Eddie Munster v. Blond Herman Munster

  15. c u n d gulag  •  May 6, 2016 @9:23 am

    Jooan,
    What do you have against Herman Munster?
    He was devoted husband and father, and on his worst day, he was a thousand times better a human being than that real monster, tRUMP!

  16. Joel Dan Walls  •  May 6, 2016 @5:31 pm

    I don’t recall there being an exactly overwhelmingly talented set of Democrats running for president in 2008. Things very quickly came down to having thee candidates: Clinton, Obama and Edwards. And as we learned later, Edwards’ moral character was just a teeny tiny problem. But we’d been hearing “Hillary is the inevitable candidate” for a couple of years.

    Obama successfully competed with Clinton in 2008 for the support of superdelegates, and he won. Why couldn’t someone else do that in 2016?

  17. maha  •  May 6, 2016 @6:23 pm

    “Obama successfully competed with Clinton in 2008 for the support of superdelegates, and he won. Why couldn’t someone else do that in 2016?”

    I asked that very question and answered it in this post. Basically, this time Clinton had secured the nomination as far as Party insiders were concerned months before the primaries started. See especially Jonathan Bernstein, writing for Bloomberg News in March 2015:

    Clinton has (apparently) won the nomination fair and square, through hard work and political talent. That is why she has earned the support of the bulk of Democratic party actors, and gained the acquiescence of other Democrats who aren’t as enthusiastic about her.

    So all those perfectly viable other candidates either dropped out or never seriously considered the race. Had Clinton chosen not to run, plenty of the others would have jumped in, and the field would have been comparable to what the Republicans have put together.

    I think that if, for example, Joe Biden had run, he would have siphoned off a lot of Sanders support as well as Clinton support. No way to know that for sure, of course.

  18. Procopius  •  May 8, 2016 @9:59 pm

    The question used to be asked, after being crushed by JFK, how did Nixon gain control of the Republican Party and win in 1968? The answer given back then was that he went from state to state, speaking for and finding donors for, all manner of Republican candidates. He worked hard for people who won, and so they supported him in his efforts. Hillary did the same. Sure, she was raising millions of dollars for her family, and tens of millions for the foundation, but she managed to find time to help people who won, who might not have won if she hadn’t helped them. That’s the way it’s done, and that’s why politics will always be messy and “corrupt.”

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