The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics released the newest Iowa Poll Saturday evening, which showed Hillary Clinton with a commanding 56% share of likely Democratic caucus-goers. Elizabeth Warren, who has said she won’t run, trails her at 16%. Vice President Joe Biden is at 9%. That’s a lead many Democratic presidential hopefuls would look at and think, “Eh, I’ll wait until next time.”
That would be a mistake. 2016 cannot be an uncontested coronation for Clinton if Democrats care about their long-term future. They need only look to tonight’s Super Bowl to see why.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t supposed to be a superstar, drafted in the 6th round. But when Drew Bledsoe went down in 2001, Brady got his chance and took the team to the first of three Super Bowl wins. He leads the Patriots back again to the big game tonight. That’s about as ideal of a backup quarterback situation as you can get. It’s way better than seeing your starting quarterback get injured, only to find that your “next man up” is Tyler Palko or Brodie Croyle (sorry, only Kansas City Chiefs fans will get that reference).
However, that’s a situation Democrats could face if no one builds a national profile with a challenge to Clinton. Consider Democrats’ prospects after the 2000 primary. Only Bill Bradley had the guts to challenge Al Gore in a primary in which the Vice President won handily. Gore then lost* in the general, and Democrats were left with a weak, unknown field to challenge George W. Bush in 2004. John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt all spent most of 2003 introducing themselves to national press, activists and donors. Kerry, Dean and Gephardt considered running in 2000, but declined. Would their chances have been better if they already had a national base of support within the party?
As we look ahead to 2016, who are the likely candidates that could use a run as a springboard to a successful 2020 or 2024 campaign? Bernie Sanders may get in, but he’d never be a legitimate general election contender. This is Biden’s last shot. Only Martin O’Malley, and to a lesser extent Jim Webb, possess the biography, connections and gravitas to make a real go of it.
So where’s everyone else? What ever happened to Governor Brian Schweitzer? Wasn’t Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick making noise at some point? How about Julian Castro? Andrew Cuomo? Amy Klobuchar? Cory Booker? No one wants their moment in the sun?
Some ambitious Democrats seem nervous about challenging Clinton, concerned doing so might hurt their chances of landing a cabinet position in her White House. That’s nonsense. They don’t need to attack her to do well. Trust me, Republicans and the national media will more then cover that. Other Democrats could run a perfectly positive campaign, bask in national media attention, solidify a certain niche in the party, and position themselves for future ambitions. So you’ll probably lose. Who cares? No one’s going to look down on you for coming up short against Hillary Clinton.
As for Clinton, a larger Democratic field may well help. The biggest danger for her (short of Warren jumping in) is for all of the Democratic Party’s anti-Clinton crowd to coalesce around one, respectable candidate.
It wouldn’t be that hard either. There’s a big opening in Iowa right now with so little activity. Hell, you don’t even have to be that serious about running. All any Democrat needs to do is hop on a plane, go to a few events in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport, and you’ll have national reporters following your every move. O’Malley is at 1% right now in the Register’s poll. So what? He’s smart enough to see an opportunity and is starting to form an Iowa operation.
Democrats need more nationally known leaders. The 2016 election is the perfect place to cultivate them. If not for the future, then for right now too. Because what if something goes wrong? What if Clinton’s campaign implodes like Peyton Manning in the playoffs? Democrats need a backup plan for bad times, as well as for good.
The best-case scenario for Democrats is to seamlessly hand the baton from one dynamic leader to the next, like the Green Bay Packers did with Brett Farve and Aaron Rodgers (those lucky bastards). Because you sure as hell don’t want to be like the Minnesota Vikings, where you get to the playoffs and all of a sudden have to play a Joe Webb. Or, for that matter with Democrats, a Jim Webb.