Remember — and this surely dates me — the unending parade of clowns emerging center ring from that tiny circus car? It was always my favorite. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I keep on thinking of that car in watching the continual parade of announced and expected GOP presidential candidates. Now, don’t get me wrong, these (all but one) men aren’t (Donald Trump notwithstanding) clowns, but they sure are a crowd. How will primary voters keep track of them, much less differentiate between their similar, largely rightist views? I guess the good news is that Republicans will have a real choice. Like them or not, they have a considerable bench.
Despite having a president in the White House, and perhaps because of it, we Democrats don’t have a lot of clowns emerging from a little car. Indeed, we have a strikingly small bench. It’s hard to shine when a sitting president looms large and focus is on what his administration does and says. That’s in part why so many Vice Presidents have taken to the stump when their number one’s time was up. In recent years, only George H.W. Bush has been able to pull it off. Of course we have had a nominee-in-waiting for all of Obama’s years. He prevailed over Hillary Clinton only by a small margin, decided not to make her his running mate but did give her a major place at his table — keep pretenders close.
Some months back, I reported being asked, “Are you ready for Hillary”? Not so much, I thought at the time and that was probably a shared view. We hadn’t even entered the fourth quarter of the Obama’s tenure — a fellow Democrat with still much to accomplish. That alone gave me pause. It’s not that I don’t admire her, and I certainly am more than ready for a Ms. President. It’s that in all honestly, I wasn’t that excited about Hillary, much less another Clinton presidency. Being excited is important. I was excited about Bill in 1992 and even more so by Barack Obama in 2008. I happily voted for, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry, but without excitement. They all lost. Does America care if I’m excited about a candidate? Of course not, but excitement, a feeling of shared mission and, yes, passion is what drives us to the polls. The point isn’t that I was excited about Bill and Barack, but that very many others were as well.
Am I excited about Hillary now? The answer is, not yet. Again, I’m not alone. Amy Davidson’s recent New Yorker piece, “Why Biden Should Run” is just one expression of that unease. Can I get excited about Hillary? I think so — hope so — but it will depend on where she stands on the considerable issues we face and also on what kind of a candidate she will be in 2016. She ended strong in 2008, but it took some time and most of all a serious challenge. Her “strong finish” came too late. So I, like Davidson, have been deeply troubled by the lack of a truly credible challenge to her 2016 nomination. Sure, it’s a relief to see Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee step forward — Jim Webb might join. These are all good men, but not one has much name recognition and all fall short on mass charisma. Interestingly, O’Malley alone has been a career long Democrat. Webb and Chafee were Republicans (before they were Democrats) and Senator Sanders, while organizing with Democrats, is still an avowed independent socialist.
What does that say about the Democrat’s bench? For sure, it reflects having a two-term sitting president but also how few in the party sit in governor’s mansions. Governors — Carter, Clinton, and Dukakis, not to mention Roosevelt — are staples on any party’s bench. It also tells you that few Democratic senators have built much of a national profile and those who have are either too old, too young or have expressed no real interest in the presidency. One can’t blame them; it’s tough to get there and worse once elected. That grey hair on a still young Obama’s head, a trait shared by most of his predecessors, evidences the unique stresses of the job.
Forgetting name recognition and charisma for the moment, I have to give Bernie Sanders special credit for his passion and for presenting an unvarnished and uncompromising liberal point of view. He’s getting some very good press and a bump in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls. He has next to zero chance of winning the nomination or even a place on the ticket. I’m old enough to remember the doomed George McGovern campaign (on which Hillary worked). He was one of the most decent and courageous of American politicians. Perhaps even more so that him, Sanders candidacy is LOA — Lost on Arrival. Chafee is probably in the same position. What’s interesting about him, more so than Jim Webb, is that his candidacy speaks volumes to how conservatively monolithic the Republican Party has become. The Chafee’s (father and son) were from the so-called Rockefeller Wing of their party, a group that has gone from being an endangered species to extinction.
Can Bernie, Martin, Lincoln and Jim “Who” present a real challenge for Hillary “Clinton, of course”? I seriously doubt it. Can their challenge force her to be more progressive rather than middle-of-the-road? Perhaps, and that would certainly be a good thing. We know a lot about Hillary’s past; we have yet to hear where she wants to take the country going forward. She started that process this past weekend on Roosevelt Island, but it was only a beginning. Her past has much to admire, but also areas of real concern. While the time was not yet right to pull it off, she certainly was an early and impassioned proponent of healthcare reform. It was she, not Obama, who brought it into the 2008 campaign. So she surely deserves some credit for the ACA. Hillary has been a consistent and substantive fighter for minority and (most especially) women’s rights. She devoted substantial time and prestige during her tenure at State to raise and address women’s issue around the globe. On the other hand, she has always been a foreign policy hawk. That drove her to support invading Iraq and to be on the aggressive side of the Administration’s internal debates about other challenges in the region. She supported deploying more troops in Afghanistan and is said to have favored much greater involvement in Syria. The latter is especially troubling.
As my last post suggested, I don’t have high hopes for serious debate in 2016. I certainly hope that immigration and, most especially, income inequality will be on the table. But again I fear more posturing than a serious conversation. Income inequality especially is a big part of Sanders’ campaign. Clinton should have no problem with immigration and indeed is very popular in the Latino community that cares so much about paths to citizenship. She reiterated her support of it in the New York speech. Income inequality presents a greater challenge, which accounts for all the focus on the Clinton foundation and speaking fees. If few Americans are members of the business 1%, even fewer are among those who command $100,000 plus for an hour at the lectern. Ask a leading author or academic what she is normally paid for speaking, even keynoting a large conference. Of course, we have had rich presidents who championed the economically stressed — most notably FDR and JFK — but Hillary and Bill are poster people for our current income disparity relative to pay for work done. She will be hard pressed on that subject.
Do Americans care about her newfound wealth or how it has been amassed? That remains to be seen. As I’ve written before, the obscene compensation or corporate CEOs and top executives in contrast to that of the average employee appalls me. Equally disturbing the revolving door (see Mark Leibovich’s, This Town) that has allowed former elected and appointed officials rake in millions, often lobbying the very people with whom they served. Would Bill Clinton be making the fees that have made him multi-millionaire virtually over night had he not been president? Of course not. Will financial machinations sink Hillary’s candidacy? It’s hard to say, but it’s probably one of the reasons that I remain unexcited about her. I hope she will find a way to assuage my concerns. This will be an important election, I know we say that every time, but it seems even more so for 2016. We’ve seen what Republican control can do, what their Supreme Court appointees can do. Living in North Carolina, I see it up close and personal. We can’t afford to blow the upcoming vote.