Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Despite odds worse than The Donald on the Republican side, Martin O'Mally, Bernie Sanders, Lincoln Chaffee, and (probably) Jim Webb are running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Their egos demand it. The grass roots Democrats who want something to do other than watch the Republicans for the next 12 months demand it. The media who need something to talk about - so long as it is not a real threat to the Anointed One - demand it. For a brief moment let's see what this is about.
The candidates (for the snarky know-nothing Democrats who like to call the Republican field a bunch of clowns):
- Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Fitting to the role as stand-in for the absent Elizabeth Warren, Sanders finds the left wing of the Democratic Party to be too conservative for his taste, and the self-proclaimed socialist is registered as an independent.
- Former Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland. After an initial positive reception by the liberal media, O'Malley's star has been tarnished by the defeat of his hand-picked successor as governor by political novice Republican Larry Hogan, and by the Baltimore anti-police riots which cast some doubt upon his legacy as mayor.
- Former Senator and Governor Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island. Linc had the good fortune of choosing popular liberal Republican Governor and Senator John Chaffee as his father, but has otherwise had an undistinguished career. At the moment his signature issue is a commitment to convert the US to the metric system.
- Former Senator and Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb of Virginia. A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Webb would seem to be well outside the liberal mainstream of his party, but he (or Rick Perry, the only other veteran in the crowded field) could bring a dose of reality to the discussion of ISIS, the NSA, and other national security issues - if he runs.
These third-tier players (perhaps other than the thrice-married Webb) have a difficult challenge - how to craft a message which will distinguish themselves from each other and from Hillary without offending the New York Times rationale that contested primaries will make the eventual Democratic nominee a better candidate.
There is no room for the Democrats to gain traction among themselves on the core liberal issues - gay marriage, immigration, early childhood education, voting rights, "income inequality", health care, and campaign finance reform. Expect this competition to be how high above $15 the minimum wage should be, how many illegal immigrants can be granted legal status by executive orders, how many kids should qualify for free day care, and how best to overturn the Citizens United decision which granted Political Action Committees (and unions) unlimited political spending as free speech.
Hillary has thus far ducked several issues which potentially divide Democrats, leaving room for a challenger who actually wants to challenge. Sanders would go beyond Obamacare to convert Medicare into a universal government-run health care system, offer free tuition at public colleges and universities, and break up the big banks which bought off the Obama and Clinton administrations. Other Democratic divisions which Hillary will avoid if at all possible include K-12 education (teachers unions versus school accountability) and the fast track foreign trade agreement being pushed by Obama and Republicans in Congress. That's before we get to her national security legacy where only Webb would be worth listening to.
A couple of other observations:
- The geographic dispersion of these candidates - as well as Senator Clinton of New York, and Joe Biden of Delaware and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who are apparently not running - is frighteningly narrow for a national party. They've got the Amtrack Northeast corridor covered, but the other 90% of the country is blank. If this were the Republicans, the media would be full of articles about their demise as a national party.
- For a party which makes its way by stoking ethnic divisions such as the anti-police demonstrations to solidify the African American vote and the "path to citizenship" for 11 million illegal immigrants to solidify the Hispanic vote, it is noteworthy that these challengers are all "old white guys". The one and only minority candidate in the broad Democratic stable - former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro - is awaiting a Vice President invitation while he pads his resume as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. No African Americans need apply despite their 90% plus Democratic voting record. Asians? Forget it!
The fading presidency of Barack Obama will be the backstory once the gears shift in mid-2016 to a Republican versus Democrat contest. That is difficult territory for the party of a two-term incumbent to navigate with a public where both the left and the right are dissatisfied with the results and the presumptive candidate of the incumbent party was an integral part of the administration's biggest failure. The Republicans may have too many candidates and too wide a range of policy prescriptions, but they will own the nation's political attention for the next year - to their likely benefit.
In a good harbinger for Marco Rubio, this clip from the Daily Show suggests that just maybe some of today's pop culture leaders won't automatically be squarely in the Democratic camp.
bill bowen - 6/12/15