Hillary is a likely 2016 nominee for the Democrats. But a nomination cakewalk is the last thing they should want.
According to Gershwin summertime is when the living is easy; well he never had to run for President. As the rest of the nation gets ready to complain about how hot it is and contemplate vacations, people running for President are just getting started. Over the last 10 years political scientists have taken to calling the period when candidates start running for President and the beginning of the next cycle of primaries “the invisible primary.” For all the hoopla over Iowa and New Hampshire that happens every four years, candidates have already started to very quietly lock up big donors, recruit staff and line up important campaign advisers. In fact, the invisible primary probably started the day after Election Day in 2012 for the Democrats and for Republicans might have even started earlier.
On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton is dominating the news. There’s already a pre-campaign website as well as a superpac. In the media there are already news stories analyzing the “horse race” and even polls. To be sure, these stories won’t tell you much about the election in 2016. Polls right now about the 2016 election cycle measure name recognition at best, and as we saw in 2008 a win in Iowa can change the nationwide picture overnight.
A lot of the “analysis”, if you can call it that, about Hillary focuses on if she’d be a good candidate or a good president. She’s certainly qualified to be president, and she is probably the most qualified person we’ve seen in a while. But speculation about a hypothetical presidency is even more pointless than Iowa polls at this point. It’s hard to judge Presidents even during their own turn; don’t forget all those arguments about how great George W. Bush was going to be, let alone years before a one that might not happen.
The problem for Democrats in a hypothetical Hillary “coronation campaign” has little to do with November 2016, or the judgment of future historians. The problem is that without a vigorous primary campaign Democratic activists, interest groups and other party actors will be without leverage to influence her policy positions or the future direction of their party.
Presidents have little to worry about when it comes to re-securing their party’s nomination once they make it to the White House, after all no sitting President has been denied their party’s nomination since the modern system of nomination emerged in 1972. Perhaps fights in the primaries weakened Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush in their re-election campaigns. But considering both campaigns ended in electoral landslides for the challenger, that’s a tough argument to make. But the situation is flipped when candidates are seeking their party’s nomination. This is precisely the time when candidates need things like money, endorsements and even the grassroots support of people like you and me.
If you are liberal who would like to the Democratic nominee for President to do more on climate change or to support a public option for health care, now’s the time to force candidates to promise to back your position. Now is also the time to push issues that are typically ignored, like reform of our criminal justice system, to the front of our political debate. It would be very hard to influence a President Hillary to stick her neck out and push to reduce our massive prison population, but a candidate Hillary put on the spot at a town hall forum might just have to take a position. And if she didn’t another candidate could step in and steal the issue from her. Note that this is dependent on there being other candidates. At the very least she’d have to acknowledge the problem exists and we might even get some public debate of the issue.
Forcing candidates to take positions on issues is crucial to influencing how they will govern. Politicians would much rather run on vague themes than concrete promises they can be held accountable for. And while it may seem hard to believe, political science research shows that Presidents at least try to follow up on their campaign promises.
What’s true for the Democrats is just as true for Republicans. There is a lot of debate going on right now about the future of the GOP and with no clear front runner for 2016 now is the perfect time to try and shape the future of the party and the positions of its candidates for the Presidency. If you want the next Republican nominee to chart a new course on marriage equality or immigration this is the time to get involved. If you want to see a tougher line on cuts to entitlement programs or on reducing the deficit, this is the period to get candidates to make promises. You may like Chris Christie because of his boisterous political style or Paul Ryan because he’s the “next in line.” But if the GOP makes it a cake walk for one of those candidates the only message future Republican aspirants for the White House are likely to take is be more boisterous or be a VP on the national ticket. Your message about the issues and future direction of the party you’d like to see will be lost.
If you’re a Democrat now’s the time to get Martin O’Malley, Deval Patrick, Elizabeth Warren, John Hickenlooper and heck even Julian Castro to throw their hats into the ring. And ditto for Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, Rob Portman, Bob McDonnell and Sean Duffy (okay that might be a stretch) if you are a Republican. Once someone is sworn in on January 20th 2017 they will become harder and harder to influence, now’s the time to encourage candidates to run and make them compete for your support.
AP Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta