A year and a half before the first primary votes are cast, the political press is looking for somebody, anybody to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. To the press corps, having a barely contested race for what’s essentially an open seat is like having a White House Correspondents Dinner without any celebrities.
The Democratic Party being what it is, the largest theoretical space for a credible Clinton challenger is to Hillary’s left. The woman who most often finds herself at the center of these longings is Elizabeth Warren, the senior Democratic senator from Massachusetts.
Warren is admired by many of the activists who comprised Occupy Wall Street. An advocate for reining in financial speculation, she pushed for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and in a less corporatist administration—or in a political culture where she would have been less of a lightning rod—she might have become its first permanent head.
Instead Warren retook Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat for the Democrats, beating Scott Brown by a handsome but not overwhelming 54 percent to 46 percent. The idea is that she’s a progressive who isn’t beholden to Goldman Sachs, despite her support of the bank bailout, and who could crack Hillary’s fortress of women voters.
Elizabeth Warren isn’t the only possibility, however, which is convenient since she has repeatedly maintained she isn’t running. Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist from Vermont, could provide an interesting Ron Paul-of-the-left dynamic. Unlike Warren, he has signaled he is open to running. The New Republic published a piece arguing a Sander campaign “could be excellent news for Democrats.”
Jim Webb is an intriguing populist possibility who hasn’t ruled out a White House bid, though it’s worth noting he didn’t run for a second Senate term from Virginia and his comments about a 2016 campaign came as he was selling a book. Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer won with a similar brand of liberal populism in an even more Republican state and seems more likely to run for president.
To get a sense of how unlikely any of these candidates would be to prevail if Hillary Clinton decides to run, look not toward Iowa or New Hampshire but New York. The bid to deny Gov. Andrew Cuomo the tiny Working Families Party nomination to protest his feints to the economic center went down in flames.
A quirk in New York State’s election laws allows small third parties of the left and right to stay relevant by allowing candidates to run for office on more than one party line. A Republican can win thousands of votes through the endorsements of the Conservative or Right to Life parties; Democrats do the same through Working Families and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Party.
Enter Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor who offered herself as a progressive gubernatorial alternative to Working Families members who view Cuomo as a “right-wing douchebag.” Mario Cuomo’s son has pushed corporate tax cuts, public employee pension reforms, and has more closely resembled Bill Clinton circa 1997 in his approach to the state budget than his father or even liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller in his prime.
Cuomo decided to fight for the Working Families endorsement—while, according to a BuzzFeed report, reserving the right to crush the party if he was denied. This entailed lobbying other statewide Democrats to decline to run on its line if they ran a candidate against him, in an effort to jeopardize the minor party’s future ballot access.
“Let’s remember there’s a national debate going on right now about where the Democratic party is. Is it a party of Bill de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren?” a source was quoted as saying. “Or is it the party of Cuomo, Governor O’Malley and Hillary Clinton?” (The New York Times reported that de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, urged Working Families to back Cuomo.)
If a network of liberal activists and labor unions failed to hold firm against the Cuomo-Clinton establishment Democrats, what hope is there that the mainstream Democratic Party will? Teachout was a former aide to Howard Dean, who in 2003-04 spoke for many liberals’ disgust with Clintonian money politics and capitulation on the Iraq war. He briefly zoomed to the head of the Democratic pack, before fizzling out, winning only Vermont and the District of Columbia on the way to a John Kerry nomination.
Dean later employed his “50-state strategy” to win the Democratic National Committee chairmanship. More significantly, Barack Obama borrowed some of his organizing tactics to beat Hillary in 2008, the main reason people believe she can be beaten again.
But Obama combined the white progressives attracted to candidates like Dean, Bill Bradley, and Gary Hart with large majorities of black primary voters, a feat Bernie Sanders isn’t likely to replicate. The Iraq war issue was then much fresher. And the liberals who think the Clintons are too close to big business don’t have much to show for Obama’s administration—and George W. Bush’s administration to show for their votes for Ralph Nader in 2000.
Perhaps most importantly, Obama had by 2008 catapulted himself to a hero status within the Democratic Party that allowed him to compete with Clinton—who is broadly popular with liberals—on even terms. Brian Schweitzer hasn’t done that.
If Hillary Clinton shocks the media world and decides not to run, expect a freshly re-elected Andrew Cuomo to give the race another look. If she enters the race as anticipated, Cuomo vs. the Working Families Party is a good model for how she would defeat any progressive alternative.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?