Hillary Clinton is in a formidable position to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, should she decide to run. But someone else also is in an enviable position: Whoever challenges her.
The dynamics of the Democratic 2016 race so far feel more like an incumbent president clearing the primary field of any potential spoilers prior to a re-election bid rather than a wide-open nomination contest. At this early juncture, the question is not so much who will be her opponent(s), but whether she will have any, or even one.
She certainly should. Any serious Democrat with some gumption and ambition would be a fool to pass up the race based on the forecast of a Clinton coronation. Running against Hillary in 2016 is the greatest growth opportunity in the Democratic Party.
Whoever runs against Hillary will, for at least some period of time, be the hottest thing in American politics. On the cover of Time. Interviewed on all the Sunday shows. A figure of fascination whose every move is followed obsessively by every political outlet in the nation.
All of this happens right out of the gate. It would be a massive barrage of free advertising in exchange for the act of showing up. What politician with national aspirations wouldn’t want such a prominent platform?
What he or she would do with it is anyone’s guess. That would depend on the proficiency and message of the challenger’s campaign, but history suggests that it would more likely than not get some traction.
Even the mightiest front-runners usually experience unexpected turbulence. Even Al Gore in 2000, a sitting vice president who bulldozed his way to victory in every primary and caucus, had a difficult spell against his sole challenger, Bill Bradley. Even George W. Bush in 2000, anointed by the GOP establishment from the outset, got walloped by John McCain in New Hampshire. Even Mitt Romney in 2012, with every organizational and fundraising advantage, barely beat Rick Santorum in the crucial Ohio primary.
As much as politics abhors a vacuum, the media hate a stale political narrative. Watching Hillary Clinton march unopposed to the Democratic nomination would be nightmare of tedium for journalists who thrive on conflict and drama. The rooting interest of the press will be for someone to run against Hillary, and to make a real race of it.
As a presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton 2.0 so far looks as though it will be like Hillary Clinton 1.0, only more so. Her campaign will operate on the basis of sheer blunt political force and cold hard cash. Its rationale will be inevitability and the history-making prospect of the first woman president. Its slogan could be “It’s my turn — and this time, I mean it.”
She is very unlikely to face anyone with the sheer political skill of Barack Obama, or with a narrative that fits the moment as precisely as his did in 2008. But she hasn’t changed. Some of the same factors that accounted for her vulnerability last time haven’t gone away: She lacks a deft political touch; the energy of the party is to her left; she has a resume, but not accomplishments; she is cautious to a fault.
There will be a tendency among some Democrats to want to see Hillary spared the rigors of a competitive nomination battle. Why go through the pain of seeing a fellow Democrat, or fellow Democrats, build a case against Hillary when her eventual nomination seems a foregone conclusion? This is a mistake, if an understandable one. The only thing worse for Democrats than Hillary getting roughed up in the primaries would be her getting nominated without any chance to exercise her atrophied political muscles.
Whoever runs against her would in fact be doing her a kind of service, although surely an unappreciated one. And who knows? Hillary’s prospective candidacy may look unbeatable, but she’s been inevitable before.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.