Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill was no friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton's during the 2008 presidential campaign, becoming one of the first female Democratic officials to break with the sisterhood to back Barack Obama. But today, in a fundraising appeal, she's proclaiming her support for Clinton, long before the former secretary of State has made any decisions about running—at least publicly.
Her announcement is just the latest sign of the obvious: Clinton is as good as running for president in 2016. We'll be entertaining this kabuki dance for a while longer, even as Clinton supporters raise money for a future campaign through the Ready for Hillary super PAC, public officials pledge fealty to her (potential) candidacy, and top Obama officials speak warmly of her prospects. Not to mention her newly repackaged Twitter account, with an introduction as market-tested as any politician's.
Equally as promising for Clinton is the sheer absence of Democratic opposition. Vice President Joe Biden's loyalists have been making noise about his interest—a trip to South Carolina in May, a stop at the Iowa inauguration ball in January—but his age and lack of past success are two huge handicaps to a potential bid. As an Obama loyalist, McCaskill's endorsement is as much a Biden snub as it was a Clinton coup. If the Democratic establishment viewed Biden as a serious presidential candidate, it's hard to see McCaskill getting ahead of things.
Clinton's potential candidacy also freezes out the next generation of female leaders, who might otherwise be interested in running. With most Democratic women's groups expected to be fully behind a Clinton candidacy, there would be little room for an alternative to maneuver. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a former Clinton fundraiser, would be entirely boxed out. Elizabeth Warren, a newly elected senator, would find her own niche celebrity among liberals eclipsed by Clinton's starpower. Meanwhile, the party faces a drought of female governors, with only New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan fitting the bill.
Clinton's New York residency also blocks the party's other big name, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, from making inroads in a primary. Publicly, he's said that Clinton's decisions have no bearing on what he decides to do. But his long-standing close relationship with former President Bill Clinton makes it less likely the two would battle. In addition, the governor's popularity has dimmed a bit since he began the year with stratospheric approval ratings, falling to 59 percent in a newly released Quinnipiac survey. That's still very good, but in the range of other governors who don't automatically merit presidential buzz.
That leaves Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley as the most plausible Clinton alternative. He's been plowing through a liberal agenda in Maryland—legalizing gay marriage,ending the death penalty, raising taxes on the rich to finance public projects—as part of his pitch. Some Democrats are skeptical that O'Malley would challenge Clinton if she ran—the governor is publicly complimentary of her—yet he's one of the few alternatives who could capture the base's affections by running to her left on social issues.
But if a Democrat mounts an insurgent campaign against Clinton, it's tough to imagine it will be from this 50-year-old white male governor, whose approval ratings are rather ordinary in a heavily Democratic state.
As I wrote in May, the opportunities abound for a younger, entrepreneurial candidate running. Second-term presidents rarely wear well, and Clinton would be running as a third term for Obama. And the effective time warp Clinton experienced as an apolitical secretary of State put her behind the changing public mores on gay marriage, gun control, even immigration.
But in a sign of how centralized the Democratic party has become in the age of Obama, who could emerge as a threatening challenger? The party that's increasingly dependent on the support of women and minorities has precious few waiting in the wings. Clinton makes it very tough for any female alternative, and Obama hasn't ushered in a new wave of Democratic statewide minority officeholders. (Paging Cory Booker … )
That, more than anything, is why Clinton is seen as such an obvious choice for the Democratic nomination this far out from 2016. It's as much a sign of the absence of alternatives as it is a signal of her strength. For the party rank and file, like McCaskill, it's Hillary or bust.