For Some Democrats, Taking On Hillary Clinton Isn’t Such a Crazy Idea

Running against her has potential upsides despite the Sisyphean task.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), talks about big banks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, April 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. Sen. Sanders and Rep. Sherman announced legislation to break up big banks that are bigger now than before a taxpayer bailout following the 2008 financial crisis. 
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Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
March 17, 2014, 1 a.m.

Would any Demo­crat in his or her right mind chal­lenge Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016? Well, yeah, ac­tu­ally.

To call her a pro­hib­it­ive front-run­ner is a com­ic­al un­der­state­ment — she has a lock on the Demo­crat­ic money ma­chine, un­pre­ced­en­ted sup­port from the party’s base, and a pseudo-cam­paign ready and wait­ing for her to take charge. Is there a po­ten­tial Barack Obama lurk­ing out there? “I don’t see any­body on the ho­ri­zon right now,” says a former seni­or ad­viser to the 2008 cam­paign that beat Clin­ton. “She’s in a more dom­in­ant po­s­i­tion than any­one I’ve seen in an open-seat race prob­ably in my life­time.”

Even from the left, which was her weak­ness six years ago, it would be hard to find much trac­tion. A re­cent Pew poll found that 87 per­cent of self-iden­ti­fied lib­er­al Demo­crats want Clin­ton to run, with 83 per­cent say­ing there’s a good chance they would vote for her. Com­pare that with Novem­ber 2006, when Pew asked a sim­il­ar ques­tion and found only 39 per­cent of Demo­crats who said they would like to see Clin­ton win the nom­in­a­tion.

But there’s more than one reas­on to run for pres­id­ent.

If someone de­cides to take the plunge against Clin­ton, he or she would likely have ul­teri­or motives. Some might try to move Clin­ton in a cer­tain dir­ec­tion or force her to take an ideo­lo­gic­al stand. Oth­ers might hope to raise their pro­files, either for a job in a po­ten­tial Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion or to po­s­i­tion them­selves for the fu­ture. “There’s go­ing to be a primary. And if there is a primary, there’s go­ing to be people push­ing a strong pro­gress­ive po­s­i­tion,” says Charles Cham­ber­lain, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Demo­cracy for Amer­ica, a lib­er­al grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing group.

Take in­de­pend­ent Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-de­scribed so­cial­ist from Ver­mont who has long been a proud voice on the Demo­crat­ic Party’s left. He has said pub­licly that he’s “pre­pared” to run, even if it’s against Clin­ton.

“People are hurt­ing, and it is im­port­ant for lead­er­ship now to ex­plain to them why they are hurt­ing and how we can grow the middle class and re­verse the eco­nom­ic de­cline of so many people. And I don’t think that is the polit­ics of Sen­at­or Clin­ton or the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment,” he told The Na­tion. “People want to hear an al­tern­at­ive set of policies.”

There’s also Bri­an Sch­weitzer, the former gov­ernor of Montana, who is one of the few Demo­crats who has said pub­licly that he’d chal­lenge Clin­ton. His views are idio­syn­crat­ic enough (pro-gun, pro-oil, pro-single-pay­er health care) that he doesn’t clearly rep­res­ent any par­tic­u­lar wing of the party, yet he could po­ten­tially tap in­to rur­al pop­u­list sen­ti­ment.

Oth­er names men­tioned by some on the left in­clude Rus­sell Fein­gold, the former sen­at­or from Wis­con­sin. He’s also rumored to be eye­ing a run for his old Sen­ate seat in 2016. Or Howard Dean, who sought the pres­id­ency in 2004. Would he run? “You nev­er say nev­er,” Dean has told re­port­ers who ask. Fein­gold and Dean both have their own grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing groups, which could amp­li­fy their voices and form the found­a­tion of a cam­paign if they entered the race.

Protest can­did­ates are noth­ing new, of course. It’s what Ron Paul has done with his re­peated at­tempts to win the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion, and what Jesse Jack­son did when he sought the Demo­crat­ic nod in 1984 and 1988. Neither won, but both raised the sa­li­ence of is­sues they cared about and forced the even­tu­al nom­in­ee to re­spond to them.

Bey­ond ideo­lo­gic­al am­bi­tions, the oth­er main reas­on to launch a Sis­yphean pres­id­en­tial bid would be to play the long game. Run­ning for pres­id­ent can raise a politi­cian’s na­tion­al pro­file, and help build con­nec­tions with donors and loc­al party lead­ers and act­iv­ists. Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley is the name that im­me­di­ately comes to Demo­crats’ minds here. He’s openly eye­ing a run, wheth­er Clin­ton gets in the race or not. At 51, O’Mal­ley has some time on his side. But he’s term-lim­ited out of of­fice this year, mean­ing he’s look­ing for a new job that would keep him rel­ev­ant. And while he could be a strong pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, one Mary­land polit­ic­al in­sider men­tioned sev­er­al Cab­in­et po­s­i­tions, in­clud­ing sec­ret­ary of Home­land Se­cur­ity, as oth­er prizes.

But one po­ten­tial can­did­ate is not like the oth­ers.

The only Demo­crat who — at least as things look right now — could be a threat to Clin­ton is Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden. In early polls, he’s show­ing strength that comes closest to (al­though still far from) Clin­ton’s num­bers. While most Demo­crats in Wash­ing­ton are pretty con­vinced he would nev­er chal­lenge Clin­ton, with whom he en­joys warm re­la­tions by all ac­counts, he’s said pub­licly that his de­cision would not de­pend on hers.

“The only reas­on to run for the pres­id­ent of the United States is if you truly be­lieve you are bet­ter po­si­tioned to do what is most needed in the coun­try,” Biden told Bar­bara Wal­ters last month on The View. “My ex­per­i­ence uniquely po­s­i­tions me.”

And even though Clin­ton­world seems in­tent on avoid­ing one, a con­ten­tious primary could ac­tu­ally be good for Clin­ton. It was only after her loss in Iowa in 2008, when her aura of in­vin­cib­il­ity went out the win­dow, that Clin­ton turned her cam­paign around.

“There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing about in­ev­it­ab­il­ity. There’s noth­ing good about tac­tics get­ting out in front of mes­sage,” the Obama ad­viser said of Hil­lary’s second run. “Hil­lary was, I think, not a very good can­did­ate in 2007 and then a very, very good can­did­ate in 2008, be­cause once all that oth­er stuff went away — the in­ev­it­ab­il­ity — and then once she was kind of a plucky chal­lenger, she really began to ar­tic­u­late a mes­sage that res­on­ated with people more read­ily.”

Does Clin­ton really want to head un­tested in­to a gen­er­al-elec­tion fight against a Re­pub­lic­an who has just emerged vic­tori­ous from what prom­ises to be a bruis­ing primary battle?

Maybe, in at least some small way, she should be grate­ful to any Demo­crat who has the guts to do it.

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