Is Hillary Clinton Blocking a New Generation of Democratic Leaders?

The former secretary of State’s inevitability is good for Democrats in the short-term. But it masks the party’s longer-term challenges.

Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a roundtable discussion held by Univision between parents of elementary school children and politicians regarding language learning and preschool on February 4, 2014 in New York City.
National Journal
Alex Seitz-Wald
Feb. 12, 2014, midnight

Hil­lary Clin­ton has dom­in­ated the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial dis­cus­sion like few oth­er can­did­ates be­fore her. Two years out from the Iowa caucuses, she already has a top-tier su­per PAC, a grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing ma­chine, dozens of big donors ready to open their wal­lets, and massive sup­port from Demo­crat­ic voters. It’s un­pre­ced­en­ted in mod­ern polit­ics, vet­er­an Wash­ing­ton op­er­at­ives agree.

But her in­ev­it­ab­il­ity masks a po­ten­tial weak­ness with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party: the lack of a deep bench of fu­ture na­tion­al lead­ers. For a co­ali­tion that prides it­self on di­versity, the list of pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls is filled with white men: Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo, and former Montana Gov. Bri­an Sch­weitzer. With Clin­ton, the party that nom­in­ated Barack Obama in 2008 is now look­ing to the past for their pres­id­en­tial hope­ful.

Fur­ther­more, the Demo­crat­ic de­pend­ence on Hil­lary Clin­ton hampers the de­vel­op­ment of a Demo­crat­ic farm team. With Clin­ton ex­pec­ted to take up so much room in the post-Obama party, is there much room for any­one else?

Parties typ­ic­ally de­vel­op na­tion­al lead­ers and fu­ture can­did­ates through the primary pro­cess. This is es­pe­cially true for Re­pub­lic­ans, who have fam­ously nom­in­ated the run­ner-up in the pre­vi­ous cycle’s primary con­tests nearly every elec­tion since 1976.

By 2016, it will have been eight years since Demo­crats have had a con­tested primary, and if Clin­ton is ef­fect­ively anoin­ted the nom­in­ee and wins the pres­id­ency (still two big ifs), it will have been 16 years by the 2024 cycle. That’s a long time without the in­cub­a­tion cham­ber for na­tion­al lead­ers that primar­ies provide. A run, or even the an­ti­cip­a­tion there­of, draws me­dia at­ten­tion and voters’ in­terest, boost­ing the po­ten­tial can­did­ate’s na­tion­al pro­file.

Re­pub­lic­ans have de­veloped a farm team of up-and-com­ing elec­ted of­fi­cials con­sid­er­ing pres­id­en­tial bids. Just look at lead­ers in their 40s who, if not can­did­ates them­selves, can at least serve as na­tion­al sur­rog­ates for the party. In the Con­gress there’s Sens. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida and Ted Cruz of Texas, along with 2012 vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee Paul Ry­an. In the state­houses, there’s Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.  Most have po­si­tioned them­selves as part of a new gen­er­a­tion of re­formers.

The story is very dif­fer­ent for Demo­crats. There are just two well-known po­ten­tial 2016 can­did­ates in their 40s: Sens. Kirsten Gil­librand of New York and Cory Book­er of New Jer­sey. Ask Demo­crat­ic strategists for ex­amples of oth­er young­er up-and-comers, and you’ll hear names like Ju­li­an and Joa­quin Castro, the con­gress­man and San Ant­o­nio may­or, re­spect­ively. And Cali­for­nia At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Kamala Har­ris is al­ways touted, des­pite her lim­ited polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence.

That’s not only the fault of Clin­ton’s shad­ow. The 2010 Re­pub­lic­an wave wiped out many Demo­crat­ic of­fice­hold­ers, in­clud­ing many gov­ernors, who are tra­di­tion­ally the primary pool of pres­id­en­tial con­tenders.

Since Clin­ton prom­ises to be a for­mid­able can­did­ate, this may not mat­ter in the short-term. And even if she doesn’t run — which those close to her in­sist is pos­sible — her de­cision will open the floodgates for a slew of po­ten­tial can­did­ates who have said they will not jump in as long the former sec­ret­ary of State is run­ning.

“If Hil­lary doesn’t run, there are a lot of sub­stant­ive po­ten­tial can­did­ates,” one Demo­crat­ic strategist noted. There are plenty of good op­tions among those who have already ex­pressed an in­terest in run­ning — in­clud­ing Biden, who is the over­whelm­ing non-Hil­lary fa­vor­ite in early polling — and prob­ably oth­ers we’re not even talk­ing about yet.

Still, many Demo­crat­ic play­ers think the party’s voters will de­mand a wo­man to lead their tick­et in 2016, or a per­son of col­or. If true, that would di­min­ish most of the re­main­ing likely can­did­ates.

The ob­vi­ous op­tions dwindle from there. There’s Gil­librand and Book­er, along with Min­nesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is rumored to be eye­ing a bid. There’s Eliza­beth War­ren, though the Mas­sachu­setts sen­at­or re­peatedly said she won’t run.

What hap­pens bey­ond 2016? It’s a long way off, but build­ing a farm team of young, com­pel­ling lead­ers takes time, and Demo­crats may want to be ask­ing them­selves that ques­tion be­fore it’s too late.

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