The New, Scary Question Facing Democrats: If Not Hillary Clinton, Then Who?

Being an “inevitable” candidate has its drawbacks. And Democrats don’t have many other options.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hilllary Clinton attends EMILY's List 30th Anniversary Gala at Washington Hilton on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
March 4, 2015, 7:57 a.m.

In 2013, The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Chris Cil­lizza posed a ques­tion: “If not Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016, then who?”

That’s a ques­tion that Demo­crats may have to be­grudgingly ask them­selves in the com­ing weeks, as a New York Times story about Clin­ton’s email use dur­ing her time as sec­ret­ary of state—com­poun­ded with earli­er re­port­ing on the Clin­ton Found­a­tion—roil Clin­ton­land.

Clin­ton’s al­lies are already in­sist­ing the email story—that Clin­ton ex­clus­ively used her per­son­al email ad­dress while at the State De­part­ment—is a noth­ing-bur­ger. It isn’t news. It will blow over after con­ser­vat­ives have had their 48 hours of out­rage. After all, it’s un­clear wheth­er Clin­ton ac­tu­ally vi­ol­ated any rules! Move along, noth­ing to see here.

(RE­LATED: Meet the Non-Clin­ton Clin­ton De­fense Team)

But the story doesn’t make the Demo­crats’ only cur­rent hope look good. The news fits per­fectly in­to the nar­rat­ive that Clin­ton’s op­pon­ents are already try­ing to cre­ate: that she and her hus­band are se­cret­ive, less-than-scru­pu­lous ca­reer politi­cians who are more in­ter­ested in pre­serving their own power than be­ing held ac­count­able to Amer­ic­an voters. In oth­er words, that they are a real-life Frank and Claire Un­der­wood.

And while that char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion may not be fair, Demo­crats may find them­selves won­der­ing if they need to start look­ing for an al­tern­ate can­did­ate who does not rep­res­ent en­trenched power, much like in House of Cards sea­son 3. Mild spoil­er alert: find­ing such an al­tern­ate to back is a lot easi­er for the fic­tion­al Demo­crats than in real life. If Clin­ton’s email prob­lem con­tin­ues to dog her in­to the cam­paign—or if she sur­prises every­one and de­cides not to run—the Demo­crat­ic Party could be caught flat-footed.

Speak­ing in terms of pure prob­ab­il­ity, Re­pub­lic­ans are put­ting for­ward far more ser­i­ous can­did­ates than what the Demo­crats are of­fer­ing, a ver­it­able buf­fet of op­tions versus a prix-fixe menu. While Clin­ton is still polling light-years ahead of any po­ten­tial Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent in the primar­ies, it’s tough to pre­dict how that suc­cess will trans­late to the gen­er­al elec­tion.

(RE­LATED: Maybe Hil­lary Clin­ton Should Re­tire Her White House Dreams)

“Any lead Clin­ton does have is al­most en­tirely at­trib­ut­able to be­ing bet­ter known,” Fiv­eThirtyEight‘s Harry En­ten wrote in Decem­ber. “Not only are her num­bers drop­ping, but she is run­ning on par with a Demo­crat­ic brand in its weak­est shape in a dec­ade.”

Clin­ton’s name iden­ti­fic­a­tion has been the ship that has kept her afloat for months. It’s the reas­on why former Sen. Jim Webb of Vir­gin­ia had to an­nounce his can­did­acy in Novem­ber, while she can wait un­til April or May. It’s why Webb and former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley don’t get as many think pieces (like this one!) writ­ten about them. It’s why donors are just wait­ing for Clin­ton to give the sig­nal so they can whip out their check­books. Clin­ton be­ing a known quant­ity in polit­ics is her main de­fin­ing qual­ity.

But pres­id­en­tial elec­tions are not won on name ID alone; just time-travel to 2008 and ask fresh­man Sen­at­or Barack Obama. Some poll res­ults have shown that Clin­ton may not be quite as in­ev­it­able as the pre­dom­in­ant me­dia nar­rat­ive has sug­ges­ted. Since 2009, her net fa­vor­ab­il­ity has eroded.

(RE­LATED: Hil­lary Clin­ton Still Doesn’t Get It)

But Demo­crats with wan­der­ing eyes may find them­selves in a very tough spot: The win­dow for oth­er Demo­crats to jump in­to the race is quickly clos­ing.

Let’s start with the can­did­ates, floated in years past, who can be elim­in­ated: Bri­an Sch­weitzer and Howard Dean both made Cil­lizza’s list two years ago. Today, it’s hard to see either of them mak­ing a go of it, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing Dean has already en­dorsed Clin­ton and Sch­weitzer self-im­ploded. Eliza­beth War­ren? Don’t start that again.

What about a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor? If Clin­ton some­how ends up not run­ning, An­drew Cuomo could draw New York-area donors, but he would face the same cri­ti­cisms Rudy Gi­uliani faced in 2008: that as a New York politi­cian, he’s out of touch with Real Amer­ica. Jerry Brown and Dev­al Patrick are in a sim­il­ar camp.

Bernie Sanders? If you can see a so­cial­ist in the White House, I may have to check to see if you are Frank Zeidler re­in­carn­ated. Al­right, what about Joe Biden? He has hin­ted at be­ing in­ter­ested, but it’s hard to see the vice pres­id­ent, whose past pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns have flamed out, be­ing per­ceived as any­thing but Obama Lite. That leaves O’Mal­ley and Webb, two Demo­crats with little in the way of ma­jor polit­ic­al ac­com­plish­ments, whose names barely re­gister to voters out­side the Belt­way.

Be­sides, if the na­tion­al con­science con­tin­ues to be pre­oc­cu­pied with the spread of IS­IS, for­eign policy could stick as a dom­in­ant theme of 2016. That means Demo­crats might be bet­ter po­si­tioned to put up someone with polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence. Who, apart from Clin­ton and to an ex­tent Webb, can prof­fer the hawk­ish Demo­crat­ic brand that might ap­peal to se­cur­ity-minded voters in 2016? Sen. Bob Men­en­dez, for one. In his AIPAC speech Monday, Men­en­dez suc­cess­fully al­chem­ized his dis­agree­ment with fel­low Demo­crats over Ir­an sanc­tions in­to fa­vor with the pro-Is­rael crowd. But aside from the fact that he has nev­er really pub­licly en­ter­tained the idea of a pres­id­en­tial run, Men­en­dez now has crim­in­al cor­rup­tion charges to deal with.

And then there are the law­makers who fall in­to the Obama camp; the young­er mem­bers of Con­gress who may have their eyes on 2020 or 2024 but could take a gamble and strike out on their own a cycle early. To throw out a few names: Amy Klobuchar? Kirsten Gil­librand? Cory Book­er? Mark Warner? Ju­lián Castro? These sug­ges­tions may sound un­ser­i­ous, but they are a pretty thor­ough roster of the Demo­crat­ic bench. If Clin­ton’s cam­paign some­how im­plodes, Demo­crats have no con­tin­gency plan.

(RE­LATED: More Se­cur­ity Fears Sur­round Clin­ton’s “Homebrew” Email Serv­er)

Per­haps what the Demo­crat­ic Party needs as a Clin­ton al­tern­at­ive is a non­politi­cian, something like what Ben Car­son or Carly Fior­ina are of­fer­ing on the Re­pub­lic­an side. Maybe Demo­crat­ic re­cruit­ers need to look out­side the Belt­way to Sil­ic­on Val­ley. At that point, the name game turns in­to word as­so­ci­ation, with few big names, save maybe Sheryl Sand­berg, show­ing any signs at all of want­ing to get in­to polit­ics.

There are still many, many people out there who want noth­ing more than to see an­oth­er Clin­ton in the White House. That was on full dis­play dur­ing Clin­ton’s ap­pear­ance at an EMILY’s List gala Tues­day night. Between groups like Ready For Hil­lary and Cor­rect the Re­cord, there is an en­tire cot­tage in­dustry de­voted to help­ing Clin­ton be­fore she de­clares an of­fi­cial cam­paign. On Tues­day, both Cor­rect the Re­cord and Me­dia Mat­ters—two pro-Clin­ton groups un­der the same cor­por­ate um­brella—were sent in­to a flurry flack­ing against the email story and, by ex­ten­sion, against The New York Times.

It’s still early. Polling at this point in the cycle is hardly pre­dict­ive. Obama could get more pop­u­lar, thus rais­ing Clin­ton’s stock. The Re­pub­lic­ans could nom­in­ate Ross Perot by ac­ci­dent. The ghost of Ron­ald Re­agan could ap­pear to Er­ick Er­ick­son in a dream and con­vince him to en­dorse Clin­ton.

Noth­ing is de­cided. But if Hil­lary Clin­ton doesn’t start de­fin­ing her­self against the nar­rat­ive her op­pon­ents are put­ting forth, she can’t ex­pect to sleep­walk her way back to the White House. And Demo­crats can’t af­ford to wait for her (and her staff) to wake up.

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