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
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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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