Here’s something you may not realize. There are actually around four serious candidates in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. Yet only two of them, Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont), are attracting attention.
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A note of explanation here: To become President in the United States, you have to go through two electoral contests. First a candidate must win the Party’s nomination with a series of intraparty contests, elections or polls held on a state-wide basis. Then he or she runs against the other party’s candidate in the main event.
Currently, virtually every major Republican politician seems to be running for that party’s nomination because there is no obvious Republican candidate. What’s truly interesting is that the Democratic contest, which was supposed to be a coronation for Hillary, has become surprisingly volatile.
There are now by my count four serious candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, with more waiting in the wings for Hillary to trip up. I’ve assessed the candidates and their strengths with a nonscientific description.
- The Heir Apparent – Hillary Clinton
Who she is: former first lady, ’60s activist turned radical feminist turned consummate political insider. Her establishment power is offset by clumsiness on the campaign trial—remember the 2008 debacle.
- The ability to raise a lot of money. This could be critical in a post-Citizens United race, where a presidential campaign could cost $2 billion. Citizens United was the U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed unlimited campaign spending by private individuals and organizations.
- Close association with a popular former President—her husband, Bill
- The fact that she is a woman. This is one of her biggest drawing points. Most of the voters are women.
- Name recognition, which is vital in a society where the vast majority of voters pay no attention to the candidates or their antics
- She is not tied to any real issue or cause.
- Her establishment connections—not popular in an era of anti-establishment rage
- Close association with Bill and his moderate, middle-of-the-road policies, which are unpopular in an age of frustration with the status quo. There are also very nasty skeletons lurking in Slick Willy’s closet that could come back to haunt Hillary. All it would take is one sex scandal to destroy her born-again feminist image.
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- Lack of popular policies or agenda. Actually, she seems to have no agenda.
- All the baggage associated with the Clinton name, including suspicion of corruption and of being willing to sell us out
- The moderate pro-business Clinton policies of the 1990s will be a tough sell in a nation plagued with income inequality and popular anger at Wall Street.
- Lack of grassroots support
- History of the 2008 loss
- Lack of the common touch/inability to connect with voters
Best known as: Bill’s wife
Probable voters: feminists, those nostalgic for the 1990s, diehard Democrats, African Americans
- The Spoiler – Bernie Sanders
Who he is: ’60s radical from Brooklyn turned rabble-rouser and consummate politician from Vermont. He’s a walking contradiction, a self-described Democratic socialist who rails against the billionaire class but gets strong support from conservatives for opposition to gun control. The only independent U.S. Senator is attracting large crowds by staying on message: a radical agenda of free (taxpayer-subsidized) college tuition, national health insurance and high taxes on the wealthy. He’s attracting large crowds, including one of 10,000 in Madison, Wisconsin. Despite his radical image, Sanders is a highly effective legislator and political pragmatist who wins kudos for working with Republicans on veterans issues.
- Far outside the establishment and no corporate connections
- Potentially popular agenda, especially the free college and Medicare-for-all promises
- Income inequality and failure of Republican policies fuels the leftward tilt of the nation, which makes his message appealing
- Ability to successfully appeal to groups outside the modern Democratic base, including rural whites and veterans
- Passionate and well-organized grassroots base
- He has legions of sophisticated and tech savvy supporters that are capable of leveraging the Internet to boost his campaign. Sanders was able to raise $15 million with 400,000 contributions from 250,000 donors by taking advantage of crowdfunding, according to National Public Radio.
- He’s not Hillary. Hey, it worked for Obama in 2008.
- Has the common touch and an ability to reach out to average people
- No baggage of scandal like Hillary has
- Lack of money
- Lack of corporate connections and support
- Outside the Democratic establishment
- New Left baggage could come back to haunt him.
- His ideas could easily be stolen by centrists like Hillary.
- No base in the Democratic Party
- Obnoxious left-wing supporters could scare off mainstream voters.
- No history of appealing to some Democratic constituencies such as African-Americans
Best known as: that angry guy from Vermont
Probable voters: old-time leftists, aging peace activists, union members, dissatisfied rural whites, angry people, the Occupy crowd, and frustrated young people
- The Irish Prince – Martin O’Malley
Who he is: the former mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland. Proud of his Irish heritage, O’Malley has been positioning himself as the establishment alternative to Hillary. In particular, he’s made a strong appeal to environmentalists and their allies in the media. Outside of Maryland, he’s best known as the inspiration for Tommy Carcetti, the fictional politician on the classic TV series The Wire who used his position as Baltimore’s mayor as a stepping stone to the governor’s office. Note: O’Malley hates The Wire, which showed Baltimore as a messy place filled with drug dealers, racism, political corruption and ineffective, self-serving politicians.
- Lack of baggage—no history of association with Wall Street, corporations, the economic elite, etc.
- No nasty past reputation that could come back to haunt him
- Strong history of winning support from African Americans and other minorities
- Ability to get establishment support and raise money
- Low profile and no real dirt
- Good record of working with established groups inside the Democratic Party
- He’s not Hillary. Hey, it worked for Obama in 2008.
- No real grass roots support
- Lack of national name recognition. Note: This did not hurt Obama in 2008 or George W. Bush in 2000.
- Lack of national political connections
- The Wire reputation could come back to haunt him, particularly with the Baltimore riots and police violence making headaches.
- His strong stands against fossil fuels and in favor of alternative energy could come back to haunt him while campaigning in the Midwest.
- Outside of Maryland, nobody but The Wire fans know who he is.
Best known as: that guy from The Wire
Probable voters: diehard Democrats, African Americans, Clinton haters, Irish Americans, The Wire fans.
- The Dark, Dark Horse – James Webb
Who he is: a walking contradiction of a man, a graduate of the Naval Academy and highly decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam with a reputation as antiwar; a lifelong Democrat who held two positions in Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet and a well-known opponent of affirmative action who supports reduced sentences for African-American prisoners; a writer, journalist and former college professor who likes to attack intellectuals and the elite; a self-described redneck who is proud of his Scotch Irish heritage (even wrote a book about it). He’s also a successful author whose novels and nonfiction have won serious praise.
- Red state appeal. He can attract the votes of rural whites and others the Democrats usually lose. He won a U.S. Senate race in Virginia against a popular Republican incumbent.
- Highly pragmatic. He favors ending both the war on drugs and affirmative action.
- Opposition to the war in Iraq and military interventions gives him street cred in both conservative and leftist circles.
- His military background should play well on Main Street.
- Like Sanders, he is far outside the establishment at a time when most Americans view the establishment as corrupt. The antiestablishment stance he’s taken in his writing could play very well on Main Street.
- One of the few Democrats with appeal to conservatives, he has been praised in The American Conservative (Pat Buchanan’s media outlet). That means Webb can leverage nontraditional media outlets that have more credibility on Main Street than the New York media.
- He’s not Hillary. Hey, it worked for Obama in 2008.
- His history with Reagan could appeal to Republicans and independents.
- His military background, service in the Reagan Cabinet, and attacks on Harvard intellectuals will make him a tough sell in blue states and among probable Democratic primary voters.
- Webb’s celebration of his Southern and Scotch Irish heritage could backfire and drive away African-American and politically-liberal voters. Given the recent controversy over the Confederate battle flag, it’d be real easy to tar him as a racist or un-American.
- Lack of name recognition. Nobody outside Virginia and policy wonks knows who he is.
- Lack of any real policy stands or issues. Like Hillary, he does not seem to stand for anything.
- His dovish stance could hurt him if the War on Terror heats up.
- Despite his celebration of redneck culture, he still comes off as an aloof, intellectual elitist.
Best known as: That’s the problem—nobody seems to know he is.
Probable voters: Good question. Those Webb would appeal most to—white males, Southerners, veterans, and cultural conservatives—left the Democratic Party decades ago, although he might pick up some support from peace activists.
There is at least one other Democratic candidate: Lincoln Chafee, the former Governor of Rhode Island and a recovering Republican whom nobody takes seriously. His major issue seems to be putting America on the Metric system.
Now for what’s truly interesting. This list is the tip of the iceberg. Over at The American Conservative, Noah Millman listed the potential Democratic presidential contenders and came up with a list of nearly 20. That means the possible Democratic field is as broad and as deep as the one for the Republican race.
Things could get very interesting very fast if Hillary drops out, gets destroyed by scandal or starts losing to Sanders in the polls. The Democratic race could become as wide open and as messy as the Republican presidential contest.