Sabato's Crystal Ball

White House 2008: The Democrats

The nomination battle between the liberals and the moderates

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics February 24th, 2005

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And so it begins anew: the quadrennial orgy that eventually results in the birth of a president. Over the decades the presidential gestation period has lengthened dramatically. While the “hidden campaign” to be the next president has always consumed the entire term of the incumbent, only in the past couple of elections has the full-blown public campaign stretched from the day after the last election to Election Day four years hence. Believe it or not, we are nearly four months into the 48 month 2008 campaign–and a mere 35 months away from the start of the primary nomination season.

Thus, the Crystal Ball is due for its first review of the 2008 presidential line-up. In this issue we’ll take a look at the Democrats, and next time we’ll examine the Republicans. In presidential politics there are only two questions that matter: Who would make the best nominee in each party, and who will actually be nominated? Neither question can be definitively answered this early, since campaigns unwind in unpredictable ways, much like a Hegelian coil. That won’t stop us, of course, but remember that these answers are tentative, and subject to dramatic change as conditions evolve and revelations occur.

The broad sweep of American history allows us to make an obvious prediction at the outset: Democrats will win back the presidency in one of the next several elections. Only very rarely does a political party stay out of power for more than three successive terms, and typically handover occurs after two terms, or eight years. The circumstances of each election year will have much to say about the result, of course, but Democrats themselves will also determine whether they will recover from this slump quickly or slowly. Will they…

The choice of the presidential nominee, and to a much lesser extent, the vice presidential ticket mate, will in large part answer these questions. While little-known candidates can shape their images substantially–remember Jimmy Carter in 1976, everything to everyone–the nationally recognized competitors are much less able to change what people know, or think they know, about them.

And that leads us directly to the early frontrunner, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. To judge by the early public opinion polls, she is a substantial frontrunner among Democrats. Blessed with nearly universal name identification, an almost unlimited ability to raise funds, and intense devotion from most of the party’s interest groups, Senator Clinton is so secure in her status as Democratic icon that she can afford to lift eyebrows among liberals by taking pro-defense stands and suggesting an open mind to the pro-life side of the spectrum. Add to this her pending, landslide reelection as senator in 2006. The GOP doesn’t even have a credible candidate, despite earlier promises to the contrary by the immediate past National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, Senator George Allen of Virginia. All of this is to her credit as a near-certain candidate.

Many Democrats believe that it will be impossible to stop her from securing the party nomination in 2008. The Crystal Ball disagrees for one very important reason: Senator Clinton is likely to win the general election only if 2008 turns out to be a strong Democratic year when any major Democrat would have prevailed. Despite her attempts to moderate, Senator Clinton is firmly fixed in the public’s mind as a Northeastern liberal from a deep blue state–rather reminiscent of another recent nominee from Massachusetts. Those Arkansas days are far behind her, and few in the Razorback State believe she could carry the only Southern state where it is plausible she might have a chance.

Why is Clinton’s ideology seen as so rigidly left, given the fact that National Journal’s voting studies show her to be more moderately liberal than commonly thought? Bluntly put, Senator Clinton will never escape the stifling confines of her husband’s controversial administration. A feminist in the 1992 campaign who wasn’t going to stay home and “bake cookies,” and who was sold as a co-president, she will always be associated with the “Hillary Care” health plan that failed disastrously, the scandals that plagued the Clinton administration from start to finish (Whitewater, Vince Foster’s suicide, the missing billing records, the last-minute pardons), and the searing Monica Lewinsky impeachment debacle that raised uncomfortable questions about the Clintons’ marital arrangement.

Assuming the marriage is now stable, the unavoidable fact is that Bill Clinton would be moving back into the White House with a President Hillary Clinton. Surveys have consistently shown that both Clintons still bear many scars from their time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and what has been forgotten about their many controversies will be re-investigated and refreshed during the course of a long 2008 campaign. Only a decisive rejection of the Bush regime and GOP actions in Congress could convince the electorate to overlook its raw feelings about the Clintons and to revisit that chapter of American history–one that was closed with considerable, widespread relief in early 2001.

Will Democrats realize this in early 2008 when the nominee is chosen? Who can say at this early stage? One has to assume that Hillary Clinton currently leads the primary subset among the three foremost liberals in the contest: Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards. Kerry unmistakably wants to run again, though virtually all party activists with whom we have talked show almost no enthusiasm for a second Kerry bid. Edwards has more potential, but how does a candidate with such a thin resume, no current office or national platform, and a massively disappointing 2004 showing in his own home state of North Carolina come back to the forefront? Democrats paid attention to the electoral math in the Tar Heel State; Kerry’s addition of Edwards to the ticket resulted in a virtually unchanged Bush landslide from 2000 to 2004 in that state. Edwards is seen as another Al Gore, who could not carry his own state. Speaking of Al Gore, some say he longs for a Nixon-like comeback after eight years, but there is no more popular fervor for him than for Kerry. Two other possible entries in the “liberal primary” are Senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. While both are respected within the party, it is extremely difficult to see how either could break into the inner circle. (To cover our posterior, we note that the same thing was said of Jimmy Carter at this point in the 1976 presidential cycle.)

Someone will eventually emerge to challenge the “Clinton inevitability,” and that politician may well be the winner of the “moderate primary” subset within the Democratic Party. In this category, the Great Mentioner–that is, the pundit class generally–has focused especially on Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana and Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, with others in hot pursuit, including Governors Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, Mike Easley of North Carolina, Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, and former General Wesley Clark of Arkansas–in rough order of credibility.

Evan Bayh has the longest and most impressive electoral resume, with five landslide victories for Indiana secretary of state, governor, and U.S. senator under his belt in that deeply red state. His voting record is a virtual mirror image of the national electorate–purely centrist, not too liberal and not too conservative, which would make him a formidable November candidate. His attractive family and warm, modest style would be glorious on TV. But does he have the passion and commitment to win? Can he rev up his often-bland rhetorical skills? Most of all, can he ever convince an increasingly liberal Democratic electorate to select him instead of an ideological soul mate like Hillary Clinton?

Mark Warner has a solid record as governor, a Southern address (always attractive to Democrats who remember that only Southerners Carter and Clinton have won since 1968), and a fortune often estimated at $200 million. Yet he is just a one-term state executive, prevented by Virginia’s constitution from running again, and he has never held any other elective office. Out of office in early 2006, Warner will have to struggle to stay relevant in the years leading up to 2008. A successful challenge to Republican Senator George Allen in 2006 would achieve that, but Warner appears disinclined to take the chance of losing and being eliminated from the White House sweepstakes.

Bill Richardson offers the Democrats the opportunity to bring back Hispanics and Latinos in overwhelming numbers. The GOP made gains in 2004 among this fast-growing ethnic group–the exact dimensions of the gains are disputed–but the Hispanic Richardson would deliver New Mexico and possibly Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada. A former congressman, U.N. ambassador, and energy secretary in the Clinton administration, Richardson faces an easy gubernatorial reelection in 2006. Should he not be the presidential choice, Richardson would be a prize vice-presidential catch for almost any Democratic nominee.

Several other moderates, noted above, cannot be written off at this early stage, but there is no definitive sign any of them are running as yet. Tom Vilsack may or may not seek reelection as governor of Iowa in 2006 (he said “no” to a third term, but he may be reconsidering), yet he was among the finalists for John Kerry’s VEEP in 2004. Governor Phil Bredesen is wealthy and a sure bet to capture a second term in the Volunteer State in 2006. Governor Mike Easley has considerably more political strength than John Edwards in the Tar Heel State, having won his second decisive gubernatorial victory in 2004, but few in North Carolina are betting that he will run for president. Governor Rod Blagojevich has a good chance to keep the Illinois statehouse in 2006, and he certainly has the ambition to seek the White House. However, Illinois has become a very blue state and Blagojevich would add little to a Democratic ticket in that sense. Wesley Clark still has his advocates, but the 2004 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination made many gaffes and ran a less-than-memorable race. The lesson: political experience matters.

Let’s not forget that the 2006 midterm elections may add one or more superstars to the Democratic firmament, and they may decide to make hay while the sun shines. Equally possible, though, is that these new party heroes, like Illinois Senator Barack Obama, may decide to get some seasoning first. (Obama wisely ruled himself out of 2008. His time will come soon enough.)

As we conclude, the Crystal Ball makes one final prediction, laced with sincere humility. Absolutely no one can foresee the next several, mist-shrouded, tumultuous years. Any of the Democratic candidates we have named here could get nominated, and then elected, under the right set of circumstances. Under a different set of political realities, all of them could lose, and a politician not on today’s radar screen could climb Mount Rushmore with a chisel in hand. And isn’t that why we are so fascinated with 2008, and why we watch so closely, even with 1,349 days remaining until the election?