Democrats 2016: Clinton’s Cloak of Inevitability


Every Republican debate appears consequential because of the large number of candidates, the changing cast of characters on stage, and the clashes among controversial colorful contenders on hot-button topics.

The same cannot be said on the Democratic side. There just isn’t much drama left in the Democrats’ search for a nominee. While Hillary Clinton was always a considerable favorite, her first debate performance, coupled with Vice President Joe Biden’s decision not to run and Clinton’s successful Benghazi Committee testimony, established (or reestablished) her as the heavy favorite.

At the second Democratic debate last Saturday night, Clinton’s performance was much shakier than in the initial encounter. She made a major misstep in wrapping herself in 9/11 to explain her close ties to, and millions in donations and speaking fees from, Wall Street. Almost everyone who is not a Clinton partisan recognized her jarring non-sequitur. Now 68 years old, Clinton also identified herself with the distant past — “I come from the ’60s” — in a way that could not have appealed to younger and future-oriented voters.

And despite her deep experience in foreign affairs as a former secretary of state, Clinton’s answers about the enhanced ISIS threat were boilerplate. She missed an opportunity to get out in front of the parade and short-circuit the ongoing criticisms of her party’s views on terrorism. Democrats have some tough decisions to make regarding the entry of 10,000 Syrian refugees, as promised by President Obama, as well as the puzzling semantical refusal to call the culprits what they clearly are, Islamic extremists, which is no more a condemnation of Islam than the references to Catholic and Protestant extremists during Northern Ireland’s lengthy conflict were a condemnation of Catholicism or Protestantism. (Republicans have their own problems, of course, not least some candidates’ evident enthusiasm for another significant boots-on-the-ground commitment in the Middle East while memories of President Bush’s unpopular Iraq War are all too fresh.)

For these reasons, some judged Clinton the debate’s loser (see, for example, this compelling piece by the Washington Post’s James Hohmann). But loser to whom? A central reason why Clinton survived with only scratches was that she shared the stage with just two others, both highly implausible party presidential nominees. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has run a spirited race so far, and he speaks to issues such as income inequality that move the Democratic base. But even many party faithful who agree with him understand that he is too far left to win a general election. Sanders’ also seemed hesitant to discuss at length foreign and defense policy — not areas of his expertise but essential portfolios for any occupant of the Oval Office.

The other candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, was articulate and forceful enough, yet he is barely an asterisk in the polls and low on money. The rationale for his candidacy is not especially compelling, even less so now that foreign policy has moved to the top issue bracket.

It’s no surprise that the post-debate CBS poll showed Clinton the easy winner, and a focus group of 33 undecided Democratic voters in Iowa overwhelmingly backed Clinton as well.

Maybe Clinton’s debate gaffes can be exploited by the eventual GOP nominee next fall, but otherwise, there will be little impact from a show hidden on a Saturday night with a much reduced audience and swallowed up by a much bigger story, the ISIS attacks in Paris. The next two Democratic debates are scheduled for odd times, too — the next one is on Saturday, Dec. 19, just before Christmas; the other is on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Everyone in the upper echelon denies it, but those not born yesterday or the day before understand that the party hierarchy scheduled the handful of debates to minimize any cost to the frontrunner. (Will Clinton regret having missed more debate practice when she faces a rigorously tested GOP candidate? We shall see.)

Anyway, our judgment is that, barring an indictment or a serious health problem, Clinton will breeze to the nomination. Yes, there’s a chance Sanders will rally and win Iowa and/or New Hampshire. As we’ve argued before, though, those two small liberal states with near lily-white participants are probably the peak of his primary season. The real question is whether Sanders will hurt her by refusing to bow out gracefully in March or April, instead insisting on carrying his challenge through June or to the convention. Sanders is more unpredictable than most.

With a high degree of certainty, then, we know the identity of the Democratic nominee. Whether she emerges from the convention looking strong or weak will depend on many factors. Has the Democratic Party reunited and is it enthusiastic and optimistic about the coming campaign? Do the Republicans select an electable nominee? There are some on the ballot, for sure, but also a number of choices that would prove disastrous. With deep divisions in its ranks, can the GOP pull together and get its many ideological factions and players on board? Naturally, the mega-factors (the shape of the economy, the terrorism crisis, President Obama’s job approval, and possibly scandal) will be just as illuminating and perhaps more determinative.

As many observers of the Clintons have noted for decades, they are at their best when cornered and needing to excel, and at their worst when high-flying and convinced their future is secure. We doubt Clinton can find a way to snatch primary defeat from the jaws of victory, but given what happened in 2008, we promise never to take our eyes off those big jaws.

Table 1: Crystal Ball ranking of Democratic presidential candidates

First Tier: The Undisputed Frontrunner
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Hillary Clinton
Ex-Secretary of State
•Stronger than she was eight years ago
•Overwhelming support from party leaders
•Dual support from women, minorities hard to overcome, particularly after Iowa and New Hampshire
•Private e-mails, Clinton Foundation scandals still playing out. These are the biggest threats to her nomination.
•Danger signs in early states could snowball
•Keeping Bill in check — and on the porch
Second Tier: The Leading Challenger
Bernie Sanders
Senator (Ind.),
•Positioned to do well in New Hampshire, maybe Iowa
•Small-donor fundraising strength
•Drawing big crowds
•Outsider in what is very much an insider process
•Continues to generate little excitement among nonwhite voters
•Big crowds don’t predict wins
Third Tier: The Oxygen Seeker
Martin O’Malley
Ex-Governor, MD
•Liberal record and policy achievements •Baltimore baggage
•Candidacy largely invisible so far