The one candidate who could still challenge Clinton (but probably won’t).

It’s getting late for any Democrat to challenge Hillary Clinton. Any serious rival would need instant name recognition, a compelling issue or two, demonstrated competence as a presidential candidate, nothing to lose, no reason to care about the Clintons’ future favor, and lots of money. One qualifies.

Jonathan Bernstein gives (and Ed Kilgore endorses) plenty of reasons to think that it will be hard for any Democrat to challenge Hillary Clinton for the nomination. Both focus on the actions of the party elites—broadly understood—who decide the nomination. Ed notes that the analogy of 2008 is inapt, since at this stage back then Edwards had made tremendous organizational progress and Obama commanded universal fame and a unique ability to build up quickly. A couple of days ago Nate Silver noted that Clinton is very popular among Democrats of all ideological tendencies, and has racked up an unprecedented number of endorsements from Democratic members of Congress, again from across the party spectrum. But Jonathan has the most exhaustive list of what seriously running for president takes:

During the invisible primary, potential candidates introduce themselves to party actors and demonstrate their fealty to the party’s policy positions, their capacity for running a national campaign and the skills and abilities that promise to make them reliable presidents. They also begin to demonstrate that they can attract enthusiastic support from party voters (before the actual primaries and caucuses), and that they would make solid general election candidates. But not all candidates begin at the same starting line. Hillary Clinton had already achieved pretty much everything on the 2016 nomination checklist by November 2012. By contrast, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, have a lot more to do. The more a candidate must achieve, the more time it will take to do it.

This all sounds completely right. Any Democratic candidate jumping in at this point will have to have already demonstrated party loyalty, actual or likely executive skills, and the ability to win a majority of votes in both a party primary and a general election. Moreover, it would help if that candidate had a record of early and loud opposition to doing “stupid [stuff]” in the Middle East—the same issue that sank Hillary in 2008, and that deserves to sink her now—and a history of running, long before Elizabeth Warren, as a candidate of “the people” against “powerful forces.” It would help if the candidate had vast personal wealth, maybe not enough to self-finance a whole campaign, but enough to buy a campaign infrastructure and the advertising to compete immediately in early primary states, as well as strong and deep connections to Silicon Valley, the only serious rival to Wall Street (Clinton’s base) as a source of campaign cash. It would help, morally if not politically, if the candidate were universally regarded as caring fervently and persistently—as Clinton palpably does not—about the biggest issue of our time, global warming. Finally, it would be great if the candidate had a demonstrated willingness to tick off both Clintons, and were old and accomplished enough not to care about the future consequences of doing so if the challenge failed—though let’s say not too much older than Hillary Clinton, or a tiny bit younger.

No, I don’t have any evidence that Al Gore has any interest in coming out of political retirement; I see as of a few minutes ago that he has more interest in suing Al Jazeera (though that would hardly hurt a campaign). But if he did, and if he ran as the anti-war and populist—yet impeccably mainstream—candidate that Hillary clearly is not and has no desire to be, things would suddenly get interesting. And if he’s not, they won’t.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

9 thoughts on “The one candidate who could still challenge Clinton (but probably won’t).”

  1. The challenge I'd see for Gore would be on the "enthusiastic support from party voters" issue. Losing your home state isn't a ringing endorsement for enthusiasm. (My memory of 2000, though it may be distorted, is that neither candidate inspired the sort of enthusiasm among supporters that Barack Obama did in 2008-or that Dean, and both Paul's, inspire.)

    I'd add another piece of the invisible primary: demonstrated "not-too-polarizing" qualities. Both parties are trying not to nominate another Goldwater or McGovern – someone whose supporters LOVE them but absolutely no one else is going to consider. That consideration seems to have eliminated Dean, Paul, Santorum, and possibly Gephardt.

    1. My memory of 2000 is that neither candidate really inspired enthusiasm, but a large part of that was that those were not enthusiastic times. We still all kinda believed in technocracy, so big emotional appeals were out. Nowadays they're in. (Which is why, by the way, "not too polarizing" won't fly. As long as someone has a D by their name, they'll be counted as terribly polarizing.)

      Oh, and one nitpick for the original post: it's not really Gore suing Al Jazeera, it's the investment group he is part of, and not for anything interesting.

  2. I would be interested to hear more about this sentence — "Moreover, it would help if that candidate had a record of early and loud opposition to doing “stupid [stuff]” in the Middle East—the same issue that sank Hillary in 2008, and that deserves to sink her now—and a history of running, long before Elizabeth Warren, as a candidate of “the people” against “powerful forces.”" It is a little Henry Jamesian for me. Both parts. Not sure what you're saying.

    Overall, this is exactly the kind of thing that's got me in a serious funk. I don't see how I can vote for another Clinton. New Democrats are great for the planet (fewer wars), not so good for this country, imo. They just aren't going to get us where we need to go. Leaving aside whether or not any other kind of Dem can win.

    Believe it or not, there are reasons to run for prez besides actually winning. We *need* challengers, and not the two you mention. I want a barnburner or I may just stay the bleep home. I am that upset. And I doubt if it's just me.

      1. I live in Cali where it's safe to have a snit. If l lived elsewhere, I'd probably have to rethink. Who knows. Maybe I will calm down by the election.

        Still mad at the Greens. Poor b*******.

    1. Gore was an early and vocal critic of authorizing a war in Iraq, and his whole campaign theme in 2000 was that he would fight for ordinary people against "powerful forces" (oil companies, corporate health care, and I believe Wall Street).

      Would that Hillary were like her husband in his relative distaste for foreign wars. Alas, she's much more of a reflexive interventionist than that–not necessarily good for the planet at all in that sense.

      1. Okay, thanks. I voted for Gore. I don't have a problem with him but I see no signs of him being interested in running.

        I have, no doubt, a ton less Hillary data than you on foreign policy. I have no intention of reading that long book (just because of time mgt). I wonder though, could there be a gender communication bias? ie, she has to talk a bit tougher so people don't think she's a pushover? I do view her as a highly competent person, one who would not be prone to rash decisions. One of my favorite things ever was when Pres. Obama said something like, I like to ask questions first, and (maybe) shoot later. How long as a species did it take for us to have a leader with the self-confidence to say that? At least it finally happened! (I bet others here will point out bajillion other leaders who said stuff like that. Maybe. Anyway, I'm just glad it happened.)

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