IT MAY HAVE BEEN inauguration weekend, but the minds of many at the Iowa State Society Ball were already four years in the future.
A leading presidential candidate for 2016 was in their midst, working the crowd, welcomed with adulation by all. Riding a wave of energy, this political maestro took the stage with Iowa’s congressional delegation and, his suit crackling under the klieg lights, gave a fiery address that left his audience swelled with hope and wondering whether they’d gazed upon the next leader of the free world.
“I am proud to be president of the United States, but I am prouder to be Barack—I mean, excuse me,” Joe Biden said with a grin. “I am proud to be vice president of the United States, but I am prouder to be…President Barack Obama’s vice president.”
The Iowans went wild.
Joseph R. Biden, both vice president of the United States and Barack Obama’s vice president, is also one of the Democrats’ leading White House contenders for 2016. In fact, if Hillary Clinton decides not to run, he’s arguably the front-runner heading into the primary. According to Politico, “[I]t might very well come down to a private chat with Hillary Clinton about who should finish what Barack Obama started.” One leading Democrat told the newspaper, “He’s intoxicated by the idea.”
We’re a long way from 2016, and most of us are still nursing our wounds (and hangovers) from the last presidential race. But despite the time horizon, the media has been chattering incessantly about whether the GOP can electorally survive.
Fair enough. Let’s step onto the 2016 chessboard, no matter how premature it might seem.
Republicans certainly have their problems. But focusing obsessively on them obscures the woeful state of affairs on the other side of the aisle. That Biden, known first for his motor mouth and second for the verbal wreckage it leaves behind, is a top contender suggests something has gone direly wrong in the land of Democrats.
WELCOME TO THE DEMOCRAT CLUBHOUSE, the D Team, filled with failed policymakers, septuagenarians, and ghosts of elections past. If the GOP has a demographics problem, then the Democrats have a talent problem, and a very serious one at that.
The party’s shallow bench has been whispered about in Washington for some time, but it became painfully evident at the Democratic National Convention last year. Political conventions are supposed to be stage-managed beauty contests where parties parade their most winsome figures. But of the three most gripping speeches in Charlotte, two came from Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, relics of the 1990s both. San Antonio mayor Julian Castro was the third, and while Castro is a kinetic speaker, he is, after all, just a mayor. And it’s hard to see what his next step might be in bright-red Texas.
The promotion of Castro—he was gleefully hyped and gave the keynote address—was a peek into the problems Democrats face. At one point during the convention, Bill Clinton implored, “Just ask the mayors who are here!” That seemed to include half the speaker list: Castro, Rahm Emanuel (Chicago), Cory Booker (Newark), R.T. Rybak (Minneapolis), Michael Nutter (Philadelphia), Anthony Foxx (Charlotte). The GOP so cleaned Democrats’ clocks in 2010 that the party had to dip down to the local level to find fresh faces. What other stars do they have at the national level? Nancy Pelosi? Harry Reid?
The convention felt at times like the Wizard of Oz, with Hillary Clinton as Dorothy, leading dozens of mayoral Munchkins into battle. Hillary wasn’t actually in attendance, but her presence was tangibly felt through her husband, whose down-home, red-faced speech was a transparent audition for another Clinton presidential run.
Five months after Charlotte, on February 1, Hillary stepped down as secretary of state and America crossed a threshold: For the first time since 1983, neither Bill nor Hillary held public office. And while the streets around the Spectator’s building that evening were filled with people dancing and firing soon-to-be-banned semi-automatics in the air, our jubilation was ultimately short-lived. Hillary’s resignation, however sweet, portends a 2016 run. She denied this, of course. She announced that she “wasn’t inclined” to launch another campaign. But she’s also insatiably ambitious and driven by her husband, who wants a shot at scrubbing his stained legacy. Any consideration of the D Team must begin with Clinton, its strongest hypothetical member.
If Hillary does fire up the exploratory committee one last time, she’ll be the inevitable front-runner in the race. The left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling last month found her leading the Democratic pack with 58 percent of the vote. (Biden, coming in second, had only 19 percent.) She also enjoys strong approval ratings nationwide. But Hillary’s popularity owes mainly to the fact that she’s been off the national stage for four years, tending to her duties abroad, avoiding the messy Capitol Hill budget dogfights. By contrast, back in April 2008 during her arduous primary contest with Barack Obama, her approval rating bottomed out at 37 percent, according to an NBC poll.
Clinton is one of those politicians who can project a nebulous, stately glow, winning people’s hearts with an abstract pantsuited professionalism as she steps off a Lear jet with a foreign diplomat. It’s when she opens her mouth that the problems begin. Anyone worried about the prospect of a Clinton presidency should review a few of her verbal stumbles from the 2008 campaign.
An exhaustive list would overflow this page, but includes: lying about taking fire when she was in Bosnia, citing Bobby Kennedy’s assassination as a reason for staying in the race, comparing her effort to seat Michigan and Florida delegates with the civil rights movement, and blasting Obama for not winning over “hardworking Americans, white Americans.”
Hillary is presently popular, but that doesn’t mean that the American electorate is crying out for another President Clinton. The very words conjure up a past larded with tawdry sexual scandal, pardon kickbacks, and other sundry corrupt deeds. Primary voters tend to be both populist and forward-looking, and the Clintons are neither. Perhaps Hillary, who will be 69 in 2016, will realize this and opt out. But even if she doesn’t, the door would be open for a repeat of 2008, and she could find herself outflanked by an idealist who comes out of nowhere.
But who? There’s no Barack Obama, no liberal savior on the D Team. The Democrats’ fearsome mayoral platoon can’t produce presidential material. There’s Joe Biden the jester, but he’s just as moored to the past as Mrs. Clinton. Who else?
MARTIN O’MALLEY will almost certainly be a contender. The elfish Maryland governor has been dropping hints that he’ll run since 2011, and he’s term-limited in 2014, which conveniently opens his calendar. But despite endless hype, O’Malley remains eclipsed. The Washington Examiner reports that he has only $28,550 in the coffers of his political action committee. The problem, one politics professor told the Examiner, is that anyone not named Clinton or Biden is “second tier, just by the nature of who they are.”
These concerns hint at another problem with O’Malley. The Maryland governor seems scrappy on the Sunday talk shows (where he’s a constant presence thanks to his proximity to Washington). But he remains largely untested at the national level. His prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention last year was a feeble drip, a “labored routine” replete with “corny gesticulations,” as our own George Neumayr put it in a recent O’Malley profile.
But O’Malley’s heaviest albatross is the state of his state. He came to office plugging his “progressive” agenda; he’ll leave it with a $712 million projected structural deficit. Maryland has the 12th-highest tax burden in the nation, higher than any of its neighbors except Pennsylvania. In business friendliness, Maryland is ranked 31st according to CNBC.
And while O’Malley benefits from the government boom in adjacent Washington, D.C., his most resounding economic achievement may be exporting his own people to Virginia, thanks to punitive tax rates: 40,000 of them between 2007 and 2010, according to an analysis by Change Maryland. That study, confirming as it does everything conservatives say about liberal policies, could do more damage to O’Malley’s chances than anything else. (This would be especially true if Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s mostly low-tax governor, goes through with his own 2016 presidential run. Rarely have the failures of liberalism and the successes of conservatism be so juxtaposed.)
New York’s Andrew Cuomo is another Democratic governor widely expected to run. Cuomo made his biggest splash by presiding over New York’s legalization of gay marriage in 2011. Unlike O’Malley, he’s had some fiscal success. Yes, New York has the highest tax burden, the 14th-highest unemployment rate, and the 16th-worst business climate in America, all of which would be fodder for a successful red-state governor. But Cuomo came to office in 2011 with a $9 billion budget deficit; he’s helped reduce it to a projected $1.3 billion. And while he restructured New York’s tax code, he never significantly raised taxes. This year, he made a no-new-taxes pledge.
All this might seem like a credit to Cuomo. But Democratic primaries are decided by the most left-leaning activists and voters in the party. Cuomo not only resisted calls to raise taxes on the rich, but he also passed sweeping pension reforms and, until recently, was interested in legalizing fracking in New York. A governor with a reputation as a moderate who enrages labor unions and environmentalists, two key liberal constituencies, could find himself handicapped in a Democratic primary.
And whatever Cuomo’s done for New York, it’s overshadowed by the enormous economic damage he did to the country. As head of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001, Cuomo ordered the Federal Housing Administration to increase its mortgage loan limits to irresponsible levels. He also passed a new set of standards requiring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to gobble up more loans made to low-income home buyers. The result was a frenzy of sub-prime lending that ultimately razed the economy and left government entities saddled with debt amounting to more than $140 billion today.
Two of Cuomo’s neighbors, Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut and Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, have also been mentioned as presidential material. But both have said they won’t run in 2016. That’s left desperate progressives running to Elizabeth Warren, the recently elected Massachusetts senator and leftist darling. A Warren 2016 run is highly improbable, although it wouldn’t be the first time a far-left senator emerged from rookiedom to capture the Democratic nomination.
Still, a dark horse is a real possibility on the D Team. The most likely out-of-nowhere candidate is former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer. Ideologically, Schweitzer is a red-state mixed bag, the sort who supports both coal and alternative energy sources; who wants single-payer health care, but growls, “None of your damn business” when asked how many guns he owns. He’s articulate, popular back home, wears a bolo tie, and is almost certainly running for president (a friend of mine active in Montana politics said he’d put money on it). Like Cuomo, Schweitzer would face opposition from liberals, but he’s far more gregarious and likeable than the dour New Yorker.
Asked about his presidential ambitions on CNN late last year, Schweitzer wasn’t exactly coy:
I’m governor of Montana until January. At that point, I’ll no longer have a governor’s mansion, I won’t have a driver, I won’t have security, so I’ll have a little time on my hands. I think I did mention that I have a warm regard for the people of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Rare is the Montanan who finds warm regard for the people of New Hampshire and who isn’t running for president.
Schweitzer is one of the strongest players on the D Team and could bring about a repeat of 1992, in which a charismatic red-state governor emerges to lead the party. But it’s important to remember that dark horses are most likely to emerge when the front-runners are weak. If Hillary Clinton decides not to run and the field is helmed by the paper-thin Biden and O’Malley, a Democratic dark horse may not only be ideal, but necessary for survival.
Given that the election is almost four years away, such discussion borders on the sort of irresponsible speculation practiced by quivering Washington political reporters hooked up to IVs that drip with Gallup data. But the next time some moderate wino starts lecturing that the GOP must adopt the platform of the Sandinista National Liberation Front if it wants to win again, conservatives should embrace a little irresponsibility and ruminate on how the D Team compares to Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Chris Christie.
Republicans had a weak bench in 2012. Now it’s the Democrats’ turn to play in the minor leagues.