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Hillary: Next In Line

It's been about 2 months since I wrote anything substantive about the upcoming 2016 election. So I felt like it's a good time to return to the topic with primaries upcoming (finally) and media hype blowing up about Bernie narrowing the gap in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Back in September, I wrote about the "dumb reasons" people think Hillary is in trouble. It was the height of the e-mail controversy, but my number one reason you may discount Hillary Clinton was this about Bernie Sanders...

You're a Bernie Sanders fan. I love Bernie, too. His policy positions are probably better than Hillary's though the two are very close. He's to the left of her in substantial ways, but given that she's running more as an Obama heir than the old Clinton moderate, there's not a lot to rumble about unless you're a "true" progressive...Bernie's problem is demographic. He does great among white progressives in New Hampshire and Iowa. But good luck with the more moderate Dems in other places around the nation. Hillary polls at 70% approval with minorities. Bernie polls at about 10%. That's a tough road. Not to mention that party big shots have already been endorsing Hillary with current office holders and high level donors lining up behind her. Bernie lacks the fundraising support, the voter support, and let's not forget he's only recently a Democrat in the way that Trump is only recently a Republican. I don't doubt the sincerity of either one. But there's not a lot of built-in support lines within each party for them. 
What I wrote then is largely still true. I'd correct myself now to say 1) Sanders' policy positions have become a liability throughout the debate process especially on foreign relations. But he's not exactly clubbing Hillary over the head with economics for being a "socialist." They differ in significant ways, but it's been Hillary's policy positions that make the most sense over the last few weeks. Sanders has become a good sound bite for social media, but he's failed to back that up with depth. You can argue, of course. But whatever policy positions are going on for Sanders, they aren't winning chunks of voters to his corner to make up the demographic deficit he'll face in more diverse areas of the nation.

2) The other point I'd correct myself on is fundraising. While much of Sanders' grassroots fundraising effort has been media hype about the number of small donors, it can't go without comment that he's done well in that. Clinton and Sanders are more evenly matched over the last weeks, but overall it's more like $80 million to $40 million with Hillary holding double. It speaks to the larger issue of the media looking for a horse race. Sanders has, indeed, gotten closer...but the media is more than willing to run with that fact to portray events as closer than they really are. Even before things closed up a bit in NH/IA, there were complaints about the Hillary "coronation." Which is just a way for people who hate non-competitive elections to voice their dismay. But they're usually non-competitive for a reason. Bernie Sanders may win one or both of the first states but he's trailing by nearly 30 points nationally.

After last night's Democratic Debate--the last before voting begins--there has been a lot of talk about, well, Bernie Sanders. Because, let's be honest, it's Bernie Sanders voters driving the conversation that would otherwise be the Hillary show. Not that there is anything wrong with keeping key issues at the forefront. There seems to be a growing frustration from both camps, however, that the early primary season is both not close enough or too close. Depending on your point of view.

For Bernie Sanders followers, he seems to be so close and his movement so strong that they can see--with just a bit more momentum--victory. Of course, Sanders crowds haven't exactly been Barack Obama sized crowds from 2008. But impressive. The inability of Bernie Sanders to sway a majority of the party is also just frustrating enough to lead to some lashing out and bitterness. The tide is working against Sanders supporters even if they've done exceptionally well so far.

On the other side, Hillary supporters see Sanders as unable to get "over the hump" and wasting precious time, energy, and resources. I don't think any Hillary fans expect Bernie to roll over and play dead...or quit. But they do expect (if I can play psychology a bit) a polite show then moving aside. I think some of Hillary's supporters feel like Bernie is a little too serious and speaking a bit out of turn by trying to hijack the party. Even if nobody will say it. For my two cents, I'd analyze the current Democratic split more as a rather rough faction of die-hard progressives who don't like the Democratic Party's usual levers and pulleys. The hard left is essentially mad they've been outcast despite putting in such a good effort.

What you have to realize about 2016 that's different than 2008, however, is that there's no real battle for the soul of the party at the moment. As I wrote on Twitter earlier today, Barack Obama remains more popular with Democrats than either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. He's a progressive, successful two-term President who could probably get a 3rd term himself if he were Constitutionally allowed. Which leads to my larger point about Hillary vs Bernie...Bernie has no legitimate claim to the Obama legacy. Hillary, on the other hand, has experience in the administration, time served during a failed Presidential bid, and no significant ideological differences with Obama to sidestep. Oh, for sure she will chart a different course. But from a policy standpoint, she's running for Obama's third term. Smartly. Bernie cannot claim to be representing Obama's 3rd term and neither is he more popular than Obama himself. So his attempt to turn the party in a different direction has fallen on deaf ears. Largely because this was not a "future of the party" election like it was in 2008.

I will say this to conclude...while Hillary may be the natural heir to the Obama Presidency, it's going to be interesting to see how her VP pick will alter the dialogue within the party. Elizabeth Warren is a great choice for a variety of reasons--but mostly to pacify the hard left wing. Hillary Clinton's time in office at 1600 Pennsylvania will leave Democrats no obvious future heir. Not one that can be seen from here. Her cabinet choices, especially, will be key given that so few Democrats exist in state/local offices. The real problem for the party isn't national popularity, per se, but a dearth of rising stars. The 2024 election--barring some Warren VP as a next in line--could be where the real ugly battleground for party control happens. Though my guess is by that point something else will have happened along the way to send the discourse in a different direction than we can imagine. Given the uproar between Obama and Hillary in 2008, it would have been hard to foresee the day in 2016 where Hillary builds upon his success and popularity all the way to the White House as a straight-down-the-road liberal.