Hillary Clinton holds a historically rare commanding position for a non-incumbent in a race for an open presidential nomination. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum and it seems inevitable that someone will challenge her and, given the state of play, the challenge will almost certainly come from her left and will paint her as too moderate and especially too cozy with Wall Street.
I choose to believe Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s many statements that it won’t be her. Sen. Bernie Sanders (who actually isn’t even a Democrat) would like to figure out a way he could do it. Former Sen. Jim Webb is publicly talking about running, although he might not present a left alternative to Clinton.
In her Washington Post column Monday, Katrina Vanden Heuvel (who is also editor of The Nation magazine) writes that former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley “is almost certainly running for president. And he’s determined to make his voice heard despite some pundits dismissing his ability to mount a ‘credible’ challenge to Clinton for the party’s nomination.”
Although he is far from a household name nationally, O’Malley won two races for mayor of Baltimore and two for governor of Maryland. His presidential ambitions have been long known to those who pay attention to him, but that’s not such a large group. When a poll showed him attracting 11 percent in a race against Clinton, O’Malley cracked: “Who did this poll, my mom?”
Vanden Heuvel is clearly among those who wants to see Clinton challenged from the left. She described O’Malley as developing “a progressive, populist message.” She wrote:
“Specifically, he has called for reinstating Glass-Steagall banking regulations, hiking the capital gains tax, increasing the minimum wage, raising the threshold for overtime pay and strengthening collective bargaining rights. And while he is far more comfortable discussing his policies than his potential opponents, O’Malley took a perceived shot at Clinton in South Carolina when he declared, ‘Triangulation is not a strategy that will move America forward.’”
Seems likely to me that Vanden Heuvel hopes a challenge from the left will pull Clinton in that direction and make commitments to progressive issue positions that she will take into the White House. There is a contrary and conventional line of analysis that believes that the sooner a presidential candidate can move to the center and craft a message appealing to swing voters, the more likely that candidate is to win. If Clinton can occupy a position close to the center of the political spectrum while Republican candidates are trying to fire up the party base, her chances of winning in November go up.
I understand that analysis, and it may be correct. It is certainly traditional thinking. But I was struck by some remarks made by Dan Pfeiffer to Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine on the occasion of Pfeiffer’s departure from the White House. Pfeiffer left with the title of “senior adviser” to Obama and had been on the team since early in Obama’s first presidential campaign. He took on a version of the conventional wisdom about needing to move to the center to find success. From the Chait piece:
“The original premise of Obama’s first presidential campaign was that he could reason with Republicans — or else, by staking out obviously reasonable stances, force them to moderate or be exposed as extreme and unyielding. It took years for the White House to conclude that this was false, and that, in Pfeiffer’s words, ‘what drives 90 percent of stuff is not the small tactical decisions or the personal relationships but the big, macro political incentives.’”
Pfeiffer says that the Obamians gradually learned that taking middlish positions to court moderate Republican support doesn’t work. These two paragraphs summarize the alternative view to which Pfeiffer now subscribes:
“Many political journalists imagine that the basic tension for the White House lies between Obama’s liberal base and appealing to Americans at the center, who will be crucial for tipping elections.
“Pfeiffer believes the dynamic is, in fact, the opposite: ‘The incentive structure moves from going after the diminishing middle to motivating the base.’ Ever since Republicans took control of the House four years ago, attempts to court Republicans have mostly failed while simultaneously dividing Democratic voters. Obama’s most politically successful maneuvers, by contrast, have all been unilateral and liberal. ‘Whenever we contemplate bold progressive action,’ Pfeiffer said, ‘whether that’s the president’s endorsement of marriage equality, or coming out strong on power-plant rules to reduce current pollution, on immigration, on net neutrality, you get a lot of hemming and hawing in advance about what this is going to mean: Is this going to alienate people? Is this going to hurt the president’s approval ratings? What will this mean in red states? And yet this hesitation has always proved overblown: There’s never been a time when we’ve taken progressive action and regretted it.'”
Bear in mind that Pfeiffer seems to be explicitly talking about governing, not campaigning. But Obama did, after all, upset the favorite in 2008 — namely Hillary Clinton — by exciting the Democrats’ liberal base and generating higher turnout among groups that skew ideologically left but often don’t turn out to vote.