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The Democrats’ Weak Bench and the Paradox of Power

Hillary Clinton’s troubles reveal how the Democrats have hollowed out their party. Their greed for power has undermined their ability to hold on to it.


Over the weekend, a New York Post headline blared that the Obama administration was responsible for leaking news about Hillary Clinton’s secretive e-mail practices. It’s one of those stories that you really, really want to be true. How much fun would it be if there were a blue-on-blue feud between the Obama and Clinton establishments? But the story is a little too good, so good that it probably isn’t true. And since the piece is written by Edward Klein, who has a certain track record of producing sensational stories from suspiciously anonymous sources, this seems even more likely.

But the very prospect that a prominent wing of her own party might be gunning to bring down Hillary Clinton highlights the Democrats’ 2016 dilemma: if not Hillary Clinton, then who?

The Democrats have an astonishingly weak bench of potential 2016 presidential challengers. National Journal runs down the list, and it’s not a very impressive roster. True, one of these could emerge, maybe a Democratic senator—Amy Klobuchar? Kirsten Gillibrand? Mark Warner?—but there’s no one with a lot of name recognition, even among Democrats, or much of a national political organization. There’s Vice-President Joe Biden, but I suspect his eccentricity is mostly tolerated because of the relative unimportance of his office. And then there’s Elizabeth Warren, who says she’s not running and who, besides, has all the down-to-earth, populist, all-American charisma you would expect from member of the Harvard Faculty Club. Other national Democrats include a bunch of septuagenarians—Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the like—who are hardly up-and-coming young saviors of the party.

How is it that the Democrats have hollowed out their party so much that they do not have an extensive roster of young leaders waiting in the wings?

It has long been observed that Bill Clinton started the process by placing his own political needs—and boy, did he have needs—above the needs of his party. The Clintons were always so consumed in building up themselves that they couldn’t spare any effort to build up allies and successors, and they always kept their supporters scrambling to construct ad hoc lines of defense against the latest scandal. Thus the situation today, where there’s the Clinton machine, and outside of it there’s nothing.

Barack Obama continued this hollowing out, but for different reasons—and with more complicity from his party. He and Democratic leaders in Congress made the decision to sacrifice their congressional majorities in order to shove through a series of deeply unpopular initiatives—ObamaCare, and more recently his executive orders on issues like immigration. The backlash from the public didn’t just take away the Democrats’ majorities. It specifically swept away the moderate Democrats from places like the South, leaving the Democrats with leaders who are deeply entrenched in far-left redoubts like Boston and San Francisco but who have no track record of appealing to voters anywhere else in the country.

What they may not have anticipated is how badly this would hit them on the state level, where they have been wiped out in the statehouses. This further weakens the bench by ending the career of many a young Democratic politician before it even begins. It’s like a big league baseball team trying to recruit players without access to the “farm teams” where rising stars can gain experience and demonstrate their talent. And as with the effect on Congress, this specifically deprives the Democrats of talent outside a narrow demographic that dominates big cities and the coasts.

Michael Barone suggests this effect: “The geographically clustered Obama coalition—blacks, Hispanics (in some states), gentry liberals—tends to elect officeholders with little incentive to compile records that would make them competitive in target states and capable of winning crossover votes.” A few years ago, this was called the Emerging Democratic Majority. But that theory is in shambles, and it’s looking like Democrats actually pulled a Reverse Southern Strategy. They were so intent on basing their electoral future on educated young people and racial minorities that they thoroughly alienate everyone else: whites, southerners, blue-collar workers, suburbanites—all the people they thought they could do without and found out that they can’t.

One more factor is suggested by Dana Milbank’s typically unsubtle takedown of the potential candidacy of Martin O’Malley. (Who? Precisely. He’s the former governor of Maryland.) Milbank points out that O’Malley is selling himself like a candidate for city council, talking about his administration’s proficiency at filling potholes and such rousing national causes as this one: “We took measurable actions to reduce storm-water runoff and to expand the number of acres planted with winter cover crops, to upgrade clean technology at all of our sewer treatment plants. We reduced nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment levels by 14, 15 and 18 percent, respectively.”

This suggests a deeper problem with the Democratic bench. If Milbank can be believed (and to be sure, there’s some doubt), O’Malley is running as a competent technocratic manager of big government. What he’s not running on, and what the Democrats are missing, is a program of reform. They don’t have someone who can point out an example where he courageously took on a big problem, changed the way things were done, and, crucially, won the voters’ endorsement of his solution. (If you ask which Republican can mostly clearly claim this, you’ll understand the excitement about Scott Walker.)

In 2008, Democrats could present themselves as reformers trying to fix a system wrecked by the financial crisis. They never made good on that, assigning Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd to overhaul the very system they had created, with the result of perpetuating the doctrine of Too Big to Fail. Now, Democrats seem to have mostly settled back into the position of being reactionaries whose priority is to defend the existing system—existing entitlements, existing regulations, existing institutions, and existing privileges. They have no agenda of government reform for an up-and-coming candidate to campaign on. And whatever else you might say about Hillary Clinton, a vote for her is not exactly a vote against the entrenched DC establishment.

If we look at all these factors, the common theme is that the Democrats have been undone by their most basic priority. Their lust for aggrandizing more power to government—increasing its scope, its cost, its reach, and its centralization—has undermined their ability to gain and hold the majorities necessary to wield that power. It was more important to them to push through a big new entitlement than to listen to the voters. It was more important for them to recruit what they believed would be a solid far-left bloc of minority constituencies than to show anything but contempt for those backward rednecks in the heartland. It was more important for them to aggrandize the power of a central individual (or couple) than to build a broad nationwide base of leadership. And it is more important for them to be reactionary guardians of the welfare and regulatory state than to contemplate any reform of it.

Call this the Paradox of Power. To the extent Democrats have hollowed out their party, it is because their greed for more government power has undermined their ability to hold on to it.

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