Help Wanted: The Case for a Generational Challenger to Secretary Clinton
By Al Giordano
When was the last time in the United States that a Democrat who was not the incumbent US President, and who was older than the Republican nominee, won the White House?
The last time that happened was 158 years ago, in 1856, when Democrat James Buchanan, 65, defeated Republican John C. Fremont, 43, and former President Millard Fillmore, 56, of the Whig Party (the last president who was neither Democrat nor Republican).
And this perfectly explains why the Democratic Party of the present, if it really is hell-bent on nominating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as its candidate in 2016, will very likely end up handing the presidency over to one of the Republican presidential hopefuls, all of whom are younger – by 6 to 21 years – than the presumed Democratic nominee.
Elections of more than 150 years ago aren’t really that relevant to the prospects for 2016. But there are five more recent presidential elections that are prologue to the present moment, because they took place in the context of how the current Democratic and Republican coalitions have formed. The only five presidential contests of the past 82 years in which a Democrat who was not the incumbent defeated the Republican candidate happened during “generational change” elections in which a younger Democrat inspired higher voter turnout at the edges of the party base to win the election.
In 1932, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then 50, defeated Republican President Herbert Hoover, 58. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, 43, bested Richard M. Nixon, 51. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, 52, triumphed over Gerald Ford, 63. The story of the 1992 “generational change” election is one that Secretary Clinton knows well: that’s when a 50-year-old Bill Clinton unseated a 72-year-old George H.W. Bush. And we all remember how in 2008 Barack Obama, 49, turned both the Democratic primaries and the November election into a “generational change” tidal wave, when he won the day over 72-year-old John McCain.
The reason why Democrats who are not already president have only succeeded in taking the White House as younger generational candidates is not about age discrimination or the qualifications of the candidates. John Kerry was certainly competent to govern when he lost to George W. Bush, four years his junior in 2004. And, agree with her policy positions or not, Secretary Clinton is at least as qualified as those who have occupied the Oval Office to date. The feeling among many Democratic Party insiders that Clinton is “next up,” that it is “her turn,” that the Secretary has “earned it,” however is precisely the kind of bureaucratic and insular thinking that has brought political parties to crushing defeat time and time again.
The road to the White House is littered with the failed campaigns of institutional candidates whose turn it surely was on both sides of the partisan aisle: from Hubert Humphrey to Bob Dole to John McCain – and Secretary Clinton follows snugly in their footsteps – elder statespersons of political parties have not inspired young people and minority voters turn out to vote the way that FDR, JFK, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did to return the Democrats to power. The winners made elections “cool” and exciting for young Americans and marginalized groups to participate in ways they normally do not (a consequence of the more common dynamic, in which these core Democratic constituencies do not vote, will be felt this November in the US Senate and House elections, where the only question is how bad the results will be for Democrats).
The train wreck ahead on the Democratic track is even more visible when one takes measure of the relative youth of each of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls. While Secretary Clinton will be 69 on Election Day 2016, the oldest of the Republicans mentioned, Rick Perry, who will be 66, just got indicted, so he’s much less likely to be the nominee. Next in seniority is Jeb Bush, who will be 63. By generational math, he would be the most preferable rival for the Clinton camp, the one less likely to be seen as newer and fresher. But a Bush nomination would also make Clinton more stale to public opinion because of the obvious flashback to the last century. A rematch, 24 years after the first November showdown between the Bush-Clinton dynasties, is not going to be an attractive idea to millions of young Americans whose votes the Democrats need, but who usually don’t vote. What young person wants to relive his and her parent’s wars? There is no more perfect recipe for depressing young voter turnout than a Bush-Clinton re-run. It would suppress voting more than putting Mississippi town clerks in charge maintaining the national voter rolls. It is the lamest scenario possible, worthy of a parody story in The Onion, not of the nation that considers itself the world’s showcase democracy.
But let’s imagine that America successfully evades the bullet of a Bush-Clinton rematch to plunge everyone a quarter century backward. How old will the other possible GOP candidates be in 2016? Mike Huckabee will be 61, Scott Walker, 59, Chris Christie, 53 – and now we get closer to pols that might more likely win that nomination – Rand Paul, 54, Paul Ryan, 46, and both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz will be 45. Those last two have about the same generational distance between them and Secretary Clinton as young Bill Clinton had when he shut down the political careers of his eminence George H.W. Bush and, in the next round, Bob Dole.
Two years prior to the last three times that Democrats took the presidency anew – the point in the 2016 cycle where we are now – almost nobody thought Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama had a prayer to win their party nominations, much less to become president. “Generational elections” by definition must have a candidate that “comes out of nowhere” to add a fresh face and tone to the whole show. One can argue blue in the face that the “change” isn’t real, or take the other side that it is. But that evergreen debate is irrelevant to this lesson in history. The fact remains that young people and marginalized minorities only vote in large enough numbers for Democrats to succeed when they believe that a break from the old order is possible.
This math, by the way, should Secretary Clinton decide not to run for president, or for some who might dream about challenging her in primaries, is also a big wet blanket for enthusiasts of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Howard Dean, Robert Reich or Jim Webb, each of whom is already over 65 years old and therefore older than any of the likely Republican nominees.
Perhaps it’s not fair to lump them all together. Senator Warren’s possibility to inspire with a message of economic populism delivered by a relatively new voice on the national scene – she may be chronologically an elder, but at least she’s not “old news” yet – is intriguing. Bob Reich has the communication skills and wonky policy smarts that could force other candidates to address issues they prefer to avoid (but as his gubernatorial run in Massachusetts showed, his distaste for making money calls is legend). Both know how to use the Internet in ways the others do not, now a prerequisite for a national political campaign. Warren’s recent “tweets” speaking out early on Ferguson – while Clinton and others maintained awkward silence at the hour of crisis – and also in opposition to an energy pipeline project in Massachusetts show that she’s someone aware in touch with those grassroots movements that do exist. And Reich’s mini-essays he posts to Facebook are often brilliant. The others have degrees of personality and experience, but when it comes to the 2016 election they might as well be Grandpa Simpson yelling at the kids to get off the voting lawn.
This is not to say that any one or more of them who wants to run for president shouldn’t do it. The Democratic Party desperately needs not just one primary rival to Clinton but, more ideally, multiple ones. Then let the voters sort out which would be the ideal alternative. Voters are pretty good at that.
Sometimes when I hear key sectors of the Obama coalition, particularly young people, African-Americans and community organizers, yearn for a Senator Warren candidacy I get the sense that the concept is situational. They’re thinking backwards about who could forge the path of least resistance to challenge Secretary Clinton, rather than first considering what kind of candidate is needed to light a generational spark. I’d like to reset that horse before the cart right now.
A great many Americans are worried that a Secretary Clinton nomination would bring the right wing back to executive power because of suppressed voter turnout, and a great many have a legitimate fear of her well-established hawkish foreign policy or pro-corporate tendencies. But instead of merely reacting to the “Clinton is inevitable” chatter we could first envision what kind of candidate could fill the vacuum and stir up a generational storm (or continue what Obama began), and then create the political and social context to seduce that mystery candidate into the fray. With that candidate on stage, the Clinton Inevitability Steamroller would start to self-combust quickly enough.
There are some prominent younger Democrats, none of whom are perfect vessels, but who nonetheless hold some of that potential and promise. Former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer will be 59 in 2016; Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, 58; Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, 56, and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley will be 53. That’s not a comprehensive list, but merely a few examples that there is younger talent out there that could thread the generational needle. The fact that almost nobody thinks any of them, or others like them, could possibly win the nomination or the presidency is exactly one of the qualities that such a surprise candidate has to have, like Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama before them. Thinking about possible candidates like that and creating the vortex to seduce one or another’s entrance into the presidential context has a much better chance of bearing fruit than endlessly waiting for a bigger foot to step in. Those old enough to remember the 1992 cycle will recall the teeth-gnashing over whether then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo would enter, and all that dreaming was for naught. A Comeback Kid had to come out of vapors instead.
Take O’Malley, for example, who has actively made many visits to early contest states like Iowa and New Hampshire and signaled that if he sees an opening he will declare his candidacy. Few of us know anything about this guy. That’s not all bad. The good part is that we neither know enough to hate him or discount him. He’s not “damaged goods.” A competition with a consummate pro like Clinton and her well-armed and financed machine would be a real test for someone like that. He – or she, in the case of Klobuchar and other potential candidates – would have to be really smart not to fall in the frequent traps that Secretary Clinton baits for her rivals so often.
A path must be struck that honors Secretary Clinton’s impressive experience and good intentions without providing an opening to throw down the victim flag that she tosses so skillfully. (Remember the fuss about whether Obama “snubbed” Clinton during President Bush’s 2008 State of the Union speech? And how it supposedly was to be taken as an affront to half the population? Even Clinton’s 2008 supporters laugh about it now. They knew it was just a game. That’s an example of how that machine can turn nothing into something if a rival gives the slightest opening.) A candidate is needed who can say – and convincingly – that, “Yeah, Secretary Clinton is great, but I’m bringing what America needs that’s different than what she brings and here’s why.” He or she would need to show us, and not just tell us. This mystery candidate needs some core principals and issues that separate him or her from the more troubling parts of the Clinton agenda. In shorthand, that means going more populist than the Secretary on the economy and going on the offensive vs. the Secretary’s bellicose tendencies in foreign policy. That’s a winning platform in the Iowa Caucuses and elsewhere.
Even if someone like O’Malley or the others mentioned enter the campaign and don’t prove to be ready for prime time – and only the rough and tumble of an actual campaign would show it or not – there is historic precedent that even a weak candidate can reveal the vulnerability of a frontrunner enough to cause a stronger candidate to jump in late.
A good example happened in 1968, when so many dreamed that Robert F. Kennedy would challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson but RFK was not going to budge. The second choice among opponents of the Vietnam War in the Democratic Party was Senator George McGovern, but he wouldn’t run either. Finally, Senator Eugene McCarthy – a flawed vessel with little real chance of wresting the nomination from LBJ, much less of winning a general election – went to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary and although he lost to Johnson, the fact that he got 42 percent of the vote convinced many that LBJ was no longer invincible. Robert Kennedy felt the force of the vortex and announced his candidacy. Two weeks later, President Johnson surprised everybody when he withdrew his candidacy.
Had Robert Kennedy, then 43, not been assassinated, he very well might have been nominated and gone on to run against Republican Richard Nixon, then 55, in the general election. It would have been a perfect storm for another “generational election.” Instead, the Democratic Party nominated Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the institutional “next man up,” and quickly went down to defeat.
The point is that relatively unknown (on a national stage) people like O’Malley, Patrick, Klobuchar or Schweitzer don’t have to be perfect candidates to be able to reveal enough of the weakness in the Clinton armor that some of us see already but many haven’t yet noticed. Any one of them if she or he has the right stuff could turn out to be an Obama-type figure, or at least a Gene McCarthy-type figure who paves the way for someone or something formidable. And if one or more of these people – or someone like them – decide to run, it would be entirely worthwhile to get in on the ground floor of that campaign and see what can be made to happen.
Anybody with the guts and sense to go up against the Clinton organization is going to be tested, but you know what? He or she will end up testing Secretary Clinton, too. And the fall from that precipice is much longer and harder.
It’s not just the history of the last 82 or 158 years of presidential elections in the United States that suggest that Secretary Clinton, as much as she deserves all good things and success in life, is the wrong candidate at the wrong time to win a general election. Very recent history is also instructive. As we all saw during the 2008 Democratic primaries, Secretary Clinton has an uncanny talent causing blowback when she speaks, and that this is a regular, even frequent, occurrence. What are the last two statements anyone remembers out of the Secretary? Last month it was her attempt via Atlantic magazine to distance herself from Obama’s “first, do no harm” foreign policy by saying she would have armed the guys in Syria (who soon after became ISIS). That was not only mind-numbingly boneheaded, but also a frightening reminder that for whatever reasons the Secretary almost always has the most war-making worst first instinct when it comes to problems on the world stage. It’s that impulse that got the Iraq quagmire ignited to begin with. And that was only last month. The month before that, in June, while defending her $200,000 special-interest group lecture fees, the Secretary – reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars – pled that she and Bill Clinton were “dead broke” when they left the White House in 2001. Way to connect, Secretary, with the economic reality of the average American, eh?
Those are just the two major Clinton pre-campaign moments of the last two months. The road ahead, if she declares her candidacy, will provide many more such illuminating statements. It always has when she has traveled any public road. And yet the more recent gaffes seem almost subconsciously self-destructive. There is a kind of Political Tourette's lurking beneath the surface bravado of that potential candidate, almost as if the alter ego inside of Secretary Clinton that doesn't really want to run keeps sabotaging the super ego that lurches toward ambition. One should never, ever underestimate the capacity of Candidate Clinton to talk her way out of victory. We’ve seen this movie before.
The amazing thing about how the big media pundits and political reporters keep harping on the “Clinton is inevitable” virus is that time and time again the voters have shown that they “get” this dynamic in a fundamental way that Cable Television does not. In most Democratic presidential primary cycles, a new face appears that becomes a contender. Sometimes – like Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama – they go all the way. Others have come close but collapsed either on their own weaknesses or their lack of campaign funds. But the voters did make Walter Mondale sweat when they tagged Gary Hart as a serious rival. Social movements drove Mike Dukakis crazy when coalescing the Rainbow Coalition around Jesse Jackson. The same occurred with Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean in subsequent years.
It is a completely noble and worthwhile goal that finally a US president could and should be a woman. People who belittle that goal only help Clinton’s aspirations. But it is another thing altogether to enter the delusion that the historic nature of a Clinton nomination would somehow spark a rise in voter turnout among women the way that Obama’s has done twice now with younger voters and African-Americans. The reason for that is that women already vote in numbers well above the average for the rest of the population. In the most recent presidential election 63.7 percent of voting-age women cast ballots compared to just 56.7 percent of men. Those numbers go even higher among older women. Therefore it is simple math that there is less room for participation among that demographic to grow enough to offset the assuredly lower turnout among young voters and African-Americans should Clinton win the 2016 nomination.
Somebody recently told me, “Clinton will get all the Obama voters and also some white racists that he didn’t.” That’s the sort of blind optimism that has been the downfall of many political campaigns. Young people and minority members do not automatically turn out to vote for Democrats or even against Republicans. Their record participation in the last two presidential elections was the result of very specific factors both of history – African-Americans have historically been discriminated against when trying to vote, and there are still obstacles placed in their way today – and also of agency: The Obama campaigns understood and deployed community organizing tactics in a way that Candidate Clinton and her partisans still fail to grasp. You can’t replicate something you fundamentally don’t understand. Hiring all the former Obama staff in the world can’t even make that happen for Clinton. The candidate has to move these voters for field organizers to get them to the polls. If these voters could be taken for granted in that way, then Al Gore and John Kerry would have already been presidents.
The Internet changed the game so that in 2008, when Obama became the voters’ vehicle to reject the last “Clinton in inevitable” story, it allowed Obama to raise enough millions in a short enough time that he couldn’t be out-hollered or out-dollared. The Obama campaign’s training of tens of thousands of mostly-young volunteers in the fine arts of community organizing, through Camp Obama, was as important a game-changer. The candidate himself was ready for prime time. The rest is history.
When a guy I know pretty well published in the Boston Phoenix in September 2007 the case for why Obama would best Clinton, win the nomination and the presidency, even many of his good friends thought he’d jumped the shark. It made him feel much better about the American voter when he and she happened to agree even as Cable Television and newspaper pundits told them they would never do so. The voters aren’t stupid. At least they are not 100 percent of the time! Things don’t just happen: Things are made to happen. That’s the story of history. That’s all it’s ever been. Real people organizing and doing big things that “important” people lectured they could not.
Perhaps a year from now someone will be able to write a similar story, about a candidate who suddenly appears to make history again. And maybe it will be a candidate who can spark a “generational election” and have a shot at enough voter turnout in November 2016 to not lose the baby steps of progress – not long or fast enough steps by far, but at least the motion has been forward – that have been made over the past six years in the United States. After all, for its many and grievous faults, the US does finally have health care for so many more of its people, did measurably ratchet down two wars, did change the tone so that people who organized for LGBT rights, nonviolent marijuana and drug users and patients, immigrants and dreamers, grassroots XL pipeline opponents, among others, have finally started making progress on the level of law and policy. These are among the only things governments can do that help, or stop harming, the lives of real people.
When, in 2007, Obama’s campaign began recruiting volunteers to attend three-day community organizer trainings (called “Camp Obama”) that were designed by United Farmworkers Union organizer Marshall Ganz, it didn’t just built an army with a huge advantage over its rivals. It also trained a new generation in the forgotten skills of how change is really made at the most grassroots level. Many of the aforementioned tens of thousands of new organizers then went on, after the campaign, to organize with non-electoral social movements: LBGT and immigrants rights, drug policy referenda, and stopping climate change mega-projects like the pipeline. (“Activist” complaints that “nothing has changed” under Obama only indicate that the complainer still doesn’t get the profound qualitative difference between organizing and protesting.) The new generation of organizers trained by Camp Obama should not drop these grassroots struggles in exchange for a presidential campaign. It is those non-electoral movements that create the only context for a campaign to exist. It will be up to new candidates to train newer generations, and fortunately the blueprint has already been charted on how to do that.
Clinton partisans gush over the “Ready for Hillary” SuperPac’s popularity in certain sectors as supposed evidence that the next Clinton campaign has learned the lessons of 2008 and will simply be some kind of “Obama 2.0” operation. The SuperPac smells more like Astroturf than anything resembling real grassroots. It’s a data-mining device, ready to part fools with their money. That it hasn’t started training its enthusiasts with an Obama style organizing boot camp offers the first clue that it has learned nothing from its own history. It’s a fan club that could just as easily be titled “Ready for Justin Beiber,” not anything resembling a real force in national politics. And when Clinton insiders sing its praises, that’s a pretty good indication that they still don’t understand what hit them six years ago.
The Obama presidency will be remembered a lot more fondly once it is over including by many people frustrated with it today but who will need the lessons of time to see it in its full context, presuming it doesn’t all go awry over the next two years. Incremental change is still far preferable than going back to the year 2000 or, worse, 1984, or 1968, when Democrats nominated the institutional “next pol up” and terrible things consequently happened to so many people at home and abroad.
There is a coalition waiting to be born. Its core demographics view Secretary Clinton and her possible campaign as ho-hum and not worth our investment: Young Americans, African-Americans and community organizers are three key hubs, but the nascent vortex is hardly limited to those. Believe in that vortex. Cultivate and feed it. The vortex abhors a vacuum and if made large and visible enough, a candidate or candidates will emerge to fill it.
All it needs is a generational candidate smart enough, organized, and better on policy than the latest “inevitable frontrunner” who bears a striking resemblance to the last inevitable candidate that imploded. If you’re out there, America has a message for you: Help Wanted.