It is unfair. It’s a mix of a GOP witch hunt, as evidenced by statements recently from Rep. Mike McCarthy and a staff member of the committee investigating Benghazi, and modern technology – not yet quite knowing the best way to handle cyber communication. It is the result of an unwarranted and ugly politicization of the tragedy of the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, but politics is often unfair. Machiavellian and ruthless, the GOP has weakened the Democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton. Now the question is whether that damage is manageable, or if the Democrats would be better off with someone else.
This leaves democrats in a quandry. The Democrats have lots of young dynamic talent, but remembering the rise of Obama in 2008 the Clinton team quietly worked to convince them their long term future was better off not challenging the front runner. This isn’t 2008; at that time the public was angry at an outgoing President and wanted change. While Republicans are convinced Obama is the worst thing since cholera, most consider him as having had an effective stint in the oval office.
The young guns that wowed the Democratic National Convention in 2012 thus pulled back to let Hillary glide to the nomination, leaving only an aging leftist Bernie Sanders to launch a plausible alternative campaign, with pragmatists Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb withering in the single digits.
Yet Hillary is not a strong candidate. Her weaknesses helped enable Obama’s rise in 2008, and she’s never shown herself an effective campaigner. Indeed, her focus seems to be on infrastructure and organization rather than actually campaigning. If her husband hadn’t been President, she wouldn’t be where she is today – a glaring weakness in that notion that it’s time to elect a “self-made” woman. Add to that the e-mail scandal – a minor controversy played up by the media and the GOP – and the public finds itself distrusting Clinton, perhaps a bit tired of a family story that’s been in the public eye for almost a quarter of a century.
Consider the talk of 74 year old VP Joe Biden entering the race. Biden has really nothing going for him – and I say that as someone who truly likes Biden and thinks he’d be an excellent President (he’s been especially prescient on foreign policy). He’s not a good campaigner, has never done well when he’s been in the ring, and given his age and lack of distinguishing characteristics has no charismatic appeal. Yet many Democrats (and probably more Republicans) hope he’ll throw his hat in the ring.
Simply, Hillary may be too weak a candidate for the Democrats in 2016, yet the way the campaign has been positioned it’s hard to stop her. Only a maverick like Bernie Sanders had the audacity to mount a front on challenge – and while the 74 year old former Socialist has whipped up the Democratic base, it’s unclear if he could gain broad public support.
Sanders supporters point to polls that show a lot of public sympathy, and his age may help him overcome the claim that his past socialism makes him too extreme. First of all, “socialism” as a label has lost some of its Cold War era sting – and he’s redefining himself in a way that fits within the US mainstream. It’s possible that a populist wave could bring Bernie into the White House. Indeed, his age might exude a wisdom that overcomes his past radicalism. Still, it’s a long shot. Though if he were to face a right wing ideologue like Ted Cruz, the smart money would be on Bernie.
If Hillary is wounded, Biden weak and Sanders a bit too much on the fringe, what hope do the Democrats have? Might O’Malley, or perhaps other candidates like Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb have a chance? Might one of the younger voices from the 2012 like Julian Castro suddenly emerge? Or has Hillary kept them out too long for them to jump in at this time?
Tonight’s debate is big for Hillary Clinton. If she does not come out clearly on top – or worse, if she appears wounded and defensive – she should rethink whether or not it makes sense to continue this campaign. To be sure, the Democrats have real advantages heading into the fall campaign, and if she can weather this storm she has a good chance to be the next President. That hope alone will probably keep her in the race. But is it enough?