How does one stage-manage an anticlimax? That is the question Hillary Clinton’s team has been faced with for months and it is the question that will dominate the opening weeks of her presidential campaign. It has been assumed for many years that she would run, so it wasn’t exactly an easy task to convince people that something significant had occurred on 12 April when her staff sent a two-and-a-quarter-minute video announcing her candidacy out into the world.
It was strange. For the first 95 seconds, the video panned from one optimistic individual or couple to the next, each talking about their hopes for the coming year. Only in the last few seconds did Clinton appear, cheerily announcing that she, too, was doing something big in 2015: she was running for president.
For several years Clinton has been regarded as the Democrats’ nominee-in-waiting. She has experience – as first lady, as a senator, as secretary of state, as an éminence grise on the speaker circuit, as an author and as a go-to voice for television and radio hosts – and equally vast pools of expectation on which she floats. She has created a brand, based around the idea that she is competent, tough, smart and – if need be – ruthless, which her advisers believe will sweep her through primary season virtually unopposed and into the Oval Office.
Many of those advisers believed much the same thing in 2007, and yet Clinton’s veneer of inevitability wore off as soon as a credible, insurgent alternative began to take shape in the early caucuses and primaries. This year, however, things feel different. In 2007 there was an awful lot of tailwind, money and enthusiasm behind Barack Obama’s outside-the-Beltway candidacy. This time around, the darlings of the party’s progressive wing don’t really resonate beyond that wing. Few of them, even if they were willing to pit themselves against the Clinton machine, have the broad appeal that would turn a localised insurgency into an unstoppable electoral tsunami.
Elizabeth Warren, a one-time Harvard professor and now senator for Massachusetts, who came to prominence by campaigning for economic justice and regulatory reform of the financial sector and who delivers humdinger speeches about fairness and equal opportunity, certainly makes liberal Democrats swoon. But it is hard to imagine her winning the electoral college votes of, say, Florida or Virginia – swing states that Obama won in both 2008 and 2012. It’s much easier to imagine a repeat of the sort of noble yet humiliating defeat that the wonkish Adlai Stevenson suffered in 1952 and 1956, or the meek George McGovern did in 1972.
Vermont’s independent senator Bernie Sanders, who is the closest thing to a bona fide socialist in the US Senate, has made noises about running. If he did, he would likely serve as a rallying point to bring anti-war, anti-corporate, pro-environmental activists into Democratic Party events (rather than picketing those events from the outside) and not as a viable national alternative to Clinton.
This does not make Clinton a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, however. US politics is far too rowdy and unpredictable for that. Coronations seldom proceed as planned in the drawn-out primary season. It’s true that at the moment no one in the Democratic Party is really challenging Clinton but if she starts to wobble – if she gives a few mediocre speeches, or suffers a health scare that reminds voters that she would be the second-oldest first-term president in US history (when he took office in 1981, Ronald Reagan was 13 months older than Clinton, 67, will be in 2016) – there are other highly qualified people waiting in the wings.
There is, for example, the former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick; the Ohio senator Sherrod Brown; or the former Baltimore mayor and erstwhile Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, all of whom could run to the left of Clinton while appealing to centrist voters. There are several fascinating figures from western states, who would bring vital electoral college votes from the competitive desert and Rocky Mountain states, among them the Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper, and the charismatic young New Mexico senator Martin Heinrich.
None of these alternative candidates has the name recognition or anything like the destroyer-class political machine that Hillary Clinton commands. They won’t run while she appears invincible.
It is hard, however, for anyone to go through more than eight months of pre-primary politicking without at least some of that polish starting to crack.