Biden isn't alone.

Photographer: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images

Democrats Have No Bench? Be Serious.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Dan Balz of the Washington Post says Democrats have a problem for 2016: “The absence of a strong Democratic bench.” National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar replies, “Spot-on.” The New York Times repeats the "weak bench" line and quotes Democrats who agree that their party would be in trouble without Hillary Clinton.

It's bunk.

Let’s think about this, assuming the “bench” would be the field of potential candidates for the party's presidential nomination and include names other than Joe Biden (who is 72).

There's Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, who is actually running. And Elizabeth Warren. And Andrew Cuomo, Al Franken, Tim Kaine, Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner. Oh, and Michael Bennet, Mike Beebe, Christine Gregoire, Maggie Hassan, Jeanne Shaheen, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper and Deval Patrick.

They don't seem presidential?

Look, the way those solid politicians become Serious Presidential Candidates and not just random governors and senators -- I’m talking here about folks such as Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Bobby Jindal -- is to start running, and visibly enough so the press notices. 

Yes, Republicans have an unusually strong candidate field in 2016. The Democrats have Clinton and a few leftovers, gadflies and protest candidates. 

But that isn't because Democrats have a weak bench. Nor is it because, as Balz claims, the nomination has been “handed to someone on a platter.”

Clinton has (apparently) won the nomination fair and square, through hard work and political talent. That is why she has earned the support of the bulk of Democratic party actors, and gained the acquiescence of other Democrats who aren’t as enthusiastic about her.

So all those perfectly viable other candidates either dropped out or never seriously considered the race. Had Clinton chosen not to run, plenty of the others would have jumped in, and the field would have been comparable to what the Republicans have put together.

When Clinton has a bad week -- and during a multiyear campaign, everyone has bad weeks -- pundits will look around for something or someone to blame. But there are going to be many weeks in the next year when Republicans are squabbling, and commentators are going to talk about how lucky the Democrats are for avoiding a contested primary.

Neither path to the nomination seems to affect the outcome of the general election much, and most voters (especially swing voters) won’t tune in until long after the nominations have been resolved, anyway.  Meanwhile, Democrats have no shortage of potentially solid presidential candidates for 2016.

  1. In addition to Clinton and Biden, the Democrats have two other potential top-tier candidates, John Kerry (who is 71) and Al Gore (66); that's more than Republicans have had this cycle. Republicans had only Mitt Romney, who is celebrating his 68th birthday and who dropped out of contention.  (I wouldn't classify Jeb Bush as a true top-tier candidate of this sort.)

  2. I took my list from Wikipedia, and included only those who seemed to have conventional qualifications and are in the mainstream of the party on the issues. A dozen or so others might fit in here, too.

  3. It's good for the party to have competition because it gives party actors leverage over the candidates, and therefore helps force the nominee, if elected, to be loyal to the party as president. See also Greg Sargent's argument for the benefits to a party of candidate competition. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net