Hillary Clinton and the Missing Democratic Debate

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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So Hillary Clinton is clearly in a solid lead, and perhaps even dominating the nomination contest to such an extent that it's possible no other serious contender will be running in 2016.

Which is definitely bad news for Democrats who want to influence party positions on public policy, including those who support Clinton for president.

The problem, as hinted at in a Wall Street Journal piece today, is that as long as there is only one candidate -- or even only one plausible candidate -- then the candidate winds up having all the leverage. Now, that only goes so far; part of the reason that Clinton has a strong lead is because she's apparently acceptable to all party factions, and any movement away from the sweet spot on the issues would risk opening up a path to challenge her. Still, her position allows her to fudge a lot of positions, at least so far.

Put it this way: Politicians want as few constraints as possible if they are elected. Fewer constraints allows for maximum bargaining flexibility; it also means fewer ways they can be accused of flip-flopping, and fewer ways they can disappoint supporters. Politicians actually try hard to keep promises to voters, so they would prefer to make fewer of them. Nevertheless, most politicians do feel compelled to make promises when they seek office, especially in order to win over party actors who pay close attention to politics. But what if there's no competition? The need to make promises is sharply diminished.

The situation for Democrats is particularly stark. President Barack Obama was renominated without competition in 2012; there has been little intraparty debate at the presidential level since 2008. If Clinton wins the nomination without a serious challenge, then wins in November 2016, Democrats could wind up at the end of a potential second term in 2024 having had no serious presidential debate for sixteen years.

As Alex Seitz-Wald reports, some organized factions on the left are already preparing to put pressure on Clinton -- even if there is no ready candidacy for it. That's what every party faction, and every party-aligned interest group, will have to do. But it's a lot easier for such factions to succeed if there's a genuine alternative candidate.

I think it's wrong to see this as primarily about moving the party "left" or "right." It's more that public policy changes over time, with new issues and new options emerging. Democrats should be concerned whether their nomination process will facilitate the hard work of moving the party to consensus positions (if available), or whether a "coronation" will just hand the decisions over to the nominee.

For all these reasons, I've long believed that Democrats would be well served by a serious nomination challenge to Clinton, just as Republicans would have been better served if more serious candidates -- Mitch Daniels? Jeb Bush? -- had contested the nomination in 2012 (and, for that matter, 2000).

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