She needs some competition.

Photographer: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Hillary Needs a Primary Challenge

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The crushing Republican midterm victory is good for Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions. Or bad. I'm not much swayed either way. All I know is that, if she runs, Clinton desperately needs a credible primary opponent.

The subtext -- and too often substance -- of Democratic national politics since 2010, when Republicans scored a midterm landslide that stopped the Democratic agenda cold, is that Democrats are tethered to reality and their opponents are not. This argument has gone through a series of phases, from highlighting the intellectual blight of Palinism and the fetishes of Tea Partyism to discrediting the Republican mainstream in the form of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and the bulk of the House Republican conference.  

The results speak for themselves. In effect, Democrats have twice proven that the nation's expanded presidential electorate does not trust Republicans with executive power. And Republicans have twice proven that their base is sufficiently large and motivated to dominate midterm elections and stymie a Democratic executive's initiatives.

Two midterm debacles in a row should drive home just how precarious the Democratic hold on the electorate is. Yet it's easy for Democrats to feel superior when their opponents approach the age of climate change and rising inequality by promising to burn more fossil fuels and hand additional tax advantages to the wealthy.

It's possible that the Republican presidential primary could be similar in form and content to the madhouse of 2012. But Clinton has no cause for complacency. The overall quality of Republican candidates in 2016 should be dramatically better than the 2012 crop; one or more of the contenders could even wriggle out of the party's straitjacket and start talking sense. In any case, Republicans appear firmly committed to quashing the kinds of debates that make their candidates sound especially unhinged.

As E.J. Dionne and others have pointed out, the Democratic agenda looks good only by comparison. A Democratic presidential candidate won't be able to generate a fresh agenda by trashing Republicans; new policies, energy and language are far more likely to emerge from a spirited internal debate. That's especially true for Clinton, who is too innately cautious (over the next two years we can argue whether that's driven by prudence or insecurity) to reach for a more ambitious agenda without provocation. Whether it's Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Senator James Webb, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren or a player to be named later, a capable Democrat should challenge the nomination -- for Clinton's sake if no other. (It turns out that running for president is often a pretty good career move for the losers.)

There are tactical benefits, as well. By engaging in an intraparty fight, Clinton can focus on a positive message and sidestep more of the ugly Washington slugfest that is certain to bleed into 2016. A Democratic sparring partner would enable Clinton to concentrate on an economic agenda while helping her shake off the rust that inevitably has accrued since her last run for office. And no one in U.S. politics -- the news media least of all -- likes a coronation, especially one that is as heavily dependent on family inheritance as Clinton's would be.

The best reason for a primary challenge, however, is that it would spur Clinton to plot an economic agenda that's more ambitious than raising the minimum wage and protecting the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion for the poor and subsidies for the middle class (provided the latter survives the Republican ward heelers on the Supreme Court).

This is a fitting role for one of President Bill Clinton's most influential advisors. Clinton's husband arguably did more than anyone to convince American workers that they could compete in a rapidly globalizing economy where prevailing wages for the unskilled were (and remain) a fraction of what it takes to sustain a middle-class American family.

Democrats signed onto globalization, but they never developed an effective way to mitigate the downward pressures on wages. (Republicans didn't try.) More than a generation of working-class Americans has paid the price for the globe's cheap shoes, toys and electronics. A higher minimum wage and subsidized access to health care matter a lot. But they're insufficient. If Clinton faces a challenge, it will most likely have a populist cast. Confronted by calls for wider redistribution, she will either have to capitulate to such arguments, co-opt them or present an alternative. That's the debate that Democrats and the nation need.

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:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net