Who Will Challenge Hillary?

All Hillary, all the time.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The relentless controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton’s use of e-mail during her time as secretary of state raises a question: If her candidacy for president (not yet announced, but widely assumed) falters or implodes -- as sometimes happens to front-runners -- will her party have an alternative? For voters’ sake, the answer should be yes. That's just one reason Democratic politicians -- the more, the merrier -- should take on the daunting task of challenging Clinton for the nomination.

At the moment, four Democrats are playing presidential footsie. Vice President Joe Biden has visited Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina this year and indicated that if he were to run, it would be as the “sticking with what works” candidate. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is positioning himself as a bit more liberal than Clinton without all the baggage, a fresh face from (slightly) outside of Washington.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is an independent who calls himself a Democratic socialist, crusades against the influence of money in politics, and appeals to the party’s ideological Ben & Jerry’s-eating activists. Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb is a populist who is as critical of Wall Street as he is of foreign military intervention, and his attacks on affirmative action and defense of gun rights speak to white voters who have been deserting the party -- or feeling deserted by it.

Others could yet emerge. Senator Elizabeth Warren might change her mind, and the Al Gore chatter has already begun.

The field should be diverse. Primaries offer the best opportunity for parties to conduct a national debate over their goals and ideals. And a lot has changed since Democrats last did this in 2008. In recent years, the party has been battling over how to approach education reform, income inequality, public-sector unions, trade, climate change and other issues. A contested primary would force candidates to take sides, allowing voters to determine the party's direction.

“Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” Mao Zedong said to encourage critics of the Communist regime to come forward with new ideas. True, some who spoke up in China in the 1950s were later executed or sentenced to hard labor. But the price of challenging Clinton is not so high: frustration and defeat, perhaps -- or, worse, the vice-presidential nomination. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.