A Clinton Challenge: Good for Democrats, and Good For The Nation

The reaction to my last post, (cross listed here at Salon) was a replay of the 2008 primary Democratic primary battle; closely fought, with passions running deep on both sides.  Strong cases were made both for and against my argument, made in the guise of a generic Democrat, that Hillary Clinton should challenge President Obama in 2012.  Boiling down the comments to their essence, supporters of a Clinton run make two essential points:  First, Obama is in electoral trouble, and Clinton will likely run stronger in the general election, particularly among independents.  Second, Obama has had his shot, and the results just haven’t been good.  It’s time for change.  Those opposing a Hillary run think it will divide the party, thus weakening whoever gets the Democratic nomination, and that it will likely cost Democrats a significant chunk of African-American support.  More generally, they don’t think his record  merits a nomination challenge.

Just to clarify, I should make clear that I’m not necessarily advocating the Clinton run – I’m merely making the case that I know many Democrats believe to be true: that the party is in deep trouble if Obama wins the nomination in 2012, and that Clinton is the best alternative.  My goal was to get people (including Hillary) to think about it.  Clearly I succeeded (well, I haven’t heard from the Secretary as yet).

There’s been a lot of debate about this on other websites as well. The always useful and interesting Jon Bernstein weighed in at his plainblog political site   in opposition to my argument.  Jon claims that, “a challenge from Clinton would be a complete disaster, both for her and for the Democrats.”   His post builds on an earlier one he wrote that made the argument that had Clinton won the presidency in 2008, it’s not clear she would have done any better than Obama.  Jon’s case against a Clinton challenge in 2012 rests on a point that lots of my readers have made: it would infuriate Democrats, and that she wouldn’t do any better than Obama.  I think the first point is exactly right, and I think Jon could have gone even further to point out, that despite the vocal reaction among progressives against the recent debt deal, it actually got stronger support, according to Gallup, among Democrats and Liberals than independents or Republicans.


 In short, Obama retains strong support among the party faithful, progressives’ protests against the debt deal notwithstanding Moreover, Jon notes, as did many readers, that previous primary challenges in the modern, post-1968 nomination era – by Reagan in 1976, Kennedy in 1980, and Buchanan in 1992, all failed. Why should Clinton do any better? Jon concludes, with a sentence that I confess I don’t understand, by writing: “Basically, it’s pretty simple: if Barack Obama is unpopular enough that he’s vulnerable for nomination, then the nomination isn’t worth very much.”  I’m guessing that means that if Obama loses the nomination, whoever wins it can’t win the general election?  If that’s what Jon means, I disagree.

In any case, here’s the response I would make if I was a Clinton Democrat:  .Look again at that Gallup poll – it’s not good news for Obama’s reelection chances.  Sure, the deal is viewed favorably by Democrats, but independents hate it – and that’s the group Obama was targeting when he made the deal.  So far, and these are only initial results, the payoff doesn’t seem to be high.  And to compare Clinton to these previous challengers ignores 2008.  She’s not an upstart – she’s someone who already lays claim to substantial support within the party, and who fought Obama to a nomination draw.  Do you think after the last three plus years in office Obama is now a stronger candidate, and that she’s weaker?

Nor do I think she’d find it difficult to make the case for a nomination challenge. People are digging too deep, I think, if they are trying to parse Clinton’s motivations in running. This isn’t a case of “What’s in it for her?”  Nor is it, contrary to Jon’s claim, a run that would be based solely on Clinton’s “resume” (which, by the way, I think matches up far better to Obama’s than Jon does; Obama’s not just president – he’s president at a time when things are not going well on his watch. Not sure that bolsters the ‘ol c.v.) In short, Clinton’s challenge would be justified by the quite reasonable calculation that Obama is going to lose in 2012. How do we know Clinton would do better?  We don’t, but there’s case to be made that, in a general election race, although Clinton may lose a chunk of African-American support, she would more than compensate by running stronger among independents and – if a different type of identify politics comes into play – among older women too.  In short, this is an empirical question – one that Clinton would undoubtedly try to answer before throwing her hat in the ring.   And she would still have to convince Democrats to swallow their misgivings and look at the party’s broader interest in retaining the presidency.  But the bottom line is that she probably won’t do worse, and she might do better.

I would make a final point – there seems to be an underlying sentiment among some of those opposing a Clinton challenge that it is somehow demeaning to the President.   The implicit suggestion is that he is owed the Democrat nomination for a second term, and to challenge that is to show disrespect. I confess that I can’t understand this logic – indeed, this runs against the grain of American presidential politics, which are premised on the idea that presidents preside with the consent of the governed, and when they lose that consent, we throw the bums out.  Heck, we have a deep and honorable history of doing just that.  I don’t see why Obama should be the exception!

Anyway, that’s the response I think a Hillary supporter would make.  I’m pretty sure it won’t convince Jon, or many Obama supporters.  Nor do I think Clinton is going to run – or even that she should. But if she did, she’d join a long line of candidates who challenged their party’s incumbent president.  And that’s how it should be: presidents aren’t handed the nomination for a second term – they have to earn it. Here I disagree with Jon: a party challenge would be good for Democrats, and for the nation.


  1. You still have “The Clintons” (political royalty) pulling the rug from under the first black POTUS. Can he handle it? Sure. But which Dem bigwigs would line up behind her? Even if you think every black voter would consider HRC, you still get a media shitstorm over HRC stabbing him in the back.

    Plus, seemingly vindicates Palin’s “hopey changey” crack. Tell me how things would have been different under HRC.

    Just seems like you would be taking a 50-50 2012 race and handing it to Romnry.

  2. Adam – I confess I don’t understand where this sense of entitlement comes from – “pulling the rug out from under” Obama? “Stabbing him in the back”? How can challenging a president whose term in office to date is marked by 9.2 unemployment, slow to nonexistent economic growth and the specter of a second recession be viewed as somehow “dirty politics”? You don’t get to ignore the record just because Obama is the nation’s first black president, do you?

    Note that I never said the first term would have been different under Hillary. The question is whether to continue with Obama, or take a chance on change. I would think that most Democrats would believe that decision should be driven by a careful calculation of what’s best for Democrats’ chances in 2012. Don’t you?

  3. They already had a bruising fight. As far as race, I see it being a massive issue. I really think I only disagree with your assertion that some trial by fire would forge a stronger candidate. Nobody thinks HRC has no right to run. Nobody thinks Obama is entitled to anything.

    What I can’t tell is whether u are saying HRC would do a better job with the economy or just that Obama is going to be blamed so why not put up a new contender.

    Also, as an expert, do you really think Obama is sunk already. Seems like the news cycle is do short now that it’s impossible to tell his position in a year.

  4. Adam,

    Just to be clear, I see no evidence that Hillary would do a better job with the economy – indeed, it’s not clear to me how much of the current economic woes we can pin on Obama – not much, is my guess. But, if I’m a Democrat, I’m thinking much more practically – for better and for worse, Obama is held primarily responsible for how the economy performs. Electorally, Hillary’s main comparative advantage is she can’t be blamed for the economy. So if I’m a hard-headed realist Democrat, I have to wonder if my party is better off running Hillary.

    Does that mean I think Obama is sunk already? Not at all – as I’ve said many times, our forecast models don’t really become accurate until about a year from now. And even the current ones have this race as a toss up. Let’s not write Obama off yet.

    If I was a Democrat, I’d be thinking

  5. I wonder if all this is not largely besides the point – for whoever runs. Its now clear that the country is at a major turning point and increasingly in crisis. We have exceeded our means, overcommitted, overspent and coddled ourselves in a world in which we are no longer hegemonic – as others have risen around the world and so rapidly redefined the global economic and strategic equations. America is still strong and can have a successful future, provided we see things clearly as a nation and act accordingly.

    This poses an enormous, wholly new challenge for America’s citizens brought up on the notion of American exceptionalism and primacy, who are suddenly being asked to respond to these new sobering realities. In the resultant maelstrom of anger, confusion, partisanship and fear the overriding need is for powerful and intelligent leadership to restore direction to the country and to achieve consensus around workable but more modest national priorities. What we can’t afford is more self-destructive blind partisanship which, as we have just seen, produces at best skewed and inappropriate results.

    Perhaps Friedman’s third party is a possible solution. I doubt it. Perhaps this growing crisis will mature Obama, strengthen his backbone and give him the compelling, unifying voice the country at this point so badly needs. Perhaps fear will produce a new realism among the partisan leaders in Congress and across the country, enabling them to come together over realistic measures. What will not bring this country together, however, is a debilitating intramural fight with Hillary, or two more years of nasty political infighting over rigid ‘principles’ of the kind we have just witnessed.

    If so, we are in for a longish period of bad and divisive times and increasingly dangerous frustration at our gridlocked and ineffective government.

  6. George – An eloquent and, I fear, not unrealistic assessment of the state of the nation. I am also a skeptic of a third party solution, but since several of you have now brought it up, I’ll see if I can devote a separate post to discussing the idea.

  7. Matt, if your intent with the last two postings was to stir up the troops during these “dog days” of August, you have succeeded. But I believe your argument falls short.

    There is one Democratic brouhaha that is comparable–Kennedy versus Carter. And that left a weak President even weaker. But the situation is even worse for Hillary Clinton. She voluntarily resigned from her position as United States Senator to become Secretary of State and an important member of President Obama’s cabinet. This raises two issues: “loyalty” and the “royal family”. The former has been addressed in a few of the comments, but not the latter. Royals may be accepted In England despite some marital quirks. However, if you think that the Clinton’s domestic issues are over that would be a mistake. I expect that many readers of your blog don’t follow the tabloids. Thus I recommend that people Google what has been reported about Chelsea’s marriage. Whether true or not, I don’t think Mrs. Clinton wants to run the risk of having that become a larger discussion in public. And I know it is irrelevant to governing issues but….

    Has Mrs. Clinton been a successful Secretary of State? Unfortunately, international respect for the USA today is at a very low point. Is it all Secretary Clinton’s fault? No. The President’s? No to that as well. Could certain international issues have been better addressed? Of course. See, for example, the consistency, or lack thereof, in the response to the “Arab Spring.”

    Turning to the 2008 campaign, please recall what a terrible campaign Mrs. Clinton ran. She blew a big lead and went through a pile of money in doing so. Why should we expect something better this time?

    Finally, the impact of the debt crisis and Congressional machinations have not yet been fully assessed. Despite rightly held misgivings by many about positions the President advocated, his overall support has apparently jumped. I just don’t see the upside for Mrs. Clinton to resign as Secretary of State and run against a sitting President for the Democratic nomination. A switch with Vice President Biden may be another matter.

  8. Marty,

    Good points, all. Let me respond briefly to each of them. Re: Chelsea’s marriage – I confess I missed that story last time I was in the grocery line, but will it really jeopardize a presidential run by Hillary? Heck, the fact that Chelsea’s marriage is already in the news suggests whether Hillary runs or not won’t affect tabloid coverage of her daughter. As for the U.S.’s international standing, I don’t disagree that it has been somewhat tarnished in recent months due to our mixed responses to the Arab spring. But, as you say, the public perception will likely place as much – or more – of the blame on the President as on his Secretary of State. I just don’t think Clinton’s Sec. of State record is going to hurt her – note the steady increase in her approval ratings since she took the job. She’s more popular now than she has ever been.

    As for 2008, Clinton’s campaign “lead” was a media-fiction, much as they have Bachmann “leading” the Republican race today. You are right that she made some campaign gaffes – most notably failing to contest the caucuses early on – but as I argued many times, Obama’s team made similar gaffes (see the mixed and belated Reverend Wright response). To the victors goes the spoils – in this case, they get to write the history of the 2008 campaign. But one could just as well argue that she’ll run a better race this time around, with one campaign under her belt.

    I’ve dealt with the Carter-Kennedy race before so won’t belabor my point that it didn’t weaken Carter anymore than he already was. And that’s the reason why many Democrats want Clinton to run – because Obama is poised to lose this general election. Everyone seems to look at a Clinton challenge in terms of what it will do to Obama. But that’s the wrong perspective, if you are a Democrat. What you should do is ask yourself who is more likely to beat the Republican nominee in 2012? Start with your end goal, and work backwards from there. So far not one of you have addressed this issue.

  9. You say we don’t explain why it doesn’t help the Dem nominee.

    Over and over we say race will be a huge issue. No black member of Congress would side with her. That being, no big hitter is going to decide to abandon the first black POTUS. Sorry but it doesn’t even pass the straight face test.

    This has nothing to do with Obama being entitled to anything. It has to do with politicians being politicians.

    You have to tell us how we even get to the middle stage of this battle. All I can imagine is bafflement if she announced. Everyone would back Obama and warn that she risks handing the election to Romney. How would it progress past that stage with Kerry, Dean, Pelosi etc lining up behind Obama???

    That you believe a vigorous debate would forge a stronger candidate is neither here nor there. I see no path to that debate (today) And nobody says she can’t run. And she would get vocal support from the detestable HillaryIs41 crowd.

    Maybe HRC would be a better POTUS. Hard to see the path though at this point in time.

    And as the previous poster said, she couldn’t have humanly done worse with her first shot when she had every possible advantage.

  10. LOL, this is sooo funny. For the 10000 time, Obama supporters continue to make race a issue. Look Hillary faced the race issue before, and came out in a draw for the nomination—in delegates, but ahead in the popular vote. I say that as things get worse–like the loss of our triple AAA rating, then the drum beat for a primary challenger will get louder. Who says it will be just Hillary challenging this President? A primary will be good for Democrats. It gives Democrats more than one choice on the ballot, instead of being given one option. Cut the race crap out. If the First Black POTUS did his job right, then this conversation would not be happening. It’s his own fault if he gets challengers for the nomination.

  11. Matt, you write “…Obama is poised to lose this general election. Everyone seems to look at a Clinton challenge in terms of what it will do to Obama. But that’s the wrong perspective, if you are a Democrat. What you should do is ask yourself who is more likely to beat the Republican nominee in 2012? Start with your end goal, and work backwards from there. So far not one of you have addressed this issue.”

    I haven’t the faintest idea who the Republican nominee will be. If I recall correctly at this time four years ago (and I admit I haven’t looked at four year old newspaper headlines), “smart money” was betting on a McCain or Romney vs Clinton race. My question: against whom do you expect Secretary Clinton would do better than President Obama? I won’t hold you to it, but I’m curious. I would need a multi-faceted coin for my prediction.

  12. Marty,

    First, I hope I haven’t given the impression that Obama is going to lose this race. As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s far too early for our forecast models to kick in. And even if they were predictive at this stage, they show the race a dead heat. In short, don’t count Obama out. As for the Republican nominee – I don’t have a clue either. I think – and it’s an early guess in lieu of actually studying the candidates – that the strongest Republican is likely to be Perry, but we don’t even know if he’s going to run. But here’s the key: for most voters, 2012 won’t be about the Republican so much as it will be a referendum on Obama and the economy. For Clinton’s supporters, that means she has fewer weaknesses than Obama since she doesn’t have a record to defend. At least that’s the argument they make. So the rationale for the Clinton candidacy isn’t based so much on matchups with Republicans – it’s on the comparison between Obama and Clinton.

    Again, I’m playing devil’s advocate here. There’s lots of reasons to suggest why a Clinton candidacy might not work. So far, most of the criticisms have focused on the nominating process. My only point is that if I’m a Democrat, I might start first with the general election outcome.

  13. Matt, thanks for the reply. I think that the dynamics of the race would be different if the Republican nominee were Romney or Huntsman as compared with folks like Bachmann, Palin (unannounced) or Perry (also unannounced). I realize that I divided these candidates into two parts: the two Mormons who are trying to underplay their religious tradition and the three who are emphasizing their Christian conservatism. The religious angle for Newt Gingrich is a whole other story from the five mentioned above, but I suspect both of us doubt his viability in becoming the nominee. I don’t buy your set in stone proposition that the key is “.. for most voters, 2012 won’t be about the Republican so much as it will be a referendum on Obama and the economy.” You may be right, but it’s premature. What’s going to happen with the Congressional super-committee? Afghanistan? Iraq? etc.

  14. Marty – You are right. It is premature – a lot can happen in the next year. As of today, however, it looks like this race will turn on the economy. Tomorrow? Who knows?

    You say the dynamics will be different based on whether the Republicans nominate Category I versus Category II candidates – but how will it be different? (I’m not disagreeing – I’m interested in your take).

  15. In brief, the Category I people are more serious about how to govern. You can have a serious debate with these candidates. Huntsman is probably the better prepared of the two because he has gubernatorial and ambassadorial experience (as an Obama appointee!)…but is far less likely to be the nominee. Romney is smart and sly. Interesting strategy that he is following this time around: keep a low profile and let the others burn themselves out. Why sly? I don’t trust him. Two examples: 1) His attempts to dance around the differences between the Massachusetts health reform and the federal heath reform acts (perhaps an albatross for him), and 2) yesterday’s Washington Post editorial about a million dollar contribution through a vehicle established and disestablished just as quickly. This just served to confirm my thoughts.

    The Category II candidates are zealots for whom there is only one path: my way. That is not how the government of the USA is supposed to function. I find it hard to take them seriously, but I should.

    I also think that, once Romney comes out of his strategic shell, the dynamics of the Republican primary oratory will differ between Category I and II candidates.

  16. I agree about Hillary. She was my choice then and now. Though I appreciated the historical accomplishment of a black man running and winning, Hillary was the obvious best person for the job. At this point, it is like needing a Franklin Roosevelt to pull the country through and Hillary’s it! Can we draft her? I am a life long Democrat but I cannot vote for Obama again. If I do it is with the resignation of just not wanting to see a Republican in office. That was how I voted in 2008. Not again.

  17. One thing that hasn’t been addressed is how different the mood is now than it was in 2008. Obama had a rock star-like quality about him that many people ate right up. It didn’t matter what he said, it didn’t matter what he did. He was new and young and black (and not GWB) and, for many, that was enough. And with the Media completely abdicating any duty whatsoever to question him or his shockingly thin resume — deciding instead to shrilly scream that Hillary, who just won yet another major Primary she wasn’t supposed to, had to DROP OUT NOW –, most went into the Voting Booths and pulled the lever/pushed the button/spoke into the clown’s mouth to vote for someone they knew very little about.

    Fast forward to 2012: Obama, whose resume we’re now painfully aware of, will face tough questions. Defend his record. Defend his decisions. Explain to the American People why he promised one thing in the campaign and then did the opposite while in Office. And if there’s something we (kind of) learned about Obama during 2008 and into his Presidency, he doesn’t take kindly to being questioned or having to defend something, i.e. tanking in the last debate and then canceling the next one which would have been the last one. How will this play out for those Democrats (yes, Democrats!) and Independents who are reluctant to, in their minds, make the same mistake twice? They may see a less-than-Presidential man once again lecturing us for not supporting him more or trusting him more or something. Not exactly designed to give the Voter a case of the warm and fuzzies or inspire them to whip out their checkbooks.

    One thing I hear a lot of in Democratic circles — to the point where it’s now becoming a not-so-subtle roar — is how Hillary never would have capitulated so easily to the Republicans, never would have made deals with them behind the Dem Party’s back, never would have folded so easily without a fight. What I hear time and again is Hillary is stronger than Obama. A bare-knuckle fighter who isn’t afraid of the Republican Hate Machine because she’s already faced it and won. She’s relentless and determined and a ferociously hard worker — no golf or basketball for her — and isn’t that, all of that, what the Party needs?

    I still think she’ll run because that is, in fact, what the Party needs.

    I also hear, and this is truly frightening, people wondering what it’d be like to “make history twice” by voting for a woman. Even one on a Republican ticket. Yes, you read that right. Make history twice. If the choice is between Obama/Biden — and the albatross that is their Record and their penchant for punking their own Party — and an apparently nice Republican guy with an apparently nice (or at least not as scary as she could be) woman as VP, some would be tempted to “make history twice.” As ridiculous as it sounds, those Party Pooh-Bahs in DC would be wise not to pooh-pooh a Voter’s desire to “make history twice”.

    At the end of the day and as ugly as it is (or can be), the Democratic Leadership is obsessed with self-preservation. If the irrefutable facts (i.e. polls) show that they can keep the White House with Hillary as the Nominee, many of them won’t think twice about throwing their weight behind her. And, like you said, it’s not like she’s some newbie upstart who’d have to start from scratch in gathering support and money and it’s not like Obama is somehow OWED the Nomination simply because he’s the Incumbent. It might be good to go back to the days when politicians, especially Presidents, had to earn it.

    My political instincts tell me there are many whispered conversations in many darkened living rooms right now wondering how best to approach Hillary Running.

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