“Clearing the Field” Redux

I wrote about this in February, but since Tod Lindberg’s piece at TNR throwing cold water on the idea of HRC “clearing the field” of Democrats in 2016 will likely get a lot of attention (he’s a respected conservative writing about Democratic politics), I will repeat myself a bit.

Like some other writers, Lindberg seems to take the notion of “clearing the field” quite literally, and thus pens a column that trashes that extremely unlikely contingency by noting that candidates seeking a “trial run,” vying for the vice presidency, or even just wanting attention, could well enter the lists against a prohibitive front-runner. I don’t know anybody who doubts that. That has generally been the case since the full adoption of the primary system in 1972 made a complete preemptive lockdown of the nomination by party bosses impossible, and was usually the case even before 1972.

So when Lindberg quotes Steny Hoyer endorsing the “HRC could clear the field” hypothesis, he seems to think Steny meant that quite literally, which I doubt seriously. The more likely meaning of the term, which we ought to adjust to or just find a different term, is that HRC is in a position to have a dominant opening position unlike anything we’ve seen in either party for quite some time. Based on her current popularity and poll standings; her universal name ID; and the historic nature of her candidacy, she’s currently in a vastly stronger position than she was in 2008 (when she was considered “too polarizing” for a general election, had a rival for “historical candidacy” in Barack Obama, and had to deal with a significant number of Democratic voters and activists still angry at her Iraq War vote and at various things her husband did). And at present, she’s in a stronger position than George W. Bush or Al Gore going into 2000; Bob Dole going into 1996; George H.W. Bush going into 1988; Richard Nixon going into 1968; and anyone else you can think of after 1960.

That could obviously change, but unless we just want to throw up our hands and not think about it, HRC is at a unique level right now, and “she could clear the field,” which just means she could chase off strong opposition and lock down the nomination very early. This is probably as good a way to describe it as any other, but if people keep taking it literally, let’s use “most dominant front-runner of our era” or something.

UPDATE: Since commenter Lifelong Dem thinks I’m trying to “rewrite history” by suggesting HRC is in a better position that she was at this point eight years ago, I have to say I just disagree, and I was around then, too. No, Obama hadn’t emerged as a likely candidate just yet. But John Edwards basically never stopped running after 2004, and let’s don’t rewrite history about him: he was a formidable candidate with an organization already in place in Iowa (where he ultimately finished ahead of HRC). John Kerry was still thinking about running again, and he had universal name ID and no more intraparty detractors than HRC. There was serious talk about Al Gore running. But aside from the potential field, a HRC candidacy was controversial within and beyond the party in a way that it simply isn’t right now. Everyone’s entitled to their own memories, particular on a slippery topic like this, but I don’t think I’m just making this up, and I’m certainly not trying to help build some HRC bandwagon. It’s already there if she chooses to climb aboard.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.