How Do You Hire an Understudy for a Presidential Campaign?

Amidst the growing din over Hillary Clinton’s announcement of candidacy Sunday, there’s one voice I’d recommend listening to if only because I do think he’s isolated the main source of angst about HRC among Democrats. Here’s Brian Beutler at TNR today:

[T]here’s still a good argument that the Democratic Party could use a contested primary this cycle: not to toughen up Clinton’s calluses, but to build some redundancy into the presidential campaign. It may even be the case that some of these Democrats with rattled nerves are less anxious about Clinton’s prowess against Republicans than about the fact that all of the party’s hopes now rest on her shoulders. Her campaign has become a single point of failure for Democratic politics. If she wins in 2016, she won’t ride into office with big congressional supermajorities poised to pass progressive legislation. But if she loses, it will be absolutely devastating for liberalism.

If you’re faithful to the odds, then most of this anxiety is misplaced. Clinton may have slipped in the polls by virtue of an email scandal and her return to the partisan trenches more generally. But she’s still more popular and better known than all of the Republicans she might face in the general, her name evokes economic prosperity, rather than global financial calamity, the economy is growing right now, and Democrats enjoy structural advantages in presidential elections, generally.

But all candidates are fallible, and most of them are human, which means every campaign labors under the small risk of unexpected collapse. The one real advantage of a strong primary field is that it creates a hedge against just such a crisis. Right now either Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or Jeb Bush is favored to win the Republican primary, but if both of them succumb to scandal or health scares, the GOP can shrug it off knowing that other seasoned Republicans have infrastructure in place, and are poised to swoop in if necessary.

If nobody serious challenges Hillary Clinton, nobody can be her understudy. In the near term that isn’t a problem, but if doubts about her inevitability develop late in the year or early next, the placid silence in the Democratic field will grow eerie.

What I like about Brian’s argument is that it’s not really about Hillary Clinton, but about any “putative nominee” for a party facing so crucial a presidential election–one in which, as Beutler points out, a Republican win could very well create one-party government in Washington. Even if you think–as I do–that the risk of an HRC implosion is a lot lower than it would be with anyone else you can think of, it’s still a risk.

But I’m not so sure there’s any realistic way to create what Brian calls an “understudy.”

Anyone running a serious nomination race against HRC, which will inevitably focus on HRC, will have a hard time becoming an “understudy,” and will inevitably suffer from anger among other Democrats at any success enjoyed in adding another stone to the burden she will carry in the general election. And there’s really not much Democrats can do to emulate the GOP’s advantage in having a field so very large that multiple candidates can run big and positive campaigns.

This is one area where it should be obvious a parliamentary system would be vastly superior–where “understudies” could be deliberately chosen, groomed and promoted by an all-powerful party. Since we don’t have that, Democrats should probably reassure themselves that if HRC looks really vulnerable really early, there would be time for them to get behind a rival, and not necessarily one currently planning to run. So the risk Beutler is talking about, of a late disaster, is analogous to the fear a driver over icy roads harbors when thinking ahead to that last big curve.

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.