May 26
Hillary Clinton (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Hillary Clinton (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

About a dozen Republican governors and senators are preparing to run for president in what promises to be a rip-roaring primary. On the Democratic side, on the other hand, a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton’s potential candidacy has yet to emerge. The Democrats who are considering a run — Martin O’Malley, Andrew Cuomo, Brian Schweitzer — are at the moment doing little more than considering. This is a remarkable political phenomenon, fascinating in its own way. But it presents a serious problem for the news media, because you can’t really report on what isn’t happening — at least not in the way political reporters are used to reporting.

Which is why we get things like this article in Politico today, which I think offers a taste of what’s to come as we move toward the 2016 campaign, a campaign that in some ways is already underway. “The ‘Wary of Hillary’ Democrats” reads the title, playing off “Ready for Hillary,” one of a number of organizations, pro and con, preparing for Clinton’s candidacy, and promising a report about distressed Democrats concerned that her early strength could prove disastrous for the party:

But there’s also a smaller but increasingly vocal group making its presence felt lately — call these Democrats the “Wary of Hillary” Democrats. They’re not outwardly opposing a Clinton candidacy. But they are anxious about the spectacle of a Clinton juggernaut, after seeing what happened when she ran a campaign of inevitability last time.

Some feel a competitive primary, regardless of the outcome, is good for the party. Others say Clinton, who’s been out of electoral politics for five years, needs to be tested. And some Democrats are merely concerned that the party won’t have an open airing of views on economic policy.

To reporter Maggie Haberman’s credit, she manages to restrain herself from making sweeping statements about this allegedly growing anti-Clinton movement. Because when you read the actual quotes Haberman gets, its tough to find anyone who is actually wary of Clinton. She starts with on-the-record quotes from four Democrats. Two (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Ohio governor Ted Strickland) say essentially that Clinton is great and there’s nothing to worry about. The other two (Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and California Gov. Jerry Brown) say Clinton is great, but she should be careful not to look too inevitable as the party’s nominee, since that can turn people off. Then there’s a quote from an anonymous Democrat who worked for a Clinton rival, who offers some comments about the party’s identity but doesn’t say anything about Clinton. Then Haberman closes it out with quotes from Democratic consultant Tad Devine and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who say everyone in the Democratic Party loves Clinton.

That doesn’t exactly sound like a tidal wave of opposition — or even wariness. But in the months to come, we’re going to see a lot of articles like this one, in which even the mildest of criticisms of Clinton or her campaign are trumpeted with headlines suggesting growing dissatisfaction and trouble looming on the horizon. That isn’t because the reporters writing the stories or the editors writing the headlines are dishonest. It’s because political news needs conflict.

A campaign that plays out with one candidate leading the whole way and never being seriously challenged is, as far as the news media are concerned, a one-way ticket to snoozeville. In the absence of genuine drama, journalists have to take whatever glimmering nuggets of conflict they can find, like prospectors panning for gold. So unless and until Clinton gets a real challenge, coverage of her candidacy is going to feature a lot of minor tactical disagreements and meaningless offhand comments blown up to suggest that things are about to get ugly.

For the record, as a liberal I’m agnostic about the prospect of a Clinton presidency; she has strengths and weaknesses, and it would certainly be salutary to hear her engage in an extended debate with other Democrats before she engages in an extended debate with a Republican, should she become the nominee. And if there are Democrats genuinely opposed to her candidacy — or anxious about it, or worried about it, or unsettled by it — then by all means we should hear from them and consider what they have to say. But the next time you read a dramatic headline about opposition to Clinton over a story that doesn’t quite deliver what’s promised, you’ll know why.