Why Hillary winning might be bad news for Democrats

Conventional wisdom for 2016 goes like this: Republicans are heading toward a bruising primary while, if she runs, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the de facto Democratic nominee. And, that CW goes, that is a very good thing for the Democratic Party.

Not necessarily.


Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a roundtable discussion held by Univision between parents of elementary school children and politicians regarding language learning and preschool on February 4, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The positives for Democrats of nominating Clinton basically by acclamation are obvious. She is well known, well liked and a proven commodity on the campaign trail. Polling suggests she has a massive primary lead and a double-digit lead in the general election as well. And she is a Clinton.

The negatives are less obvious but have both a symbolic and logistical component.

First, the symbolic. As we have written, elections are almost always about the future, and Clinton is, for better and worse, a candidate of the past. She first came into the national political consciousness in 1991 and has barely receded from that spot for the better part of the last two decades as she moved from first lady to New York senator to presidential candidate to secretary of state. Nominating her -- particularly if she is not seriously challenged in a primary -- will link the Democratic Party to all of the Clinton history, much of which the public would prefer to put behind them. And, given the relative newness of the Republican top-tier candidates -- Rand Paul, elected to the Senate in 2010, is 51, while Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Paul Ryan are all in their 40s and have spent relatively little time in elected office -- the contrast between past and future will be readily apparent and may well work against Clinton (and Democrats) in 2016.

Now, the logistical -- which may well be more important for the party's long-term future. Open presidential elections -- when your party has no sitting incumbent -- tend to be a moment in which a large-scale debate about what the party should look like going forward happens. Stars emerge with new messages that move the party in new directions. The presence of an heir apparent like Clinton stymie the rise of those new stars  -- and their messages -- for four or even eight years.

Whatever you think of Elizabeth Warren or Tim Kaine or Martin O'Malley or Kirstin Gillibrand or Andrew Cuomo, they all represent differing views of what the Democratic Party should focus on going forward. As Dan Balz and Phil Rucker wrote in a story examining the future of the Democratic Party over the weekend: "Democrats nevertheless face simmering tensions between the establishment and a newly energized populist wing, led by the unabashed liberalism of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the fiery rhetoric of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren."

A Clinton-less race would allow that fight to happen -- with one view emerging victorious. A race with Clinton -- and without a serious primary challenger against her -- postpones that fight while also keeping the ambitious voices within the party on the sidelines. If you need an example of how corrosive that can be for a party's long-term prospects, you need only to look back at the nomination of George W. Bush in 2000.

Bush was the de facto nominee from the start of the race, the scion of a well-regarded political family whose name recognition and, especially, fundraising ability scared off many of the other younger rising stars who were looking at running. Bush faced a surprisingly serious challenge from John McCain but still wound up as the nominee. Fast forward eight years -- when the fight over what the GOP should stand for began in earnest but with a field of candidates who were not the stars of the future. (The top tier of the race was McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani -- all of whom were at least 60 years old.) McCain, 72 years old on Election Day, lost to Obama, who was 25 years his junior, in an election defined by -- you guessed it! -- a vision of the future.

Many Democrats insist that the best thing for any party's future is to hold the White House -- no matter who does it or how he/she does it. Fair enough. But, that best-case scenario also assumes Clinton wins. If she loses the general election, Democrats may be stuck in a place that Republicans found themselves in 2012 -- facing the tough task of beating a sitting incumbent with a less-than-stellar group of candidates whose primary motivation in running is to not miss their window to do so.

Clinton is widely being cast within Democratic circles as the answer to the problems the party will face once the Obama era is over. (Populist or establishment? Pro-trade or protectionist?) Seen through another lens, however, she is a Band-Aid that simply delays rather than stops the inevitable political bloodletting that produces change and elevates new voices. And that might not be such a good thing.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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