The continuing controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails, culminating (for now) in yesterday’s contentious sparring with reporters, is likely to deepen the desire among Democratic activists and voters for a real Democratic presidential primary. That might force Clinton to spend months sharpening her handling of questions such as those swirling around her emails — not to mention her positions on key issues — under questioning from fellow Democrats.

The goal: A real debate pitched to an audience of Democratic voters, rather than an endless, grueling Hillary-versus-the-press death struggle.

Today, Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who has been talking about challenging Clinton from the left, was repeatedly asked by reporters to comment on Clinton’s emails, and he repeatedly refused. Not because he doesn’t think there are legitimate questions here, but because his advisers say raising them might reflect badly on him:

His advisers say there’s no benefit to him criticizing Clinton at this point. She’s already on the defensive, they reason, and die-hard Democrats are likely to be turned off if O’Malley sounds too much like Clinton’s Republican critics.

Well, I hope that isn’t the real rationale. I suspect most Democratic voters and activists want to hear a spirited debate about Clinton’s emails; in fact, such a debate among Democrats could be more illuminating than whatever results from Republican criticism of her over it, which is likely to be polluted by overreach.

More broadly, there are plenty of other topics important to Democratic voters that would benefit from a good debate between Clinton and one or more challengers: The massive trade deals that Obama is currently negotiating, which will likely be opposed by major constituencies within the Democratic party. The desire by some high profile Democratic lawmakers and activists to see Social Security expanded, rather than cut (as Obama has flirted with doing). Obama’s too-vague and too-broad request for authorization for the use of military force against ISIS, which will have ramifications for the next presidency. The possible nuclear deal with Iran, a topic on which Clinton has been vague. And so on.

The alternative to a real primary is a year and a half dominated by the aforementioned Hillary-versus-the-media death struggle. This was neatly spelled out by Patrick Healy of the New York Times, who provided a preview of what it will look like if the press corps gets it into its collective head that it is the only thing standing between Clinton and a Democratic coronation:

Mrs. Clinton is not expected to face comparably aggressive opponents for her party’s nomination…Which leaves the news media.
Mrs. Clinton has long had a fraught relationship with journalists, given their demands for full disclosure and her own long-held belief that public figures deserve a “zone of privacy,” as she put it during Bill Clinton’s race in 1992, or a “scope” of “personal privacy,” as she said on Tuesday.
With her first words at the news conference — asking reporters, “All set?” before delivering her remarks — Mrs. Clinton began a new and extraordinary chapter in her political life, one that could well last until the Democratic nomination is hers….by holding the 21-minute news conference, in which she mounted a lawyerly defense through gritted teeth (“Let me try to unpack your multiple questions,” she told one reporter), she undertook the first round of sparring in an opponent-deprived but nonetheless pugilistic phase of the campaign that seems apt to last until a likely Republican nominee emerges next spring.
“Democratic primary voters may let her have the presidential nomination without a struggle, but the press won’t,” said Robert Shrum, a Democratic strategist who has advised several presidential candidates including Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. “The press will wage a kind of primary campaign against her, at least try to bring her down a peg or two. In the end, she will be the nominee, but she has to go through it first.”
Tuesday was surely just her first face-off with the political press corps. And Election Day is 20 months away. “I don’t think the press primary is helpful: It can get very annoying and distracting,” Mr. Shrum said. “Al Gore got tortured by the press for claiming that he invented the Internet, which he never claimed. But it’s hard to predict which controversies in the media will actually end up hurting.”

Democrats, you’ve been warned.

It’s very early, but for now, it doesn’t appear any of Clinton’s rivals are inclined to even try to mount a primary challenge. Even if they were so inclined, it’s unclear whether any of them has the stature to compel Clinton to enter into the protracted debate on all these issues that a serious challenge would entail. But that shouldn’t stop us from wanting one.