Political Animal


February 25, 2013 5:35 PM “Clearing the Field”

By Ed Kilgore

Jonathan Martin’s Politico piece today wherein he asks a bunch of ambitious Democratic governors if they think Hillary Clinton could “clear the field” if she runs for president in 2016 is the first of many along these lines we will likely see in the months and maybe years ahead.

Read the whole thing if you are interested in hearing what the governors are willing to say on the record on this subject (my favorite is the response from Colorado’s John Hickenlooper: “You should be asking Martin O’Malley.”)

But I thought it would be more useful to look at the historical record and ask exactly what it means these days to “clear the field.”

It does not, presumably, mean preempting any competition whatsoever. There will always be someone willing to enter the lists in the early primaries in case the presumed nominee dies or becomes very ill or it is revealed she was in the habit of celebrating Black Masses in her college dorm room. And if the “clearing” candidate is Hillary Clinton (or for that unlikely matter, Joe Biden), the temptation to form an insurgent, anti-establishment campaign will be overpowering to at least one theoretically credible challenger.

The more practical question is whether a candidate as strong as Clinton could obliterate the opposition in the first couple of contests and make the primaries and caucuses a historical footnote.

Back in the days when half or more of the delegates were selected outside the primaries, that was a tough row to hoe. In 1968, Richard Nixon blew away George Romney in New Hampshire, and after a brief stumble in Massachusetts where a dithering Nelson Rockefeller re-entered the race he had left in March, the Tricky One cruised the rest of the way, winning every other primary he entered, usually by huge margins. But it took a late Eisenhower endorsement, plus general election polls showing Nixon doing better in a general election than Rocky, plus various promises to southern conservatives, for Nixon to nail down the nomination in the face of a pincers movement from Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan (who entered the contest on the eve of the convention).

After 1972, when both parties begin requiring that virtually all delegates be selected in party-approved primaries and caucuses, no non-incumbent presidential candidate has really “cleared the field” in the sense of avoiding significant early opposition. Neither of the sitting vice presidents who have run in the primary era—George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000—had a cakewalk to the nomination (Bush famously ran third in Iowa, behind Pat Robertson, and Gore was very nearly upset by Bill Bradley in New Hampshire). Conversely, none of the more famous non-candidacies—Ted Kennedy in 1984, 1988 and 1992; Mario Cuomo and Sam Nunn in 1988 and 1992; Newt Gingrich in 1996; Al Gore in 2004; or the many GOP Establishment non-recruits of 2012—happened because of some overwhelming and unbeatable front-runner.

It is entirely possible that HRC is unique in her combination of qualities—universal name recognition, long service to her party, current popularity, solid ideological positioning, and the special advantage of representing the most overdue “historic first” presidency of them all. But even if the rival no one could fault for a challenge to HRC, Joe Biden, fails to take the chance, someone, and probably someone with a resume that commands at least minimal respect, will show up if not at the starting gate, then in the endless preliminaries. And if Clinton puts off a statement of likely candidacy or some other show of force until after the midterms, no telling how many pols with find reasons to spend time in Iowa and New Hamsphire in the interim.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on February 25, 2013 6:27 PM:

    If Hillary does run, I expect a few Democratic Senators and Governors to throw their hats in the ring - if for no other reason, than as a preperation for 2020, if she somehow loses, and 2024 if she wins.

  • abc on February 25, 2013 6:52 PM:

    I have been a big fan of Biden's since his days as Judiciary Chair during the Clarence Thomas hearings, and think he's doing a fine job as VP.

    However, just for perspective, remember that in 2008 he got 0.8% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses and 0.2% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary while Obama, Clinton and Edwards duked it out and sucked all the air out of the room for everyone else. At least to that point, Biden was not viewed as the type of person who could inspire a mass political movement the way the main three candidates did that year. Since that time there has been no real test of his appeal since he has been on the Obama team.

    Who knows, he now occupies the position Al Gore held in 2000 and he seems much better able to pitch emotional appeals to the public than Gore was at the time. I thought he kicked Paul Ryan's behind in the VP debates; and he has never lost an election (Presidential primaries aside), has he?

    I think he'd get swamped in a battle against HRC, but if she didn't run, there's no reason to think he could not win the nomination, and depending on the economy, win the general election too.

  • Mimikatz on February 25, 2013 7:15 PM:

    One of the things that probably makes it hard for Hilary is that she will have a hard time projecting how she will feel in 3 years when the first primary votes are cast. Health wise, so much can change in that time at her age. And this is her first real rest in many years. Is she going to be able to summon the fire and energy for that big push in 3 years? And then 4 years of governing?

    In addition, the minute she becomes a Dem candidate for Pres she loses much of her appeal. The vast right-wing conspiracy, as she famously called it, will start to shift from the Kenyan Muslim Marxist to the Lesbian Marxist Harpy and she won't be as popular or revered. So why not go out on top? She could do something else and keep her popularity and sanity intact.

    I really hope she doesn't run and we have someone in their 40s or at most 50s who is really going to have to live through the future we are cooking up. If she does run I hope she announces it is for one term and she grooms someone as VP. There are many Dems who could do the job, and then we would be set to 2028.

  • Tien Le on February 25, 2013 7:20 PM:

    I'm not forgetting that she ran a horrible campaign in '07-'08 and got beaten. She didn't handle being beaten very well, either. Why should she get a pass when she hasn't proven herself to be a candidate who can stick it out over the long haul? If she wants to clear the field, she needs to do it on her own--not just have it handed to her on a silver platter.

  • cdw on February 25, 2013 7:51 PM:

    I so hope Hillary doesn't run. I don't think she can win. There are too many people who have a bad taste in their mouths from the Clinton years. Besides the dems need to get new blood to the forefront.

  • Chris on February 25, 2013 9:08 PM:

    Thanks, cdw, for saying what I am thinking. Sec. Clinton's achievements are monumental and in no way should they be diminished.

    However, she will be 69 by the time the 2016 election occurs; thus, 77 by the end of a putative second term. Without being terribly ageist, I don't know that electing someone as President at that august age- especially someone who's suffered a reasonably serious medical issue within the past six months- is the best choice for our nation.

    Additionally, political dynasties are pretty unpleasant when Republicans do it (re: Bush). Respectfully, the Kennedy clan had major issues on the Democratic side (although it should be impossible to denigrate Ted Kennedy's achievements as a legislator). Seeing a second Clinton in the White House wouldn't sit well from that perspective.

    But, really, Sec. Clinton has already said she wouldn't run and that she was looking forward to retiring. It's time to allow her several moment's rest while the progressives and leftists put forth a candidate to stand in the primaries. Surely, the centrists will.

  • Mark Kawakami on February 25, 2013 10:08 PM:

    It's actually vitally important that HRC face significant primary opposition. She hasn't run for office since 2008, which means her campaigning machinery has largely dissipated. She can create one from scratch, yes, but it's the heat of primary battles that sharpen and harden a campaign, from the lowest level unpaid volunteers to the candidate herself, into the sort of nimble, crafty, well-funded behemoth that can triumph in the general election.

    In 2008, McCain was pretty clearly going to be the nominee, despite early gains by candidates like Giuliani and Romney. His path to the nomination was frankly a bit easy. But on the other side, Obama and Clinton were duking it out, each scoring lead-changing wins over-and-over, until slowly Obama's campaign gained pulled ahead to the nomination. Nothing about that primary season was easy. By the end, both campaigns were tough as nails and battle hardened, and either would have beaten McCain. That's what a tough primary season gives you. You can't take a short cut.

    When 2016 rolls around, there will be Democrats running against HRC. And you're going to hear from people on the left that those running against her are doing a disservice to the party. That they're missing the bigger picture, that we need to rally around our nominee as soon as possible. That's the wrong attitude.

    If we want a Democrat to win in 2016, we must have an extremely competitive primary. And if you want HRC to be the nominee (as I do), you should hope someone is doing his or her damndest to prevent exactly that. This is how winners are made.

  • low-tech cyclist on February 25, 2013 10:20 PM:

    First of all, what Hickenlooper said. O'Malley's running. Two terms as mayor of Baltimore, two terms as governor of Maryland, leaving office in January 2015, and no prospect that Sens. Mikulski or Cardin are contemplating retirement. A Presidential run is his only avenue for moving up, and now is the time: by 2024 he'd be a nobody again unless he runs now.

    I'm sure Biden's a fine VP, but his ability to draw a following outside of Delaware has been repeatedly tested and found wanting. I think Biden loses the comparison with Gore. Gore and Biden both ran in 1988. Gore won 7 primaries; Biden was an afterthought.

    Sure, the wingnuts will turn on Hillary if she wins the Dem nomination. And you read it here first that it won't matter much. You know why? Because by then she will have been in the national limelight for a quarter-century. People will have - hell, already have - pretty much decided what they think of her. There really won't be that many votes that wingnut rage or MSM ridicule will be able to flip, if Hillary's the nominee.

    In response to Tien Le, I'd say that she did a damned good job of fighting back once she was behind. Two things: (1) she won't make the mistake, this time, of running on inevitability. She'll have a clear message, or she won't run. (2) Hopefully she'll have learned not to employ hangers-on of the Mark Penn/Lanny Davis level of quality. Henchmen like them wouldn't kill her in 2016, but they sure wouldn't help.

  • Rich on February 25, 2013 10:59 PM:

    We're talking about Politico here. They're part of the Beltway cowd that keeps reviving talk of HRC's candidacy because they'd rather recycle their old tropes about her and Bill (a twofer) rather than have to, you know, work. Getting to know Martin O'Malley, Andrew Cuomo, Sherrod Brown, et al., would require reserach, reading, and reporting, you know stuff they hate to do. HRC has no real record as Sec of State. She ran a campaign that ultimately went into the ditch under the dead weight of people like Lanny Davis. The best thing anyone can do is either mock Politico and their ilk for their real agenda or simply ignore them.

  • Rip on February 26, 2013 2:13 AM:

    IF she decides to run she will be a more credible front runner than she was being painted to be in 2008. Beyond that, it's too soon to tell.

  • Anonymous on February 26, 2013 10:20 AM:

    In 2008, McCain was pretty clearly going to be the nominee, despite early gains by candidates like Giuliani and Romney.

    This is not even slightly true. McCain was hated by conservatives, who normally have a veto on the Republican nomination, and his campaign looked dead for most of the latter half of 2007. It wasn't clear who was going to be the Republican nominee, but it certainly wasn't clear that McCain would be.

    Two terms as mayor of Baltimore, two terms as governor of Maryland, leaving office in January 2015, and no prospect that Sens. Mikulski or Cardin are contemplating retirement.

    There's every prospect that Mikulski will retire in 2016, when she'll be 80. She may not, but it's certainly a significant possibility. And Cardin will be 75 in 2018 - he might retire, too.

  • Jay C on February 26, 2013 10:21 AM:

    @ mimikatz:

    In addition, the minute she becomes a Dem candidate for Pres she loses much of her appeal. The vast right-wing conspiracy, as she famously called it, will start to shift from the Kenyan Muslim Marxist to the Lesbian Marxist Harpy and she won't be as popular or revered.

    Disagree: if I were a Candidate Clinton or her advisors, I'd welcome, rather than fear such a campaign: a lot will depend, in 2016, on who the Republicans will run, but a GOP campaign which leans too heavily on quarter-century-smears (Vince Foster? Mena drug flights?) can (and would) be painted as a desperation move, and probably fail badly. I also can't see, btw, how Hillary's tenure at State can have done anything but polish her resume and make her even more "popular [and] revered" - YMMV....

  • John Petty on February 26, 2013 11:36 AM:

    If HIllary runs, she will win the nomination virtually by acclamation, and will be elected in the fall. She would do as well as Pres. Obama among minorities, would do better with working class white men, and would score heavily among women, including many Republican women. (Every Republican woman who votes for Hillary is a two-fer--one they didn't get, and one we did.)

  • rikyrah on February 26, 2013 11:47 AM:

    Are we back to that Hillary is INEVITABLE bullshyt that was thrown out in 2007?

    cause once that was debunked, she never had a Plan B.

    IFFF she is such a strong candidate, then fight it out.

  • John Petty on February 26, 2013 12:40 PM:

    She did, and won every primary except Illinois, and finished with more votes than Obama.

  • ShadowSD on February 27, 2013 8:03 PM:

    You don't get a pass because of your performance in a primary eight years ago.

    We need a good primary. Hillary proved in 2008 that a good primary is necessary to determine whether a candidacy is in truth weaker than the inevitably it purports to have.

    It also is important to have a candidate challenging her from the left to pull her to commitments on as many progressive policy positions as possible. This is because it is vital to what will be the public desire in 2016 for the "continuation of Obama" - a tendency that is often cited as justification for why Hillary will be unstoppable, but that in fact is defined by a very simple statement: "For Obama to have succeeded as a progressive President, the nominee eight years into the future should be more progressive, and certainly cannot be less progressive"

    I think that statement is a fair assessment of the truth, and will be that of primary voters in 2016; any winning candidate will have to meet that standard, Secretary Clinton included.

  • Jim Ball on March 01, 2013 6:35 AM:

    I too think the age issue is the major question mark.

    Now to be sure, the stress of four years of very demanding work (involving ceaseless international travel) as Secretary of State have been certainly her hardest years in public office and public life, more so than Senator from New York, and First Lady (in both the White House and the Arkansas Governor's mansion.)

    But for all the stress that's involved in a top Cabinet post, it doesn't compare to the stress of the Presidency.

    Yes, she'll be rested for a few years before getting into the scrum of a national election cycle, but a 69-year old person is not young.

    That said, it's not a blanket disqualifier by any means. After all, John McCain was 72 when he ran for President in 2008, and Ronald Reagan was 70 when he ran for his first Presidential term in 1980.

    So if a person born in 1911 (Reagan) could make it through eight years starting at age 70 in the early 1980's, a person born in 1947 should be able to do so starting at age 69 in the mid-2010's.