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November 12, 2013 9:58 AM The Single Savior Syndrome

By Ed Kilgore

As the idea of a Warren-Clinton presidential nomination fight going into 2016 bounces around the blogosphere and the chattering classes—sped along by Noam Scheiber’s article at TNR suggesting that Warren would be HRC’s “nightmare”—Slate’s Dave Weigel tartly reminds us of two key lessons from recent political history.

First, candidates like Warren have usually struggled with the nonwhite voters who play so prominent a role in Democratic nominating contests. And that could be fatal:

There’s no mention of the Democratic Party’s ethnic demographics in the New Republic’s or the New York Times’ Warren pieces. Scheiber reminds us that Obama was able to upset Hillary Clinton: “All it takes is a single issue and a fresh face to bring the bad memories flooding back” among progressives. Both Scheiber and the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin mention Bill de Blasio’s victory in New York City’s Democratic primary for mayor. And you can’t explain the Obama or the de Blasio win without black voters.

The interesting wrinkle is that before Obama became a viable presidential candidate, HRC’s own front-running status was heavily based on outsized African-American support against the likes of “economic populist” John Edwards. Can HRC now regain that status along with her relative 2008 strength among Latinos? If so, she’ll be hard to beat whether or not Elizabeth Warren represents the Democratic Party’s “soul,” and Warren could well join Edwards, Howard Dean, Bill Bradley, Tom Harkin, Paul Simon, and Gene McCarthy as candidates who lost to “less progressive” rivals because they couldn’t attract enough minority support.

Weigel’s second argument is that progressives should have learned from 2008 not to put all their hopes and dreams into anybody’s presidential campaign:

[I]t’s risky, weak strategy to make a presidential primary the test kitchen for policy change. Conservatives learned this brutally in 1972 when they urged Ohio Rep. John Ashbrook to run against Richard Nixon. “What I fear is a dissipation of our strength,” wrote William F. Buckley to a friend. He was perceptive: Ashbrook won a wan 9.7 percent of the New Hampshire vote, and Nixon was emboldened to ignore the right.
Over time, conservatives stopped expecting a president to get elected, lead, and solve all their problems. They built a grassroots machine and a litany of policy goals—the activists would speak, and the president would nod along. By 2012, Grover Norquist could tell a national conference that the next Republican president need only come to the job “with enough working digits to handle a pen.” That’s where progressives need to get, that un-glamorous and under-covered triumph of movement over party. Maybe, like Ron Paul, they can use a campaign to build the ranks. But if the Obama experience hasn’t taught them that a dreamy presidential candidate won’t bring about paradise, what will?

While Dave’s fundamental point that a candidacy is a weak substitute for a movement is unquestionably true. But it ain’t a bad substitute, so long as it’s a really good candidate committed to whatever direction the putative “movement” wants. In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton was the perfect vehicle for the nascent “New Democrat” movement. But I think Dave overstates Obama ‘08 as some sort of progressive equivalent. Yes, a lot of progressives gravitated to his banner in ‘08 because they saw him as representing a lefty alternative to the Clintons or to the kind of “centrists” who naturally supported the Iraq War. But there were many warning signs that Obama wasn’t ideologically that different to Clinton (and in some respects was less “populist”) and many voices repeated those warnings loudly enough. To the extent there was a “movement” candidate in the early 2008 field, at least in the blogosphere, it was probably Edwards rather than Obama. If the ideological mission most pressing to many progressives at the moment is to engineer a sharp and permanent break with Wall Street and the economic thinking associated with it, I’d say there’s nothing particularly perilous about trusting Elizabeth Warren to execute it if she becomes the leader of the Democratic Party and the free world. But even if that perfectly reflects what a majority of Democrats say (or progressive elites think) they want, beating Hillary Clinton in real-live primaries and caucuses—particularly without a nonwhite voter base—will be very, very difficult.

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.

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