The Democrats' High-Risk Clinton Gambit

Democrats who insist that Hillary Clinton is 'too big to fail' are hiding their own role in creating such a risk to begin with.

By Nathan Pippenger

Between questions about foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation and controversy over her emails, this has been a tough week for Hillary Clinton’s looming presidential campaign. So tough, in fact, that some liberal writers are starting to make a louder case for a genuine primary, and White House aides, apparently aiming to distance the President from his former Secretary of State and would-be successor, are starting to feed hostile quotes about Clinton to reporters. And although this week’s much-talked-about Times piece on Clinton attributed her “pseudo-incumbency” to the Democrats’ “weak bench,” analysts are pushing back—hard—against the notion that Democrats lack a credible alternative. The importance of rebutting that idea becomes clear once you pause to consider the logic of the Times’s striking metaphor: “Mrs. Clinton, many Democrats say, is simply too big to fail.”

It reveals something about Democrats’ private misgivings that leading party figures are willing to tell the paper of record: If you think about it, our top candidate is a lot like a pre-2008 Wall Street bank! This isn’t to say that Clinton wouldn’t be a formidable candidate, or that she can’t help with fundraising and voter turnout for down-ticket Democrats. But in addition to airing important intra-party debates, and giving Democratic voters a meaningful choice, the cultivation of other candidates would go a long way to reduce the risks of what is still effectively an uncontested primary.

This is less far-fetched, and less dangerous to party unity, than is often supposed. Aside from Elizabeth Warren, the Democrats whose names are generally floated—including Deval Patrick, Amy Klobuchar, Ron Wyden, Martin O’Malley, and Sherrod Brown—largely lack a national profile simply because they haven’t entered the ring yet, or have done so only tentatively. But they present enough of a range for a productive and clarifying debate within the Democratic mainstream.

If, on the other hand, Clinton wins the nomination more or less unopposed, the Times’s analogy may turn out to be even more dangerous than it sounds. After all, there’s a key difference between a “too big to fail” bank and a “too big to fail” candidate: the banks can actually rely on an institution with the power and resources—the federal government—to bail them out. But how can a party bail out a faltering presidential campaign? If there are no alternative candidates, it can’t—they simply lose the election. Democratic donor Sarah Kovner is quoted by the Times as saying: “There is no one else — she’s the whole plan.” But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If powerful Democrats put the money and resources behind Clinton because there’s no one else, they’ll merely help guarantee that there’s no one else. Hillary Clinton is the biggest thing in the Democratic primary right now, but she’s only too big to fail if her rivals and party bigwigs, all claiming to act from an excess of caution, actually end up creating a massive party-wide risk.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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