What Hillary Clinton Has to Prove

Hillary's in, but the one debate that could make her a better candidate may never take place.

By Nathan Pippenger

My grand plan for ink conservation over the next 19 months is to replace almost all coverage of the 2016 campaign with this, from Jonathan Chait:

The argument for Clinton in 2016 is that she is the candidate of the only major American political party not run by lunatics. There is only one choice for voters who want a president who accepts climate science and rejects voodoo economics, and whose domestic platform would not engineer the largest upward redistribution of resources in American history. Even if the relatively sober Jeb Bush wins the nomination, he will have to accommodate himself to his party’s barking-mad consensus. She is non-crazy America’s choice by default. And it is not necessarily an exciting choice, but it is an easy one, and a proposition behind which she will probably command a majority.

It’s not that it’s impossible to quibble with this argument—Nate Cohn, for one, predicts that she “will not be a juggernaut” next November, writing that “today’s political environment is consistent with a close election that might tilt slightly toward the Republicans.” Rather, Chait’s core point draws on an important, and often overlooked, fact about presidential elections: Voters aren’t just electing a president. They’re picking an administration and a party. That fact makes certain staples of campaign journalism largely irrelevant. It is regularly pointed out, for instance, that Jeb Bush has a relatively moderate stance on immigration, among other issues. But the conclusion that he would therefore lead the GOP to embrace moderate approaches to immigration or any other issue is risible. His brother was also a moderate on immigration and failed repeatedly to sway conservatives in Congress.

Of course, this applies to the Democrats and Hillary Clinton, too. In both the primary and general elections, voters will still largely view the choice in personal terms, which is why Clinton’s pitch-perfect announcement video subtly addresses two of the most prominent complaints about her: her chumminess with Wall Street and her alleged sense of entitlement to the presidency (captured perfectly in this Onion headline). The first lines spoken by Clinton are: “I’m getting ready to do something too: I’m running for president. Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times, but the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.” This is a direct response to liberal worries. More subtly, she concludes: “So I’m hitting the road to earn your vote.” The word “earn” is no accident—as with her weakness on inequality, the campaign is well aware of a vulnerability here.

But as the point about administrations and parties suggests, these may not be the vulnerabilities that really matter. On inequality, for one thing, the Democratic momentum is obviously moving leftward—and while Clinton may never lead on that issue, she’s probably content to quietly follow the party, and definitely not inclined to oppose it. There are other aspects of a Clinton Administration that depend far more on who she is as an individual. Will hers be the campaign (and the presidency) of feuding aides, of mismanaged health care strategies, of murky ethical issues surrounding her staff? Will she populate her Administration with familiar Clintonland faces like Sidney Blumenthal—who the Obama people insisted stay far away from Clinton’s State Department, but who ended up advising the secretary anyway over her notorious private email channels?

These are important questions, but the policy contrast with the GOP is so stark that Clinton may never feel pressured to answer them. After all, weighed against four years of climate inaction and voodoo economics, concerns about administrative skills are the epitome of nitpicking. Clinton will only feel pressured to address them if they’re raised by an opponent who can’t be dismissed because of the issue gap. In other words, the only way to have this debate—and yield a better presidential candidate—is through a contested primary. Whether we’ll get one remains to be seen.

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

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