The Same Liberal Reacts to the Democratic Presidential Drama, Part II

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last week here on Dorf on Law, I wrote two posts in which I discussed the current situation in the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating contests.  Even though we are still more than thirteen months away from Election Day 2016, and more than four months away from the Iowa caucuses (which are not really where Iowa's delegates are chosen, as far as I can tell). there has already been a surprisingly large amount of movement in both parties' fields.

Near the end of last Tuesday's post, "A Liberal Reacts to the Republican Presidential Circus," I wrote: "I thus reluctantly conclude that there is no scenario in which any Republican presidential win in 2016 is anything short of a disaster.  There are extra-extreme worst cases, but even the supposedly reasonable possibilities present no opening for policies that a liberal like me would consider less than horrible."  I then closed with a comment about Supreme Court appointments.

On Thursday, in "The Same Liberal Reacts to the Democratic Presidential Drama, Part I," I focused almost exclusively on Hillary Clinton's campaign, noting that I am actually starting to like her, despite my deep reservations about her over the years.  She is certainly being treated ridiculously unfairly by her opponents, the press, and even by some of her supposed allies.  The controversy about the private email server has, as I grimly anticipated this past Spring, not gone away, and it has turned into a serious albatross for her campaign.

The interesting question now is whether it is true that, as I summarized it at the time, "there really is no alternative to Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee."

To be clear, the analysis that I was summarizing was most definitely not a normative claim about the quality of Clinton's possible opponents.  The issue was whether any opponent could mount a serious challenge to the nomination, which meant not just that she or he could burst onto the scene and become a popular alternative to Clinton, but that the insurgent could put together the kind of campaign organization that would allow a serious run deep into the primaries.  By Spring of 2007, then-presumptive nominee Clinton was not nearly as well positioned as now-presumptive nominee Clinton is in 2015, as far as having everyone and everything who matters locked down.

That, at least, was the story as I understood it this part March.  Five-plus months further along, has anything changed?  Can the non-Clinton candidates be taken seriously?  In Part I of this two-part series, I deferred discussion of the remaining field of Democrats, saying only that "Bernie Sanders is surging and surprising everyone along the way; Joe Biden is deciding; Martin O'Malley is there; and the others are Democratic versions of George Pataki and Jim Gilmore."  Let me work backward through that list.

Who are the people whom I have dismissed in a Gilligan's Island-esque "and the rest"?  Their names are Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, and Lawrence Lessig.  Having now named these two former Republicans and one single-issue professor, I have nothing to say about them, other than that there is no scenario in which I can imagine any of them having even a moment in which he becomes plausible as the party's presidential nominee, or even as the vice presidential nominee.  That may be good or bad, but as a predictive matter, it seems more than safe.

Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley in some ways also belongs in the afterthought category, but for two factors.  First, he is quite obviously a plausible choice for vice president.  Not an odds-on choice, since he is from a reliably blue state and would not seem to have even the ability to leverage regional appeal in a way that would help the ticket, especially since the only purplish states nearby are Pennsylvania and Virginia, which will be safe states for Democrats in any scenario in which they have a serious chance to win the presidency.  Still, O'Malley is younger (52), personable, and a good campaigner, by all accounts.

On the merits, O'Malley has no particular "Maryland success story" to tell.  That is not a bad thing.  Having lived in his state for much of his governorship, I can say that things here are better than in most states, and they appear generally to be moving in the right direction.  Long-festering problems like race relations in Baltimore are troubling, but (even though he was mayor of Charm City before becoming governor) O'Malley's record on race relations is good.

The problem is that governors are essentially invisible, even the governors and former governors who claim that their executive experience proves how great they are (see Jeb? Bush, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and John Kasich).  The only governors who were notably "effective" are more notorious than admirable, including most obviously Chris Christie and the dearly departed Scott Walker.  O'Malley was a fine mayor and governor, which puts him way ahead of the three current front-runners for the Republican nomination, but that is a low bar indeed.

O'Malley's policy views are solidly liberal, including calls for public financing of congressional campaigns, reinstating the repealed Glass-Steagall barrier between commercial and investment banks, a plan to address student loan debt, and so on.  As a liberal, I see nothing objectionable about O'Malley, but nothing that uniquely excites me.

The same can be said of Joe Biden, as a matter of policy.  Nothing great, but nothing to worry about.  He hired a truly progressive chief economic advisor when he took office as Vice President, which says a lot.  He is currently the subject of much (well deserved) admiration for the dignified way in which he is thinking through whether to run, but if he runs, history suggests that he will be a somewhat unpredictable candidate.

Bernie Sanders should excite me to my progressive core.  And as a matter of policy, as well as his no-nonsense demeanor, he does.  I cannot think of a single statement that Sanders has made with which I have disagreed.  (There are surely a few, but none come to mind.)  Moreover, Sanders is wildly popular with younger voters, who were so essential to Obama's rise and successful challenge to Clinton in 2008.  (On the other hand, I must add a "Get off my lawn, you kids!" comment that Obama's youth brigade was disastrously absent in the midterms, when Democrats really needed turnout.  Short attention spans are bad for political movements.)  What's not to like?

I generally groan when political insiders write about the Democrats' "party leaders," because those leaders are generally the types who end up wanting to settle for Republican-light policies (and who think of people like NYT columnist David Brooks as a target audience for their political calculations).  Even so, I can understand why many Democrats are deathly afraid of Bernie Sanders' potential nomination.  Although the Sanders version of "socialism" is indistinguishable in almost all respects from mainstream center-left views, Democrats' hopes in Senate and House races would take a huge hit if a self-described socialist were to head the ticket.

In essence, then, the dynamic seems to work like this: If Sanders fatally wounds Clinton, the party will turn either to Biden or -- only in the unlikely case that Biden absolutely refused to play the role of party savior -- O'Malley.  By my liberal lights, the ranking of the candidates on policy matters is, from best to least good: Sanders, O'Malley, Biden, and Clinton.  In terms of their likelihood of being nominated, the order is exactly reversed.

Therefore, I will end this series of posts in an echo of my post about the Republicans' circus:

I thus happily conclude that every scenario in which any plausible Democratic presidential candidate wins in 2016 presents reason to hope for good policy outcomes.  There are better and less-good cases, but even Hillary Clinton presents openings for policies that a liberal like me would applaud.  Add in the likelihood that the next president will be able to fill multiple Supreme Court vacancies, and it is important that Democrats come out of their nominating process with a candidate -- no matter who that nominee is -- who is as undamaged as possible.