Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Who's Not Hillary? Or: Who's Bill Bradley?

More and more, the 2016 Democratic presidential race is looking like 2000 did. Only more so. There's a prohibitive front runner, only more so. There's some unease about that prohibitive front runner and about the lack of viable alternatives.

And back in 1999 there never really was a viable alternative to Al Gore. The party structure from Bill Clinton on down was locked in early, solidly, and not always fairly. It was really, really hard to be a Bill Bradley Democrat in 1999. It was a stark contrast to the state of the Republican race in 1987-88, when Ronald Reagan was scrupulously neutral between HW and Bob Dole until Bush had the nomination locked up.

Barack Obama's stance is somewhere in between.  In deference to Joe Biden, he's personally quiet. But the Obama political structure is moving into Hillary's orbit.  Once she gets in, Joe will get out, Obama will be all in, and the pressure will really be on the entire Democratic Party structure just like it was in 1999.

So that leaves an opening only for a long shot candidacy, a credible person on stand by just in case the front runner collapses. It's impossible to overstate just how big a deal it would be, and just how hard it would be, for a president's preferred choice to be rejected in a primary. It hasn't happened since William Jennings Bryan and the free silver populists took over the Democrats from Grover Cleveland and the gold bugs.

In 1998 or so, Paul Wellstone and Jesse Jackson flirted with, but rejected, running. The only one who got in against Gore was Bill Bradley. And that's what we'll get this time: someone in the Bill Bradley role.

So who will that be? To figure that out let's look at what characteristics he had, and who fits those characteristics today.

Not currently in office. (Or someone on their way out.) Bradley was three years out of office in 1999. The two names that get mentioned most often as the dream candidates of the lefties are Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The biggest problem with that (other than the fact that Sanders, while a great progressive, is not an actual Democrat) is that they would have too much to lose.

A sitting senator or governor who challenged Hillary and lost would be in the permanent White House dog house, and their whole state with them.

No real ties to the administration, and no ambitions to join the new one. An outsider who owes Obama and Clinton no favors, who has no real bridges to burn because they were never built in the first place. Scratch the former cabinet members and the early endorsers from 2007. Likewise, scratch anyone who might be angling for a cabinet post (say, term-limited Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick).

Some sort of national profile. The kind of person who resonates with cable hosts for feistiness, or with op-ed writers for seriousness, because they'll never match the money and organization and establishment support that Clinton will bring.

An unorthodox persona. Bradley's combination of Rhodes Scholar wonkiness and NBA superstardom was one of a kind, but there's other kinds of one of a kind. The would-be Bradley needs something that defies conventional wisdom, that's going to attract people who don't want to sign on with a coronation, and bring in some independents. Because the core party activists will mostly be with the favorite.

Male. Which Bradley was but the point is: First Woman President was a huge deal in 2008 and will be even bigger having been deferred eight more years. And the Democratic Party's leading women are making it clear they're already on board with Clinton (including dream candidate Warren and the occasionally mentioned Amy Klobuchar). That makes things harder for our would be Bradley, as he will have to deftly shift the ground to something else.

So I dug through some lists of former governors and senators, eliminated the octogenerians, the scandal-ridden, and the likely loyalists.

The most likely Bill Bradleys of 2016, from least to most plausible:

7. Al Gore. Just for the sheer irony of it. He fits all the criteria I listed. And he's probably had time to play through the W.A.S.P. discography by now.

6. Dennis Kucinich. Because what else does he have to do? If he had the protest vote to himself, he might not do badly. He was pushing 30% in the late 2004 primaries after all John Kerry's other rivals dropped out. Though he wouldn't be taken seriously enough to get a debate (even as a sitting congressman in 2008 he wasn't invited to a lot of debates).

5. Martin O'Malley. I almost didn't include the term-limited Maryland Governor, as I think his positioning is a just in case thing for the unlikely scenario that Clinton doesn't run. But unlike Hillary he was just in Iowa and I have to give him points for that. If she does run, he's more likely to angle for an administration post. At age 51, he'll have another opportunity for the Big Job. And, locally, is Barbara Mikulski going to seek another Senate term in two years at age 80?

4. Evan Bayh. I pulled this one out of thin air but hear me out. He flirted with a run in 2006, emphasizing how he was winning in a red state. Then he walked away from the Senate at the last minute in 2010, handing the seat to the GOP. But here's the interesting tidbit: He's been sitting on $10 million in unused campaign funds ever since, and what's that for? Still young at 58. Was a Clinton supporter in 2008, but Bayh is a contrarian who may not stick to that loyalty. And for all the way Appalachia favored Clinton over Obama in 2008, I think they'd turn on Hillary just as fast in 2016. Still, a run to the right in a Democratic primary isn't a winning strategy.

3. Kent Conrad. Huh? Nobody expected a Bill Bradley comeback either. This wouldn't be a run fueled by ego or ambition. This low key deficit hawk would be a Paul Tsongas for the 21st century, and the Beltway chattering classes with their austerity fetish would play it up beyond all realism. Conrad walked away from his Senate seat in 1992 after failing to lower the deficit in his first term - only to land back in the Senate without missing a day when North Dakota's other senator died.

2. Howard Dean. Don't scream. He has no real ties to Team Obama or Team Hillary. Dean was neutraled out of the 2008 race as DNC chair, and felt (rightly) miffed that he was passed over for HHS secretary after his successful party leadership. He has remained a constant media presence during and since his term as party chair, and remains popular with the party base. Though some of those 10 year old email addresses from the Meetup list may be stale by now.

At 65 he's Not Too Old, He's also, recently, shown some sense of humor about You Know What. Said "at this point I'm supporting Hillary" a year ago, but has also refused to rule anything out. (Warren's denials have been more convincing.)

1. Russ Feingold. Lost his Senate seat? So what. Rick Santorum proved that a loss in a bad year can be played as martyrdom to The Cause, as an ideological bona fide. Ranks just below Sanders and Warren in the progressive pantheon, flirted with a 2008 run, and even though the campaign finance bill itself was less than it was cracked up to be, his name is linked with his bipartisan sponsor. So solidly identified as a progressive, yet seen as willing to work across the aisle.

So I'll be that one, and ONLY one, of these seven men gets in sometime in 2015. And whoever does? They'll have to run a REAL Iowa caucus campaign.

No comments: