Democrats are falling into the “inevitable candidate” trap again

Hillary Clinton, who has never won a presidential election, has put herself back in the spotlight because she has sage wisdom for Democrats. That wisdom, unsurprisingly, is that the party should pick more candidates like Hillary Clinton. This was bolstered a few days later when two longtime party wonks wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal saying that Clinton is “in an advantageous position to become the 2024 Democratic nominee.”

The pitch, according to Doug Schoen and Andrew Stein, is simple. Joe Biden is old and unpopular. Kamala Harris is not as unpopular as Joe Biden, but still not in a great place. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have any approval ratings because she’s not a public figure anymore, so there’s no way to tell how people feel about her. If there was, it would probably be positive: Clinton’s approval ratings are highest when she’s not running for something, like when she was U.S. Secretary of State during the Obama administration.

But the last time she was a candidate, back in 2016, Clinton polled pretty much the same as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris do now.

CandidateNet favorabilityMost recent favorablesMost recent unfavorables
Joe Biden
Kamala Harris-104151
Hillary Clinton (data from 2016)-144155
Biden: Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion Research (2022) | Harris: Economist/YouGov (2022) | Clinton: Bloomberg/Selzer (2016)

Since then, she’s penned a book listing everyone she blames for her loss, which notably doesn’t include “Hillary Clinton,” and launched a political group that funded some 2018 midterm candidates and then kind of fizzled out. That’s it.

Since her bid for the U.S. Senate back in 2000, a sizable contingent of Democrats have treated Hillary Clinton as the party’s real leader. Clinton represented what they liked about the Democratic Party of the 1990s, minus the freewheeling philandering president. If The West Wing is meant to serve as a depiction of what might have been had Bill Clinton been a little more straight-laced, the Hillary faithful saw in her presidency a chance to have the Clinton administration they really wanted, one that took the all-in-this-togetherness of the 90s seriously.

William Jefferson Clinton was a conservative Democrat from Arkansas when he secured the party’s nomination in 1992. Four years later, Clinton’s re-election was marked by perhaps the most famous presidential speech of the late twentieth century: “the era of big government is over“. Clinton worked closely with the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that sought to resolve social and fiscal issues in the U.S. with a market-oriented approach. Al Gore, the 2000 nominee, was an older school Democrat; as a result, it was his opponent, George W. Bush, who advocated for what, under the Clinton administration, had been centrist Democratic ideals.

Bush’s success in the election, even if it was more a judicial success than an electoral one, frightened Democrats. Bush’s education reform plan was originally championed by centrist Dems, and one centrist Dem who voted for it was John Kerry, the party’s 2004 presidential nominee. Kerry – like fellow senator Hillary Clinton – also voted for the War in Iraq, and it made drawing a distinction between Kerry and Bush difficult. Democrats were in the weeds. They lost.

In 2008, Clinton was the presumptive nominee. Once it became clear she would run, she was the frontrunner. She had it locked up. And then, one day, she didn’t.

The party has never been able to reconcile Barack Obama’s 2008 victory with what it thought were the lessons of the 2000 election. The lessons of 2000, to the Dems, were that Al Gore – Albert Gore, mind you – was too far to the left for saying things like “climate change is bad” and “we shouldn’t privatize Medicare.” The real lesson was that Republicans knew that they could take power through the courts. They spent the next two decades doing that while Democrats struggled to keep their coalition together.

Hillary Clinton finally became the nominee in 2016. She won the popular vote, too. The lesson, again, should have been that Clinton did not put enough time into supposedly “safe” states, but instead it became that leftists, who had supported Bernie Sanders in the primary, were responsible. This has been thoroughly debunked, yet Clinton said as recently as 2020 that Sanders supporters were responsible for her loss.

When she took to the airwaves in an NBC News interview in January 2022, she said, well, this: “I think that it is a time for some careful thinking about what wins elections, and not just in deep-blue districts where a Democrat and a liberal Democrat, or so-called progressive Democrat, is going to win.”

The Democrat coalition used to have a lot more layers – as did the Republican coalition. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are mostly gone today, but Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) survives as the country’s most prolific genre-breaker. He has single-handedly blocked most of the Biden administration’s legislative agenda.

Clinton’s interview was pretty clear. She wants to see more conservative Democrats, even more centrist or moderate Democrats, in Congress. It isn’t like there aren’t any now. Jared Golden, a Marine veteran who opposed the American Rescue Plan Act because of its high price tag, represents Maine’s second district. Charlie Crist, in Florida’s thirteenth, was a Republican when he was that state’s governor. They’re pretty moderate folks (Golden voted against the Build Back Better Act, too; Crist voted for it).

Moderates are fine, but Clinton’s insistence that they can win elections over others is so bizarre, and it brings us back to the pundits who think Clinton has a better chance that Joe Biden or Kamala Harris in 2024. The pitch for Biden was that he was a moderate, wasn’t it? How is Clinton a better candidate than Biden? How, moreover, is she a better candidate than Harris, who is younger and doesn’t have the baggage of having lost a presidential election?

Who are the moderates Clinton wants to elect in 2022? Her political group, Onward Together, hasn’t released a list of candidates it would support in primaries. Opinion polling suggests that progressive John Fetterman leads in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s open senate seat. Presumably, Clinton would favor the more moderate Conor Lamb, but so far she hasn’t given any kind of endorsement in that primary, nor has her political committee put any money into it.

Of course, the problem with Pennsylvania’s election is none of the candidates feel inevitable. That has always been the allure of Hillary Clinton: she feels like she must be the president some day. Democrats can’t help themselves. They want to vote for the candidate who is going to win. It isn’t certain that Joe Biden or Kamala Harris can win in 2024, but there’s no way Hillary Clinton loses, right? Progressives are a risk, but everyone will vote for moderates in the House and Senate, right?