Original Published Date: December 3, 2014
Date: Winter 2014 to Summer 2015
(New York City, New York) As Democrats geared up to defend the White House for a third consecutive term, an uncomfortable truth was emerging from the party’s rank-and-file. The economic times had made the party’s neoliberal wing increasingly unpopular. And in turn, it had created a rift between the party’s neoliberal leadership and its base. And last but not least, the neoliberals counted among their ranks one Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton.
Populists began grumbling early on in the first term of the President. The appointments of Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and others to the economic team had stirred liberal discontent. That anger had, in fact, denied Summers the Federal Reserve Chairmanship, which had gone to Janet Yellen, a progressive. That anger further was stoked by the concessions the President made to Republicans for his $837 billion stimulus, which many derided as too little (although maybe argued after the fact). And by 2011, the President was being roundly bashed by the progressive base as insufficiently liberal on what happened.
Why was the President under so much attack, despite acting to the left of his most recent Democratic predecessor, President Bill Clinton on many fronts? The simple truth might lie in the fact that 90% of the economic recovery (in terms of income gain) had gone to the top 1%. Wall Street had boomed since the bottom was hit in 2009. Bankers, the liberals argued, were not being prosecuted, despite being responsible for the economic fallout in 2008. (Some bankers did actually go to court and were acquitted, went the Obama defenders’ rebuttal). The anger lay in the fact that, like in the anti-Wall Street Tea Party right, the economic recovery was among the weakest in decades. Years of the median household income stagnating was taking their political toll on a system that did not exactly see the indigent in Congress or in executive leadership.
Internally, progressives sought liberal champions to run against Secretary Hillary Clinton. The Democracy Alliance, a liberal donor organization established in 2005, declined to invite Hillary Clinton to their winter 2014 meeting. That same organization had favored Senator Barack Obama in 2008 and actively supported him, to the detriment of Secretary Clinton. The progressive base had quarreled with President Bill Clinton frequently in the 1990s – witness NAFTA, DADT, the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, welfare reform, to name a few – and were not eager to see the Clintons back in the White House. The thinking also followed another track. The nature of a Presidential third term in the White House for the Democratic Party might put the party on record for more moderate reforms than it had pushed for, which might be unacceptable to progressives.
Thus, it was with fervor that Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) was being courted for President by a group of liberal donors, who wanted her to run for President. Democracy Alliance members urged her on, with prominent donors in the real estate and retail industries pushing her to compete. They were genuinely liberal and feared another neoliberal Democratic President. (Well, neoliberal to them). Despite repeated pressure, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a reluctant electoral warrior, declined to run for President of the United States in February 2015. This disappointed donors and they began looking elsewhere, like former Governor Martin O’Malley (D-Maryland) and former Senator James Webb (D-Virginia). The refrain was simple. They needed a genuine populist to take on Hillary Clinton and to run on a full throated economic liberalism. Hillary Clinton – by dint of association with Bill Clinton – was not the candidate they thought best to represent the party in this endeavor.
One problem is that the Democratic ranks had been decimated in 2010 and 2014. The party counted only 44 senators (with two independents caucusing with them) and 17 governors.
First, take the governors. The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, was no favorite of progressives, and the governor of California was too old (at 77, he would be 78 at the time of his election). Former Governor Martin O’Malley was young but the Republican victory in Maryland severely marred his candidacy. Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania was in his first term, at 66. Governor John Hickenlooper barely survived re-election in Colorado with less than 50% of the vote. Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin had also barely survived a scare in 2014. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire had eked out re-election with her opponent winning 47% of the vote. Heartland Governors like Steve Besher (D-Kentucky) and Jay Nixon (D-Missouri) were not in an ideologically advantageous position to run. And so on and so on. Among the senators, the list was little better. Among the Senate roster, only New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and maybe Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) were plausible candidates. Among newcomers, the Castro brothers were not ready for prime time. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), at 73, was simply running to make a statement and was not a credible national candidate in any way.
Joe Biden? The vice president? The vice president wasn’t a bad idea, but he was 73 and would be 81 by the time he left the White House two terms later. Not only that, he would be heavily connected to the unpopular outgoing President. But Biden may have been the best alternative to Clinton that existed in the progressive universe. Even if he was unlikely.
In short, the Democratic Party did not have the bench to run a campaign against Hillary Clinton, which only added to progressive frustration. Their bench was as pitiful (sans Hillary Clinton) as the 2012 Republican Presidential bench. Possibly even more pitiful.
Nonetheless, the party’s neoliberal wing reacted with alarm. After the near unanimous opposition by progressive Senators to Antonio Weiss in his confirmation battle as Under Secretary for Domestic Finance at Treasury, Wall Street Democrats felt even more uneasy than they had in 2012. They saw Hillary Clinton as the best bulwark against the rising populist tide, and urged her with even more fervor to run. Bankers at JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs (once a Democratic redoubt), and others from the investment world urged Hillary Clinton to run for President over the winter of 2014.
Angry progressives retorted that Democrats would not turn out in 2016 for a neoliberal nominee with heavy ties to New York’s Wall Street, and that Republicans would be far more eager to win the White House in 2016. They were the party out of the White House and had a golden once in a century opportunity to lock everything down under a 1920s esq Republican majority. Republicans, went the progressive thinking, would not eye the opportunity and give everything they had to guarantee the most conservative government in many decades. The progressives’ answer was a fiery “denounce the economic royalists” strategy to defend the White House. Not only that, they noted (accurately) that Secretary Clinton’s ratings were falling to the levels of generic Democrat, and that did not bode well for the party.
The backroom jockeying belied a grim truth. If Hillary Clinton could not connect with voters on pocketbook issues, the Party would be truly in the wilderness to a level not seen since the 1920s. Harding, Coolidge and later Hoover had shut out the Democratic Party at all levels in the 1920s, and conservative dominion had held sway. As a historian would later note, the Democratic Party rode into the 2016 election with fear as the common denominator. Fear and a grim hope that the Republicans would yet again give their Democratic foes a shot by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
It would be a year of reckoning, and a turning point in the identity and ideology of the Democratic Party.
(C) 2017 “BetweenTwoMajorities”