On the eve of Hillary’s announcement that she’s running for president, let’s begin by facing an unpleasant truth: There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the leadership of today’s Democratic Party who has any real idea how politics is done. Take Hillary Clinton, for example.
Despite her patina of cool professionalism, Hillary Clinton simply isn’t a very good candidate. She wasn’t in 2008 and she isn’t today. I don’t want to take up too much time here with an exhaustive list but let me simply posit that almost all of Hillary’s wounds in 2008 were self-inflicted and she shows no signs of being much better this time around.
Beyond Hillary’s questionable competence as a candidate, there’s also a question (in my mind, at least) of how well Hillary might do in getting out the vote in 2016. If we survey the Democratic candidates who lost in 2014 by running away from the party’s populist wing, Hillary fits in comfortably with all of them. And if Democratic centrism failed to excite the base in 2014, where’s the evidence that it can do any better in 2016?
Hillary needs to shore up her left flank in a big way and I think she understands this. Unfortunately, when she’s tried to appropriate Elizabeth Warren’s populist tone, things haven’t gone well. Perhaps the bolder move for Hillary would be to forget about appropriating Warren’s tone and instead appropriate Warren herself. In fact, if Hillary wants something more than the divided-government sclerosis that’s plagued our politics for a generation now, she might consider borrowing an audacious move from the playbook of… Ronald Reagan.
In 1976, Ronald Reagan took up the cause of Republican conservatives and challenged a sitting president, the moderate Gerald Ford, for the GOP nomination. Taking on an incumbent president is a long shot under any circumstances and Reagan understood that he was going to need a “Hail Mary” pass to secure the nomination. His tactic was something that, as far as anyone could remember, had never been tried before. Knowing that he needed to shore up his support among the party’s centrists, Reagan named his vice-presidential nominee before the party’s convention. That nominee was Richard Schweiker, a decidedly moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania.
Reagan’s quixotic candidacy came to an end at the convention that year. He didn’t win but he came far closer than anyone expected. And even though he failed in an improbably quest, his surprise announcement might point to a way forward for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and a way to position her prospective presidency for real success.
As Reagan did in 1976, Hillary needs to shore up her left flank. And she needs to do so in a way that will get Democratic voters to the polls in big numbers in November.
What could possibly be more effective than naming Elizabeth Warren as her vice-presidential candidate? If Hillary wants to clear the field then such a bold move would certainly do it. The key, though, would be how Hillary and her running mate use the months leading up to the convention.
While the Republican field busies itself running to the extreme right (as it will under any circumstances), imagine Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren delivering a non-stop, coast-to-coast seminar on progressive values and economics. Imagine that once — just once — there’s a progressive Democratic ticket driving the electoral narrative.
For decades now, Democrats have made little headway among blue-collar white voters who ought to be a natural part of any Democratic coalition. Elizabeth Warren has a unique talent for making common-sense economics accessible. She has a message that I believe will resonate well in precisely those places where Democrats need to make gains.
The ultimate hope would be to not only win the presidency (and vice-presidency!) but to also move our entire debate to the left. This is no pipe dream. On issue after issue, progressive positions enjoy majority support among voters. Unfortunately, Democrats have been singularly unable to translate these policy positions into widespread electoral success.
Elizabeth Warren has the potential to be the kind of catalyst the party needs to seriously improve its fortunes beyond just winning the White House. If progressives can’t make a bigger impact, if we cannot move our policy initiatives into the mainstream of political discussion, then there is little hope that the dysfunctional political environment of the last six years will improve anytime in the foreseeable future.
This is Hillary’s chance to seriously alter the electoral landscape. Will she be content to win a term or two of the presidency for herself (if, in fact, she can), or will she follow Ronald Reagan’s example and seize an opportunity to go for the sort of victory that could make a difference for an entire generation?