Is Hillary a Sure Thing in 2016?

03/01/2015 09:21 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2015

You hear two competing stories about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016. According to the first, she has a lock on the nomination and the election.

Hillary is sure to win the nomination, because there are no other plausible candidates, especially if Elizabeth Warren doesn't get in. And Clinton begins with a overwhelming money advantage.

She wins the election because the Electoral College gives Blue states something close to a majority even before the campaign starts. The Republicans would have to run the table of every possible state. But the Republicans are deeply divided, with the candidates who appeal to the base far to the right of the general electorate. And the GOP Congress is rapidly alienating most moderate voters.

Game, set, match to Hillary, correct? Well, not so fast.

The opposite view holds that Clinton is far more vulnerable than she seems. For starters, front-runners nearly always get smacked around. And Clinton is set up to be a piñata.

There is Bill, of course. Then we have all the conflicts of interest in the Clinton Foundation, an enterprise that makes Milo Minderbinder look like Mother Teresa.

Talk about God's gift to investigative reporting.

And there is Hillary Clinton herself. She looks careworn, like maybe she'd just rather not do this.

I can imagine a 1968 scenario, with the following analogies. Hillary Clinton is in the role of LBJ -- almost the incumbent. One of the upstarts, say Jim Webb, is in the role of outsider Gene McCarthy. Some combination of Webb, Martin O'Malley, and Bernie Sanders do better than expected in Iowa and New Hampshire (they almost always do), and Clinton does worse. Maybe a lot worse.

And at that point the baying of the party base for Elizabeth Warren to make a late entry becomes irresistible. Warren enters, in the role of Bobby Kennedy (and she should please stay out of hotel kitchens!)

Okay, maybe Warren doesn't enter the race. But you can easily picture a primary season where Clinton staggers to the finish line of nomination. And she's exhausted.

On the Republican side, there could well be a fragmented contest, with a lot of fratricidal infighting. But if I had to bet, I'd wager that Jeb Bush, doing the usual dog-whistle to the lunatic-fringe base, partners with someone like Scott Walker, and comes out of his convention less damaged than Hillary Clinton comes out of hers.

Yes, the Dems supposedly have a lock on the Electoral College. But the electorate in 2016 will be very sour -- uneasy about national security, unhappy that the recovery still hasn't reached most regular people, disgusted by the amount and source of money being thrown around by both candidates, and turned off to politics in general.

If the election is indeed a rerun of the Clinton family versus the Bush family, it's hard to imagine more of a turnoff than that. Due to all of the above, it could well be a very low-turnout election. And in such elections, the Republican base tends to be more ferociously animated than its Democratic counterpart. That's how accidents like 2010 and 2014 happen.

Clinton might have a populist card to play, but her reliance on Wall Street money and the multiple cross-promotions of the Clinton family machine surely dilutes the power of that potential narrative.

Does it have to be Hillary? One of the most disconcerting aspects of the Democratic Party in recent years is the near total absence of a plausible bench.

Jim Webb has been saying a lot of the right things, but he's kind of erratic. It's hard to imagine him as president, or as nominee. Martin O'Malley was a good governor of Maryland and especially a good manager, but he couldn't manage to get his successor elected in the bluest of blue states. Joe Biden will be 74.

And then there's... good grief, who is there?

Howard Dean will be a spry 67 on Election Day. Maybe his moment has come back around. How about Jack Reed? Dannel Malloy? Good people. But if you need me to add live links to remind you who they are, you can see the problem.

Elizabeth Warren may yet get in, and Hillary Clinton may yet pull out. But unless the Democrats can incubate more leaders who are potential presidents, it's hard to imagine them as a presidential party.

So don't let anybody tell you that either party is the odds-on favorite in 2016. This will be a demolition derby and it won't be pretty.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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