No One Likes a Frontrunner

"No one likes a frontrunner, especially Democrats," a grassroots activist at Netroots Nation told Politico. That's certainly true. Remember John Glenn in 1984? Howard Dean in 2004? Hillary Clinton in 2008?
08/21/2014 01:31 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2014

"No one likes a frontrunner, especially Democrats," a grassroots activist at Netroots Nation told Politico. That's certainly true. Remember John Glenn in 1984? Howard Dean in 2004? Hillary Clinton in 2008?

It's Republicans who have a tradition of nominating whoever is next in line. Every Republican presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater had run for president or vice president before. With one exception -- George W. Bush. But his name was Bush, so he got a pass. Democrats have a tradition of plucking candidates out of obscurity: George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.

If Hillary Clinton runs in 2016, she may defy the Democratic tradition. She is the prohibitive frontrunner, at least in the polls. No one else comes close. But will she really coast to the nomination? It looks more and more likely that Clinton will be seriously challenged from the left, by a candidate TBD.

Almost every Democratic nominating contest ends up as a race between a progressive and a populist. It's a class split. The progressive wins educated, high-minded, upper-middle-class Democrats devoted to National Public Radio. Prius drivers. The populist wins wage-earners, disadvantaged minorities and the financially squeezed. Pick-up truck drivers.

ProgrssivePopulist
1952Adlai StevensonEstes Kefauver
1968Eugene McCarthyRobert F. Kennedy
1972George McGovernHubert Humphrey
1984Gary HartWalter Mondale
1988Michael DukakistDick Gephardt
1992Paul TsongasBill Clinton
2000Bill BradleyAl Gore
2008Barack ObamaHillary Clinton

Obama won the nomination in 2008 by putting together an unusual coalition of NPR Democrats and African-Americans. He beat Hillary Clinton. But only barely. When ABC News aggregated all the 2008 Democratic primary exit polls, it showed Clinton with a two-to-one lead over Obama among non-college white voters.

Last month, the Netroots Nation crowd swooned over keynote speaker Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). She was repeatedly interrupted by shouts of "Run, Liz, run!" There were "Ready for Warren" buttons everywhere -- her enthusiasts' answer to "Ready for Hillary." The response from Warren's office? "No, Sen. Warren does not support this effort."

Liberal Democrats are exasperated by President Obama. He doesn't show enough fight. Warren calls herself a "fighter," but Hillary Clinton has the prior claim to that title. She earned points in 2008 by fighting to the very end. "One thing you know about me is that I am no shrinking violet," she told cheering supporters in Kentucky in May 2008. "If I tell you I will fight for you, that is exactly what I intend to do."

Clinton may be vulnerable to a challenge from the left on foreign policy. She brought up the issue herself in her recent interview with The Atlantic, where she put some distance between her views and those of President Obama. "You know," Clinton told her interviewer, "when you're down on yourself, and when you're hunkering down and pulling back, you're not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward." She earned cheers from neo-conservatives when she said, "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."

Hillary Clinton's hawkish inclinations are well known. She favored sending more arms to relatively moderate Syrian rebels and endorsed air strikes against the Syrian government. She wanted to leave a larger U.S. residual force in Iraq. She urged a stronger show of resolve in Egypt and Libya. And, of course, she voted to authorize the war in Iraq in 2002.

Hillary Clinton appears to be placing herself squarely in the Democratic Party's long tradition of liberal interventionism. It's a tradition that goes back to President Harry Truman, who first committed the U.S. to a global leadership role after World War II. But military intervention has long been a source of friction inside the Democratic Party. Progressive Democrats were nurtured by a different Democratic tradition: antiwar. Anti-Vietnam war and anti-Iraq war.

Iowa Democratic caucus participants include a lot of antiwar activists. Clinton's hawkishness does not go over well with them. In fact, Iowa was a big stumbling block in her 2008 campaign. Clinton came in third in Iowa, behind both Obama and John Edwards.

One issue in particular may give her problems with the left: Israel. In her Atlantic interview, Clinton was unstinting in her support for Israel: "There's no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict and wanted to do so in order to leverage its position." On criticism of Israel's actions in Gaza: "What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. . .The PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel."

Last month's Gallup poll showed Americans divided over whether Israel's actions in the current conflict with Hamas are justified (42 percent "mostly justified," 39 percent "mostly unjustified"). Democrats, however, were more critical of Israel (47-31 percent "unjustified"). Criticism of Clinton's strong support for Israel is likely to surface in the campaign, particularly in Iowa. Iowa is only 0.2 percent Jewish. And while there are a lot of pro-Israel evangelical voters in Iowa, very few of them can be found at Democratic caucuses. It is not hard to imagine Iowa Democrats rallying behind an antiwar alternative to Clinton in 2016.