While the phrasing was perhaps a bit clumsy, Jon Huntsman landed one of the most stinging punches of the 2012 GOP primary race square on Mitt Romney’s jaw when he dubbed him a “perfectly lubricated weathervane.” The essence of that critique — that Romney calibrated his message to appeal to the audience he was addressing at any given moment and had no core principles of which to speak — resonated.
More than a handful of political analysts have dubbed Hillary Clinton the Democratic Party’s Mitt Romney. Aloof, disingenuous, plutocratic, perhaps a bit entitled, and forever struggling to achieve authenticity; Clinton’s core appeal is that of a generic Democrat. She has not yet crafted a compelling rationale for her candidacy, and she hasn’t even begun to answer those who ask why an uncommitted voter should back her for the presidency.
There is still plenty of time yet for all that. It is usually during the primary race that a candidate hones his or her message. Jon Huntsman never refined his beyond being the field’s most liberal Republican. Romney, however, endured a withering, months-long contest and emerged a much stronger nominee for it. For Hillary, there will be a primary, but it will be the softest, most awkwardly cautious internecine contest you can imagine.
This week, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley finally joined the fight by issuing what may have been his first criticism of the party’s prohibitive favorite; a lamentable prerequisite if you’re actually interested in running for the White House. O’Malley seems to have noticed that Clinton’s recent embrace of progressive priorities, like the notion of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage and providing illegal immigrants with driver’s licenses, are probably calculated political maneuvers. Call them whatever you’d like; an evolution, an elegant pivot, an ungainly flip-flop. It’s clear that Clinton is only moderating her position in order to appeal to liberals, and that suggests that her candidacy is unmoored to immutable progressive values.
O’Malley said this about Clinton, but it was buried under a mountain of pleasantries. Whereas Huntsman intended to land a punch, O’Malley apparently only wanted to fire a shot across Clinton’s bow.
“I’m glad Secretary Clinton’s come around to the right positions on these issues,” O’Malley told the Guardian during the forum at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. “I believe that we are best as a party when we lead with our principles and not according to the polls.
“Leadership is about making the right decision, and the best decision before sometimes it becomes entirely popular.”
The Guardian graded O’Malley’s performance on a curve. “While the response did not represent a direct attack line from Clinton’s would-be rival, it represents the most confrontational moment from O’Malley toward his potential opponent since Clinton announced her candidacy on Sunday – with perhaps many to come before November 2016,” their underwhelmed dispatch read.
Is Martin O’Malley running for president or vice president? If it is the latter, he’s not going to demonstrate his worth in this manner. His value to Clinton is not in his ethnic background or his gender, his home state, or his experience in government, so it must be in his willingness to be bold – a progressive’s progressive. But the only trait the Maryland Democrat demonstrated here was a capacity to be cowed. Perhaps Clinton’s well-documented capacity for revenge lingered in the back of his mind when O’Malley issued this unenthusiastic attack.
We’ve seen O’Malley’s trepidation in other would-be 2016 Democratic candidates. In an appearance on MSNBC this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders waded into the presidential waters by modestly scrutinizing Clinton’s substance, or lack thereof, as a candidate. “Why don’t you tell me what Hillary Clinton is campaigning on,” Sanders asked his MSNBC interlocutor. “You don’t know and I don’t know, and the American people don’t know.” But Sanders didn’t complete the thought. If no one knows why Clinton thinks she should be president, maybe it is because she isn’t so sure herself.
The Washington Examiner’s Byron York recently noticed that the party of youth and vitality since 1960 appears, at least from the slate of 2016 candidates, to be an aging one. When asking why this came to be, he discovered that the answer was simple. Clinton had cut off at the knees anyone viable enough to thwart her determination to finally win her party’s presidential nomination.
If there were no Clinton campaign, would Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who will be 50 on Inauguration Day, be exploring a run? Would Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who will be 56, be thinking about it? Would New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who will be 59, be preparing to run? They’d all be considering it.
If any of them ran today, however, they could find themselves unable to gain any traction at all in a Clinton-dominated primary race. That could make it more difficult for them to mount a credible run in the future.
In addition, any Democrat running against Hillary Clinton today would face the question of whether to aggressively attack the frontrunner, which, after a losing campaign, could result in dreaded recriminations from the powerful Clinton camp. If, on the other hand, those politicians sit this one out, they might have a chance for a real shot someday.
It really is that simple. Clinton’s Stasi-like command and control apparatus makes life rather difficult for those who would stand in the way of her ambition. Even the unthreatening former Sen. Jim Webb found Clinton acolytes attempting to destroy his character by drawing attention to his racy past as a novelist when he revealed his interest in exploring a presidential bid. Those with a future in the Democratic Party are not going to jeopardize it by transgressing against the party’s next leader who might easily be the next occupant of the Oval Office.
Perhaps the Democratic attacks against Clinton will grow sharper as the progressive base becomes more agitated and uncomfortable with their party’s prohibitive nominee. Until then, no one will lay a glove on Clinton. They simply cannot afford to endure the consequences.