Hillary Clinton begins the year with the realities of the Democratic primary math, suggesting she’ll remain the prohibitive front-runner for the nomination; she’s also much more closely matched against most potential GOP opponents than her Democratic rivals. But when it comes to the long-term responsibility of a party’s front-runner—offering a message that can galvanize voters, and forge a new, durable majority—she’s largely running an update of the economic and foreign policy program of the past 25 years, one that offers no new message, no single similarly big idea. And that could be a problem—if not for her in November, then for her party over the next generation.
“A lot of the old policy agenda of left and right is defunct, and the cupboard is bare,” says Michael Waldman, a chief White House speechwriter for Bill Clinton and a veteran Democratic thinker. “The Democrats have achieved their major social policy goal of the past 60 years—health care. So what comes next? Parties often have a danger when they win their goal and they don’t have it to fight on anymore.”
So what might a “new” New Democratic philosophy look like, one that could speak to an ever-shrinking middle class in a nation growing steadily more diverse, with a much wider gap between rich and poor?
That’s a question that the Democrats are likely to have trouble answering any time soon as they seem determined to prevent this race from becoming an all-out brawl over their future. The party’s debate schedule—coinciding with weekends and holidays—means that whatever argument they do have will be largely out of the public eye. But the question, and the quietly growing strategic conversations around it in party circles, will help determine the Democrats’ strength and viability for a generation to come.