The Democrats have no bench (but that may be bad news)

There are a couple of pieces out recently pointing out that Hillary Clinton’s loss in yesterday’s election is a sign of a broader problem: The Democrats have no bench. These pieces make good points but I think they are also overlooking something obvious about where the next Democratic candidate might come from. First, here’s David A. Graham at the Atlantic:

Smart analysts have been warning of the weak Democratic bench for years, but the Clinton loss makes it even more urgent. Clinton, at 69, is unlikely to maintain a high-profile presence…

Obama, whose strong popularity ratings could not save Clinton, will remain a leader for the party for years to come, but he will never top a ballot again, and this cycle proved that he doesn’t have the capacity to single-handedly drag a Democratic nominee over the finish line, either.

Bernie Sanders electrified many voters, and there’s a raging battle among progressives today over whether he might have fared better in a general election, but given that he is 75 today, he is unlikely to be a repeat candidate for president. Who then? Elizabeth Warren is widely loved by the most progressive Democrats, but she, too is aging—she’ll be 71 on Election Day 2020—and somewhat unproven, having only won a single election in the bluest state in America. Tim Kaine’s profile has risen, but his low-key campaigning style didn’t exactly set Democrats afire.

As Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post points out, what may be most striking about the 2016 race is that the GOP had so many possible leaders willing to toss their hats in the proverbial ring while the Democrats had only Hillary and an aging socialist/Independent who had to switch parties to run:

The reason for the “Clinton or bust” strategy was simple: There simply wasn’t anyone else. Vice President Biden was a possibility, but the death of his oldest son, Beau, in May 2015 effectively sidelined him. (And at 73, Biden isn’t exactly a spring chicken.) Beyond Biden and Clinton, name someone else who looked ready to make a serious run at a national nomination. There isn’t anyone…

Contrast that to what the Republican field…That Donald Trump beat all of them is the lasting takeaway for most people. But in retrospect, the size of the GOP field — for which the party was relentlessly mocked — was also a sign of the party’s health up and down the ballot.

But here’s why I think their complete lack of good options could become a problem for the GOP sooner or later. Republicans just won a shocking electoral victory with a novice candidate who is best known for his work on a long-running television series. Trump won not by outspending his opponent on television but by dominating the earned/free media time his larger-than-life personality and fame guaranteed him.

If you think about it, this is not even the first time Republicans have won with this approach. Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming the Governor of California? He announced his run on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Read this CNN coverage of Schwarzenegger from 2003 and tell me who it sounds like:

When asked what he knows about the range of state issues, such as water policy and air pollution, Schwarzenegger said Davis “has sold himself as being the man of experience. Look what happened with all of his experience.”

Recall Trump’s line about Hillary having lots of experience “but it’s bad experience.” More:

“We have to go after this political system up there,” Schwarzenegger said, referring to state government in Sacramento.

“We have a disastrous situation. It should be public’s interest first. What they have is self-interest and special interest first and we have to change all of it around.”

The popular actor said he is above reproach ethically because he is “rich enough” to be unaffected by special interests, enabling him to render decisions in the people’s interests.

Schwarzenegger really was the forerunner of Trump in many ways. So here’s the point with regard to the Democrat’s weak bench: At some point Democrats are going to realize that this celebrity candidate strategy will work for them too. They may not have anyone who can step up from the political wing of the party, but they have plenty of folks who could step up from the entertainment wing.

How hard would it really be to convince George Clooney or newly single Brad Pitt to run for office with Mark Ruffalo in the VP slot? And what happens when Kanye West—who currently has 26 million followers on Twitter, nearly double what Trump has after winning the election—decides to run? Anyone who thinks it can’t happen wasn’t paying attention yesterday.

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David Strom 4:01 PM on October 03, 2022