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Who Will Challenge Hillary?

26 Jun 2014
Ed Muskie
Ed Muskie
Remember President Muskie? Yes, former Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, Hubert Humphrey's running mate in the near-miss 1968 election against Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. By 1970 the media and Democratic intelligentsia had all but crowned Muskie President, a sure thing who could not be challenged. It was too soon after Chappaquiddick for Ted Kennedy to run, and few wanted to face the long odds of challenging a strong incumbent President like Nixon. Muskie was to be the Democrats' Great White Hope.

But reality stepped in. During the campaign for the New Hampsire primary, Muskie and his wife were attacked personally by the Manchester Union-Leader newspaper, New Hampshire's primary media outlet. At a press conference, Muskie wept real tears (later claimed to be snowflakes), offended by attacks on his wife. His reputation for calm and composure was shattered. He would have lost fewer votes if he had simply shot the right-wing owner, but in any event he was finished, and Humphrey himself had to run to stave off the McGovern challenge. Humphrey lost to the best-organized campaign since his defeat by Jack Kennedy's primary romp in 1960. Humphrey was a well meaning but fuzzy-headed liberal who believed in spending but not counting. George McGovern and his campaign manager, future Colorado Senator Gary Hart, were counters.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton
Now we have Hillary Clinton, crowned the presumptive nominee and President by today's equivalent of the same media-political intelligentsia who anointed Muskie. Hill knows the history: she is one gaffe or controversy away from oblivion. Can she, and her entire campaign organization, successfully walk that fine line? The last presumptive nominee to go all the way was Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Before that, Herbert Hoover in 1928. Ike and Hoover both were so popular they could have had the nomination of either party. Is Hillary that popular? I don't think so.

Clinton's entre into politics was only possible because her famous husband got her started. Having gotten that boost, she has proven herself every bit as capable as Bill has long claimed, but is sheer competence what the voters want? Having chosen George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama, the answer is an obvious not necessarily. Hillary has the much bigger challenge of appearing likable, which is not natural for her. As they said in 2008, would you want to have a beer with her? Personality is the reason she needed Bill's boost to get started in the first place.

The most credible argument for her election is the lack of viable challengers. She dominates the Democratic pack and shows every sign of dominating the Republican pack. But as Karl van Clausewitz once said, no battle plan survives after the first shot is fired. Once the former senator enters the fray against real competitors, can she survive? It comes down to the emergence of a viable contender. Who are the possible choices?

Gov. Martin O'Malley
Gov. Martin O'Malley
Martin O'Malley, governor of a very Democratic Maryland, is already running. Smart money is not on him; so far he is judged a lightweight. Insiders have told me stories that make me think of him as the Rick Perry of the Democratic Party, which is not a desirable comparison. He may be secretly shooting for vice president, but who was the last Maryland governor to become Vice President? That was Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's corrupt choice who ended up resigning and pleading no contest to charges of bribery from highway contractors. O'Malley would have to work hard to overcome that stigma, even though he comes from the other side of the partisan fence. Chances of nomination: 20%. Chances of winning in the fall: 45%.

Jim Webb
Jim Webb
Jim Webb, recently retired senator from Virginia, is a likely candidate. Webb is a Vietnam veteran whose son has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. His recent book, I Heard My Country Calling: A Memoir, appears to be a traditional campaign biography similar to those recently issued by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton. He is making the talk show rounds but so far remains under the radar. I rate him as 85% likely to run, with a 75% chance of finishing at or near the top of the primary vote getters. If nominated he could destroy any of the likely Republican candidates. Chances of winning in the fall, if nominated: 70%.

Sen. Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders, Independent senator from Vermont, is a self-described socialist. He has made public his desire to run, but for him the question is whether to run as a Democrat or an Independent. He seems to be leaning toward a third-party run, but any political scientist will tell you that is a long shot; even the very popular Teddy Roosevelt was unable to pull it off. He could, however, draw anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of the vote and like the late George Wallace, take electoral votes and the election away from the Democratic nominee. Chances of running: 85%. Chances of running as a Democrat: 35%. Chances of destroying Hillary's election if they are both running in November 2016: 95%. Chances of winning: 0%, unless he is the Democratic nominee against Chris Christie, this generation's Spiro Agnew, in which case he has 55% chance. The details of Christie's corruption are likely to be deadly, but balanced by Sanders' left wing platform.

VP Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden
Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States, was barely 30 years old when he was elected to the U.S. Senate 42 years ago, and almost immediately was faced with an immense personal tragedy: the death of his wife and baby daughter in an auto wreck, and the severe injury of his two young sons. The experience left him angry and with doubts about his Roman Catholic upbringing - the kind of second thoughts all too rare in a politician. Unfortunately this is missing from the Joe Biden of today, a guy who glibly tosses off insensitive one-liners that leave him sounding tone-deaf and out of touch. He would also bear the burden of defending everything his boss, Barack Obama, has done since 2009. A similar problem, defending LBJ's Vietnam War, helped kill Vice President Hubert Humphrey's chances in 1968. Biden's long record will haunt him in any electoral undertaking in the future, but pundits would be foolish to count him out. In his first Senate race at age 29, with almost no support and a 30-point disadvantage, he came from behind to win by several thousand votes. If the Joe Biden of today can revisit the spirit of the Joe Biden of 1972, he has a chance of pulling off an upset. Chance of running: 60%. Chance of nomination: 30%. Chance in the fall: 40% to 60%, depending on the opponent. A Biden-Christie fight would be a real treat, but Christie will never make it out of the primaries.

Gov. Jerry Brown
Gov. Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown, governor of the Most Democratic California and three-time presidential contender, at 78 (in 2016) still has the ego to want to run one more time; his staff is already entertaining the possibilities. After Brown cleared up Arnold Schwarzenegger's $20 billion budget deficit with a wave of a magic wand - a tax increase that the voters bore without complaint - he has credibility. Remembering his highly contested run against Bill Clinton in 1992, he may well think he could do it better this time. He may even see Hillary as an easier target. The reality is that at his age, he would do nothing but help make her 69 years (in 2016) look young, which will not otherwise be possible. If Hillary is elected she will take office at the same age as Ronald Reagan. Chances of nomination: 10%. Chances of winning the general, if nominated: 40%.

Howard Dean
Howard Dean
Howard Dean, former governor Vermont and former chair of the Democratic National Committee, is slightly younger than Hillary and looks a lot younger. He dyed his silver-gray hair blonde and has kept a media presence on CNBC and other venues. Having been shut out of the Obama Administration, he may well be ready to try again, perhaps as a Democratic version of Rand Paul, fighting drones and military interventionism. With little data to go on, I rate this as no more than 35% likely, but if he ran could end up at or near the top as well. Chances of nomination: 40%. Chances of winning the general: up to 60%, depending on platform.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren, senator from Massachusetts, has gotten a lot of favorable attention for her attacks on Wall Street. She has written a book that looks a lot like a campaign biography, A Fighting Chance, but has now denied her presidential ambitions so loudly and so often that now she would lose credibility if she ran. Chances of running: 10%. Chances of nomination: 20%. Chances of winning in the fall: 15%.

Summary: All of the Democrats' chances, Hillary's included, depend upon the Republican nominee. In spite of the polls, I see Chris Christie and Jeb Bush as the easiest to run against. Christie will have major corruption problems, and Bush will be seen as Bush III in the family dynasty, which few people want (to make it worse, his son George P. Bush will soon be a statewide officeholder in Texas). A Hillary-Bush matchup would give a third-party candidate like Sanders a lot of room to run. He could do as well or better than Ross Perot did in 1992, but would steal votes from the Democrat instead of the Republican, resulting in a Republican victory.

Best bets for the Democrats, in declining order of likelihood to win in the fall: Jim Webb, Howard Dean, and Hillary Clinton.

Keep tuned. The fun has barely begun.

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