Token Opposition Mixed Blessing for Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton wants to avoid a coronation but must be careful not to lurch to the left.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies to the House Committee on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, December 2, 2009
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies to the House Committee on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, December 2, 2009 (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

Hillary Clinton isn’t the only Democrat running for president. Although it’s hard to see anyone else winning the nomination, some competition should be good for the veteran politician. But there are risks as well.

The supposed inevitability of a second Clinton presidency (Hillary’s husband, Bill, was president in the 1990s) doomed her candidacy seven years ago when a relatively unknown junior senator from Illinois promised Democrats a break with the past.

This time, Clinton, who has served four years as America’s secretary of state in the meantime, is careful not to seem entitled. A low-key campaign announcement earlier this month was followed by a road trip to Iowa, the early voting state, to show voters she isn’t as aloof as they might think.

Without credible opposition, though, a Clinton candidacy could still be seen as something of a coronation. Hence she welcomed Bernie Sanders’ announcement on Tuesday to seek the nomination for himself. The socialist senator from Vermont won’t win the primary, let alone the general election, but at least Clinton isn’t the only one running anymore.

Jim Webb, the former senator from Virginia, is formally exploring a candidacy. So is Lincoln Chafee, the former governor of Rhode Island. Both are centrist Democrats who are unlikely to enthuse the party’s more left-leaning base. Webb was secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan, a Republican. Chafee even was a Republican Party member until 2007.

Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley could prove more of a challenge. Although he is probably too far to the left for the country at large, Democratic primary voters in some states may prefer his unabashed liberalism to Clinton’s middle-of-the-road rhetoric.

If they both run, O’Malley and Sanders could force the frontrunner to tack to the left on issues like climate change, taxes and trade in order to woo young and blue-collar voters.

Sanders has already asked Clinton to clarify her position on a Pacific trade deal that should boost global economic output by $220 billion over the next decade. Many leftwingers oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership for fear of job losses in manufacturing.

O’Malley has made noise about income inequality, an issue that looks certain to dominate the 2016 election. The jetsetting Clinton, who is expected to collect millions of dollars in donations to her campaign from Wall Street bankers, will be hard-pressed to convince everyday Americans she really is their “champion,” as she put it.

If O’Malley doesn’t run, Sanders could be Clinton’s only left-winger challenger and, compared to Cafee and Webb, she would then be the most reasonable progressive candidate by default.