It is my firm belief that, if Republicans run a centrist Republican such a Jeb Bush in 2016, we as Democrats should prefer an Elizabeth Warren vs. Jeb general election battle, and not Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb. If the Republicans do run Jeb, and as I explain below that is pretty likely, then I fear there will not be a strong enough contrast in voters' eyes to make this an easy election for Hillary.
In contrast, I think a Warren vs. Bush electoral battle would mean a much clearer victory for the Democrats by a more significant margin. This is an increasingly progressive and populist electorate, and the perception (right or not) is that Hillary isn't either of these things. I personally believe Hillary is progressive on more issues than not, but in terms of public opinion, she rarely is associated with the progressive wing of the party- and, like it or not, this is the only thing that matters. In the case of the majority of the public thinking she's not a strong enough progressive, policy positions don't really matter all that much.
In an anti-Wall Street climate, I don't think Hillary’s less than candid stance on deregulation or her reassurance to donors that that she thinks such anti-Wall Street sentiment is foolish will garner enough enthusiasm among the Democratic base to the extent that Elizabeth Warren would be able to. Considering how Warren's recent book tour has also meant a significant increase in national visibility in national media and a friendly reception among an exorbitantly wider audience, there is plenty of time for her to become a viable candidate well before 2016. With Warren’s new book, A Fighting Chance, being number two on Amazon’s best-seller list for 10 days straight, I’d say Warren will only be more and more recognizable with every month that goes by.
Like it or not, Elizabeth Warren would provide Hillary an unimaginably tough primary battle should Warren choose to run. And it is this that would make Warren stronger against any Republican come election day 2016. This is compounded by the fact that 59% of Democrats view socialism more favorably than capitalism, with 43% of lower-income voters agreeing. And with Pew finding that 62% of Americans prefer to self-identify as conservative and 47% of Democrats having a positive reaction to libertarianism- I’d be scared for Hillary going up against a centrist libertarian or a progressive libertarian, both labels describing Jeb Bush.
I believe the people who believe that Hillary is the most pragmatic choice are ignoring several key factors- the first of which consists of a few different layers. As I alluded to above, the national electorate is increasingly divided between economic populists among self-identified Democrats, and economic left-libertarians and libertarian populists among self-identified Republicans. It doesn't matter if the latter two labels don't make much sense- it just matters that smart Republican strategists know how to exploit this cognitive dissonance.
If the kingmakers of the Democratic Party still cling to to the outmoded belief that the shadows of the DLC's legacy can still win in general elections based on wasteful battles over pragmatism, the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters will sit out of future general elections. These voters will concede the elections due to the lack of enthusiasm in the absence of any meaningful contrast (again, in perception) for as long as they put up a Centrist Democrat against a Centrist Republican. Or, even worse, some Democratic voters clinging to the notion that the GOP can be mainstreamed or even moved to the left- which they are already doing- may choose to be in a base that is listening to them (aka not Democrats), be it self-described Independents or the Republican "left".
This clearly shows the danger of the Democratic establishment and the Progressives working independently of one another. Regardless of them knowing it or not, Third Way's founding in 2005 was precipitated not by progressive or liberal Democrats, but because the Democratic establishment itself- removed from its voters- was already steering to the center-right.
As we have seen, Jeb Bush is being courted by wealthy donors voters associated with Wall Street and "Big Business". This would suggest that voters will be suspicious of Bush relative to a more vocal opponent of Wall Street or "Big Business" buying our elections. Unfortunately for Hillary, she is not such a candidate. Hillary has always had a tepid response to Wall Street and Big Business pumping in exorbitant sums of money into campaign coffers- and one large reason is that she has always depended on Wall Street and wealthy donors pumping in those exorbitant sums into her campaigns.
In addition to invitations to speak in front of gatherings of Wall Street executives for which she is paid large sums of money and at which she calls anti-Wall Street sentiment foolish, Hillary will not necessarily pick up the voters suspicious of Jeb's ties to Wall Street and wealthy donors. And for those who point to Hillary's tepid and sporadic support for campaign fiance reform as reason enough for voters to distinguish Wall Street money behind Hillary and behind Jeb, voters would simply not see a difference come the 2016 campaign ads denigrating both candidates' ties to Wall Street. This is compounded by the fact, as mentioned above, that Hillary's stance on deregulation is viewed through the lens of her centrism and that of her husband's.
This leaves an open space for a more vocal proponent of regulatory enforcement of large Wall Street financial institutions, a more outspoken advocate of campaign finance reform, and someone that is seen as generally more populist. A candidate like this is more likely to pick up votes of those suspicious of Jeb's ties to Wall Street, and this points to the one other name that is becoming more and more popular in 2016 speculation: Elizabeth Warren. Considering that Warren has also quite visibly been calling on Hillary to get tough on too-big-to-fail banks to largely no avail, Hillary has a lot more to go to gain the trust of a growing segment of Democrats, Independents, and the fast-expanding 'Republican Left'. The onus is not on Warren to win support among these constituencies or campaign for their votes if she decides to run. She would immediately shore up the votes of the constituencies tired of Wall Street-funded candidates, particularly Jeb. The onus is on Hillary. And unfortunately for her 2016 prospects, she is trailing far behind in that regard.
The graph below highlights the aforementioned growing constituency supporting measures to push Wall Street out of our elections. Naturally, there is support among Democrats for getting rid of big donations to candidates, marked by a growing base of Independents and Republicans who agree. Surprisingly, more Republicans than not are willing to forego their party's support of tax cuts if this means that tax revenues match small donations to campaigns. This suggests that if Elizabeth runs in 2016, voters will overwhelmingly associate their evolving views of Wall Street, regulation, and campaign finance reform with her, and not nearly as much with Hillary or Jeb. If the Democrats want to capitalize on this and make sure Jeb doesn't split the Democratic or Independent ticket and even score some crossovers from Centrist Republicans- or at least depress their vote- the Democrats will have to realize Elizabeth would be better suited for the race than Hillary.
Inexplicably, the Democratic party establishment has been far removed from many of these overall trends. Which leaves a crucial gap that grassroots activist groups are filling at an exorbitantly fast rate- such as Adam Green’s Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the nationally-expanding Working Families Party. Sadly, Democrats cannot win by simply relying on such groups without establishment support, which is slowly dawning on a precious few Democratic politicians. Instead of diminishing insurgent progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and seeing her as a threat, the Democratic establishment should recognize that this insurgency reflects a genuine shift in public opinion and work with her in a more coordinated fashion than they are doing now.
Particularly if the GOP is disciplined and runs a centrist candidate such as Jeb Bush these and other factors suggest that Hillary would have at the very least a tough battle ahead of her. Perception has it that Hillary isn't far enough to the left of Jeb to strike a winnable contrast. And it is this perception that will put Jeb in striking distance of Hillary. If anyone doubts that the Republican establishment or Republican voters are seriously considering Bush, read this and this.
Here are a few facts to make you pause if you believe Hillary would easily trounce Bush without a progressive shift in her own positions:
He is behind only by one or two points alternatively in North Carolina, according to Public Policy Polling.
He's four points behind in Iowa according to Huffington Posts Pollster.
only 11 points in Michigan, also according to Huffington Post’s Pollster.
All of which have been swing states/purple states. And there is plenty of time to close those distances.
On top of:
Jeb Bush having an average approval rating of 56 percent throughout his 2nd term as Florida governor. This while many other governors' ratings gradually fizzle out in their 2nd term.
Jeb won his 2nd term as Florida governor 56% to 43%, simultaneously managing to expand his voting margins by 3 points, being the only Republican governor to win 2 terms in Florida's history, and beating back a very formidable nationwide effort by the Democrats (including The Great Bill Clinton) to stop him.
For those who doubt that narrow margins make a difference, consider that the majority of our Presidents from 1900 to 1999 won by narrow margins- some narrower than Jeb’s 3 points- and President Obama was re-elected by even smaller margins than in 2008, notably among the under 30 crowd- the vote that delivered Obama to victory both times.
And unfortunately, a lot of those Obama primary voters in 2008, who I think probably voted for him based out of a cynicism of politics as usual, might not vote for Hillary based off of the very same cynicism they based their vote for Obama in 2008. He was perceived as an outsider who genuinely was going to fight for them, and this appealed to the voter who was previously disengaged from politics out of a learned helplessness. And Hillary, I believe, is seen as yet another personification of an an establishment insider.
And to those who count on the fear of dynasties stopping Bush: we elected two Roosevelts, two Kennedys were in one White House without much of a fuss- and for 64 years the Kennedy name has been on the door of elective office up until 2011, including the indomitable late Ted Kennedy. We've already had two Bushes in the White House- both of them alienating the voters who elected them. And now we're considering a third President Bush- despite the previous alienating their own base- and a second President Clinton, and we're considering a Kennedy for another elective office. We're clearly not all that ruffled when it comes to political dynasties.
If Democrats don't listen to their own base, nor to the shifts among Republicans, they will continue to win by fiat, and even this default position will continue to disappear in between presidential elections- and probably between at least a few more midterms. Democrats should not point to the inevitability of the Tea Party's demise as justification of their centrism- that was always a matter of natural demographic shifts in this country and cyclical historical dynamics.
If Democrats don't internalize this and continue to encourage their presidential nominees to run and govern as centrists, they will continue to trail far behind the national electorate. This electoral strategy will no longer provide the ideological contrast needed to deliver Democrats a clear, unmistakable mandate. This is simply because, to the voters of today, there is not enough difference between a centrist Democrat and a centrist Republican- or at least Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. And considering that Bush is publicly embracing many more electorally-contentious progressive platforms than Clinton is, centrist Democrats have a lot more to worry about.
Democrats cannot and should not hedge on the idea that the GOP will run poor candidates who alienate their all-important moderate base. They have done this too often, and electoral history has been surprisingly kind to them for this. The ideological contrasts in the electorate are polarizing at a faster rate now than previously while the entire match itself is shifting to the left- a Left which does not necessarily find its home in the Democratic Party. Without the Democratic Party throwing more solid support behind candidates such as Elizabeth Warren or at least use her to accentuate the contrast between their own ticket and the Republicans', 2016 will be Jeb Bush's to lose.
Tue Jun 24, 2014 at 7:17 PM PT: Part 2 of this blog series was published June 9th, and can be found on my diary page. It is entitled, "Think Hillary Would Crush Rand? Think Again."