The headline out of Iowa for the Democrats was a dead heat that gave neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders much satisfaction. Clinton’s large lead dissipated in the last few months but she still managed not to lose, and that’s all she really needed to do there. Sanders will likely win in New Hampshire, but his inability to edge out the former First Lady in the first-in-the-nation caucus robbed him of any chance of creating a narrative in which Clinton’s hold on the nomination had cracked. Though the Vermont senator will likely hang around in the race for as long as he can, he has little hope of winning many states after next week.
Thus despite all the hoopla over the virtual tie in Iowa, the result actually reaffirms the truth about the Democrats in 2016: they have no choice.
Clinton may be weakened by trust issues stemming from the email scandal that places her fate in the hands of the FBI. Younger voters don’t appear to be quite as motivated by the chance to elect a female president as we might have thought. Others are weary of the Clintons or see her as a too close to Wall Street. Hillary’s lackluster campaign style and poor political instincts also act as a natural brake on any effort for the Democrats to generate enthusiasm for their frontrunner. But with a 74-year-old socialist providing the only viable opposition in the Democratic contest, do Democrats really have any choice but to nominate a woman who, whatever her shortcomings might be, is someone that can still have some kind of appeal to mainstream voters and the Democratic base?
The answer is obviously not. But the really interesting question to be asking today is not why it is that Hillary Clinton is such a weak presidential candidate or whether Bernie Sanders ever had a chance to win Iowa or the Democratic nomination. It’s why it is the Democrats have placed themselves in such a vulnerable position in the first place. Why would a party in possession of the White House be left with two such dismal choices for their efforts to hold onto power?
The most important factor that brought the Democrats to their current dilemma must be blamed on President Obama. The president remains popular with the party base and a formidable force despite his lame duck status. But lost amid the adulation he receives for his historic status as our first African-American president and his ability to transform domestic and foreign policy via ObamaCare and the Iran nuclear deal is the fact that he has also helped destroy the Democratic Party as a viable force in American politics.
Since he first took the oath of office in 2009, the Democrats have declined in every possible measure of popularity and power. Fewer voters not only identify with the party but it has suffered massive losses on the state and federal levels that are virtually unprecedented for one with an incumbent president. The lack of a deep Democratic bench can be traced to the fact that the ranks of leading Democrats have been thinned by two consecutive midterm election wipeouts. Barack Obama has been a magical political figure but his magic was limited to himself. The fact that the only representative of the next generation of Democrat office holders in the 2016 race was Martin O’Malley speaks volumes about the party’s inability to produce leaders.
But Obama isn’t the only one to blame for the lack of Democratic choices. The Clinton machine has been working hard for the last seven years to clear the field of alternatives to Hillary and succeeded brilliantly.
It needs to be understood that the entire Clinton political enterprise has been geared toward this one goal. Their activities include conventional political favors such as endorsements and fundraising for Democrats running for election and re-election. But the work of their family foundation — which operates as a thinly disguised political slush fund operating under the veneer of charity — is also part of this effort. Nothing else in modern politics — including the flailing machinations of the Bush dynasty to put a third member of their clan in the White House compares with the Clintons’ ability to raise massive amounts of money and to deploy it to work their will on the system.
Faced with having to not only compete with the Clinton machine for the nomination but the perils of incurring their anger and the certainty of future revenge for such insolence, it’s no wonder that ambitious Democrats chose to give 2016 a pass. Though much of the left pleaded for her to run, the Democrats’ one rising star — Senator Elizabeth Warren — wouldn’t risk it. The political world may have been transfixed by Vice President Biden’s agonizing over running for the presidency last fall when Clinton’s weakness was becoming apparent. But the real decision was made more than a year earlier when he chose not to begin a campaign when there was still time to take advantage of her mistakes. But he didn’t because challenging the Clinton juggernaut seemed impossible.
That gave Clinton the advantages of incumbency but without the energy or excitement to mobilize her party. Bernie Sanders jumped in to fill the empty space the Clinton wrecking crew left but few even in his own camp really believe he is someone that can be president. His is a gadfly operation that has been inflated to its current proportions only by the fact that liberal Democrats need someone for whom to cast a protest vote against Clinton.
These factors have combined to put all the Democrats eggs in Hillary’s basket. But they can’t be surprised by the vulnerability she has shown in this election cycle. Anyone not married to a former president would never have gotten another shot at the presidency after blowing the nomination in 2008 to a freshman senator. Clinton’s 2016 campaign is nothing more, nor less than a recycled version of her equally pallid 2008 effort. That may be good enough to beat Bernie Sanders rather than a Barack Obama. But it is an open question as to whether it will be sufficient to give the Democrats a third consecutive term in the White House should the Republicans nominate a strong candidate. Barring the intervention of the Justice Department with a well-timed indictment, they are stuck with Hillary.