My problem with the Clinton Death Star

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014. (Elise Amendola/AP Photo)

A year before the Iowa caucuses, Washington’s entrenched Democrats are already girding for a general election. You could raid the Four Seasons at the height of breakfast and not turn up a single Democratic lobbyist, consultant or lawmaker who isn’t already behind Hillary Clinton — and who doesn’t assume she’s the nominee.

Writing in Politico last week, the ever-prescient Mike Allen reported that Clinton has already charged John Podesta, recently a senior Obama adviser and the closest thing the party has to a reigning wise man, with assembling her rumbling tank of a campaign. The current hope is that Clinton may not even have to risk debating in the primaries, unless someone really is crazy enough to run against her. (Um … have you guys actually heard Bernie Sanders?)

I have to say, there’s something about this latest iteration of Clinton Industries that I find a little dispiriting, though probably not for the reasons you might think.

It’s not that I think Hillary Clinton couldn’t be a good president, or even the right fit for the moment. Going back to her days in the Senate, Clinton has always been pragmatic and dexterous with the machinery of government. That might be a welcome contrast with Barack Obama, who after six years in the job still seems to regard himself as a critic of the system, rather than as the guy who owns it.

And although you might be tempted to say I’m just a typical journalist who’s dying to cover a more exciting Democratic primary campaign than the one taking shape right now, that really isn’t it, either. I’ve seen all the freezing, late-night rallies and desperate attack ads I need to see for one lifetime. If Hillary can spare us more of that a year from now, I say go for it.

Some people around Clinton assume that any skepticism about her candidacy has to do with latent sexism, but I’m pretty sure that’s not my issue, either. Last week, my 6-year-old daughter informed me that she couldn’t be president because she’s a girl. So believe me, if Hillary Clinton takes the oath of office on the third Friday of 2017, we’ll be watching together.

Nor am I necessarily devastated, as some people are, by the idea of yet another Clinton campaign (which would be the fourth in seven presidential elections), or even another Bush-Clinton matchup, should it come to that. Dynastic politics can’t be good for the democracy, but that’s up to the voters, and if they want to treat the presidency like it’s a “Rocky” sequel, so be it.

No, my problem with the Clinton Death Star strategy — and the sense of entitlement that comes with it — is that a generation of influential Democrats seems to have lost touch with the anti-establishment impulse that brought them into politics in the first place.

Although it’s hard for us Gen Xers or you millennials to envision, the parties didn’t always pick their presidents in these crazy caucuses and primaries. Until 1968, in fact, the process in the Democratic Party was mostly controlled by a loose affiliation of elected officials, machine bosses and union chiefs, each of whom commanded the loyalty of “regulars” who walked the precincts and manned the phones.

There were primaries in some states, but they mainly existed to demonstrate the viability of the candidates, which might in turn persuade the insiders to get behind them.

But then along came the young, liberal reformers of the ’60s generation, opponents of Vietnam and segregation, who felt shut out by the backroom process dominated almost exclusively by white men. The modern primary system, with its reliance (for better or worse) on binding votes in the states, sprang from a commission chaired by the antiwar senator George McGovern, who turned around in the very next election and used the new system to shock the establishment and steal the nomination for himself. (Republicans almost immediately followed suit.)

For the next several elections, younger Democratic activists worked to undermine the plans of the aging establishment. A lot of them backed Ted Kennedy in his bid to unseat an incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, in 1980. One of Clinton’s most important loyalists and fundraisers, Harold Ickes, helped lead Jesse Jackson’s surprisingly strong insurgency against Michael Dukakis and the party establishment in 1988.

By then, though, a lot of the reformers of the ’60s and ’70s were starting to build a new establishment of their own. Some — Podesta and Ickes among them — started powerful lobbying and public relations shops. Others became admen and pollsters, pioneering the new, lucrative campaign-for-hire industry. Still others, like the Clintons, ran for office themselves.

And now, whether they like to think of it this way or not, a lot of these onetime reformers make up a powerful machine that’s just as bent on controlling events as the bosses were back in the day. They’re no longer interested in having a fight over the direction of the party, in empowering new voices and letting the voters decide. They’re interested in locking up the big money, freezing out potential competitors and making sure other officials get on board early, so as to avoid any intraparty debate.

Witness the procession of Democratic boomers, liberals as unimpeachable as Howard Dean and Al Franken, who have lined up in recent months to endorse a candidate who isn’t even running yet and hasn’t offered a single reform one could endorse.

I’m not saying it’s all the fault of Clinton or her longtime acolytes that there aren’t other candidates coming forward to challenge her. The party’s ranks of up-and-coming politicians took a real hit during the wave elections of 2010 and 2014, and there just aren’t a ton of strong, natural contenders this time around. It’s not Clinton’s job to invent them.

But there are some potential rivals, including the more than able vice president of the United States and the well-regarded, former two-term governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley. And at some point, if your goal is to rig this thing for Clinton, you have to look in the mirror and ask yourself if this is the kind of Democratic politics you really intended to create — the kind where the establishment decides who the nominee will be 18 months before the convention, without a single idea on the table or a single choice yet defined.

You have to ask yourself something else, too: Does trying so blatantly to steamroll the modern nominating process make it more likely that your candidate will avoid a bunch of bruising primary debates, or less so? If you got your start in Democratic politics 40-odd years ago, the answer to that one should be obvious.