Hillary Clinton is essentially running unopposed for the Democratic Party nomination in 2016. Yes, Bernie Sanders is in the race. But he has so little support that his natural core constituency is pouring all its time and energy into trying to nudge Elizabeth Warren into the race. But she's not running.
It's a problem. A problem for the Democratic Party, a problem for the United States of America, and ultimately a problem for Hillary Clinton herself.
Not because there's anything wrong with Clinton as a nominee per se. But because there's a lot wrong with a non-existent primary campaign and an untested candidate. Everyone — in many ways including Clinton herself — would be better off if a serious candidate such as Warren, Joe Biden, or someone else managed to enter the race with enough backing and plausibility to force Clinton into a real campaign. That would mean real debates, real media strategy, real policy rollouts, and all the other accompaniments of a presidential nominating congress.
Anything less leaves her dangerously unprepared as she heads into the ultimate contest with a Republican who will have emerged battle-tested from an unusually deep field of plausible contenders.
The most proximate way in which Clinton's lack of opposition hurts her is in allowing her to maintain her current state of un-candidacy. This means she continues to give high-dollar buckraking speeches with no clear end-date on the calendar. For Clinton personally, this is a balancing act. On the one hand, buckraking has some downsides in terms of public perception. On the other hand, she gets money. For the broader Democratic Party, though, it's all downside. An actual primary campaign would shift Clinton's balance of considerations — focusing the mind on doing what has to be done to win the presidency.
But the bigger problem is simply that running for president is hard.
A vigorous primary campaign is a means through which, among other things, the key potential vulnerabilities in a candidate's biography get aired. Was Clinton lying about her opposition to gay marriage the way David Axelrod says Obama was? Have too many years at the pinnacle of American politics left her out of touch with middle class struggles? Can she distance herself from Obama administration foreign policy initiatives that didn't work out (settlement freeze? Russia reset?) without sounding disloyal or ineffectual? Can she answer questions about the complicated finances — including donations from foreign governments while she was Secretary of State underlying her husband's foundation?
As long as she's "not running" we just don't know. And the closer she gets to obtaining the nomination without answering the questions, the more vulnerable the position she leaves herself in for the general election.
Clinton's problem isn't that these are devastating weaknesses. It's simply that like all candidates she has some weaknesses. And normally one function of the primary campaign is to give everyone an opportunity to make sure that the eventual nominee is someone who is able to parry these questions in a reasonable way. In 2012 both Rick Perry and Tim Pawlenty looked like strong candidates on paper, but their inability to deliver competent debate performances gave party leaders a chance to ditch them rather than deal with an embarrassing meltdown in the middle of a general election campaign.
But Clinton's odds of securing the Democratic nomination are so overwhelming that it seems doubtful she'll be tested in any but the most cursory of ways.
She's not by any means the first overwhelming favorite to win a nomination. But even presidential primary juggernauts like Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 faced more-than-token opposition from Bill Bradley and John McCain. The underdogs in both cases had at least some endorsements from elected officials and couldn't be simply ignored. Bradley's challenge, in particular, proved rather easy to brush back. But Gore still had to show up, campaign in key states, mobilize volunteers, and debate the issues. The likes of Jim Webb and Bernie Sanders aren't even remotely in that class.
To be clear, I like Sanders, but the fact that his natural constituency is spending all their time on a doomed effort to get Elizabeth Warren into the race tells you what you need to know. Webb's idea of running on an agenda of making Democrats friendly to white men is, merits aside, a mathematically impossible way of securing the Democratic nomination even if he had endorsements or money (which he doesn't).
This isn't opposition Clinton needs to deal with in any way — not with debates, policy initiatives, or anything else. She'll just ignore them, hit the GOP field, and coast to the nomination without the party ever getting a real chance to kick the tires.
A thin electoral resume
Given the extraordinarily long period of time during which Clinton has been in the public eye, this may not seem so bad. But despite being perhaps the single most-covered person in politics over the past quarter century, her record as an actual candidate for office is a bit thin. She ran about five points behind Al Gore in New York in 2000, vanquished nominal opposition in the Democratic landslide year of 2006, and then botched a 2008 primary campaign in which she held formidable advantages.
There is much more to political than electioneering, and Clinton's considerable political skills shouldn't be discounted.
Her ability to secure the Senate nomination in a state where she'd never lived, her 2008 reconstitution of her husband's political operation, and her dominating position in 2016 are all testament to those skills. But in terms of dealing with the media, speaking extemporaneously, and wooing the voters she's had at best a mixed record of success. When she popped her head up for a quasi-campaign book tour, she immediately fumbled and interview claiming to have been "dead broke" when she left office. At the end of the day, presidential campaign gaffes rarely seem to matter much. But they surely don't help. And one reason they don't matter is that nobody makes it through the nominating process without showing they can take the heat.
In 2016, Clinton isn't going to have to show that. And it might cost her — and her party — dearly down the road.