Jonathan Bernstein and Reihan Salam have written two smart articles on the Democratic presidential primary — or lack thereof — that are best read in tandem. Bernstein's article is meant to explain why it looks like Democrats don't have a bench even though they do, and Salam's article is meant to show who's sitting on it.
Bernstein's argument is related to the "invisible primary" theory of presidential elections. Hillary Clinton, he says, "has earned the support of the bulk of Democratic party actors, and gained the acquiescence of other Democrats who aren’t as enthusiastic about her." The result is that the Democratic Party's "perfectly viable other candidates either dropped out or never seriously considered the race."
Perhaps a slightly clearer way to put it is this: in the invisible primary, when the contest is as much a draft as it is a campaign, Clinton is "opposed" by essentially every Democrat fit for the presidency. If the party's powerbrokers didn't want to support Clinton and instead really wanted Sen. Michael Bennet to run, or Gov. Andrew Cuomo to lead the field, they would be working toward that outcome. Instead, they're lining up behind Clinton. In this telling, Clinton isn't winning by default. She's winning by winning. The absence of competition is the product of Clinton's strong, successful campaign to win over Democratic Party elites.
Hillary's strength is evident in public polling, too. Gallup has a useful favorability-familiarity index, the upshot of which is that Clinton is both better known than anyone else in the race and viewed more favorably than almost anyone else in the race (Ben Carson is viewed very favorably too, but as he becomes better known among Democrats, my guess is that his negatives will rise quickly):
This is the context for Hillary's dominance on the Democratic side: she's in a much stronger position not just than any Democrat going into 2016, but also than any Republican. These are early polls and the numbers can and will change, but look where Clinton is compared to Jeb Bush or Scott Walker. That's a big deal to Democrats, and a big reason they're supporting her rather than looking for an alternative.
The Democratic bench
Salam offers a "wish list of Democratic presidential contenders." His list excludes possible candidates like ex-Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley or ex-Virginia Senator Jim Webb. Rather, it includes plausible candidates who seem to have no interest in becoming actual candidates.
"Any contest for the Democratic presidential nomination needs an earnest, nerdy liberal technocrat who appeals to the intelligentsia," writes Salam, and he nominates Sen. Ron Wyden, a favorite of wonks (and civil libertarians) everywhere:
His steadfast opposition to dragnet surveillance has won him many friends among civil libertarians, and that’s no small thing in a Democratic primary, particularly in dovish, independent-minded states like New Hampshire. A Pew survey from January found that 31 percent of Democrats hold an unfavorable view of the National Security Agency, which is not a bad little foundation for a Wyden campaign. Moreover, Wyden has proposed a universal health care plan more ambitious than Obamacare, and he’s championed the idea of allowing states like Vermont and Oregon to build their own single-payer health systems.
Salam goes on to push Sen. Sherrod Brown as a liberal champion, ex-Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick for his ability to speak to the post-Ferguson moment in the post-Obama Democratic Party, ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the grave centrist, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar as a Midwest problem-solver.
The point isn't that any of these candidates will run. The point is that they could run, and they would be, in theory, at least as credible as a Scott Walker or a Jeb Bush. They may not seem like presidential contenders now, but as Bernstein writes, "the way those solid politicians become Serious Presidential Candidates and not just random governors and senators — I'm talking here about folks such as Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Bobby Jindal — is to start running, and visibly enough so the press notices. "
Which is all to say that Bernstein is right: the Democratic Party has a bench. It's just that Clinton is running so strongly in the invisible primary that no one on it thinks it's worth getting in the game.
The question for the Democratic Party is whether Clinton is going to be as strong in the visible primary — and the visible election — as she is in the invisible one. The skills necessary to win over Democratic Party elites may not be the skills necessary to win the election — and if Hillary doesn't face serious opposition in the visible primary, Democrats may not find that out until too late.