Across his eight years in office, President Obama has overseen an enormous amount of consequential policy change. He’s also presided over a broad and deep collapse of the Democratic Party at lower levels that simply can’t be reversed in 2016 because far too many state and local offices aren’t on the ballot this fall.
Turning that around ought to be one of Hillary Clinton’s major goals in office. The transition provides a great opportunity to get started by tapping young, talented, ambitious people whose elevation to federal jobs can set them up for later runs for federal office.
Presidents can only get so much done on their own. Especially in today’s polarized era, any major policy agenda ultimately needs a strong national party behind it. Obama has, broadly speaking, not been very effective at or interested in party-building efforts. These days, with his approval ratings riding high, nobody wants to be seen as grumbling about him.
But members of Congress spoke more openly about their discontent with Obama as a party leader back in 2014, including everything from his weak personal relationships on Capitol Hill to, more consequentially, his reluctance to go all in on fundraising for down-ballot Super PACs. Over the past two weeks he’s gotten personally invested in bashing Marco Rubio’s reelection campaign, but Democrats have grumbled to me that he hasn’t done anything to narrow Rubio’s financial advantage.
More broadly, one big advantage Rubio has is simply that the Florida Democratic Party as a whole is, like many state parties, simply very weak and has trouble putting forward strong candidates. To succeed nationwide, Democrats need a deeper bench. If Clinton wins, she will be ideally positioned to start building one.
Clinton needs a team of will-bes, not has-beens
When Obama took office in 2009, he was (legitimately) seen as a little underseasoned compared with most presidents. In part to compensate, he stocked his Cabinet with veteran politicians — four governors, two senators, two House members — and rounded it out with apolitical technocrats like Tim Geithner, Robert Gates, and Steven Chu.
It was designed to be an impressive group, and indeed it was. But looking back, it was, to an extent, a team of has-beens — full of people whose stint in the Obama administration was their last public sector job, not a stepping stone to bigger things.
As time has passed, the composition of Obama’s Cabinet has shifted somewhat in the rising star direction. But it often seems to lack strategic sense. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is very much a rising star type, but it’s far from clear that close association with the Obama administration does anything to make it more likely that he can win statewide in Texas.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, by contrast, is the kind of pick Clinton should seek to emulate. Just 45 years old, he has plenty of time to take a crack at the Senate seat held by Republican Thom Tillis in 2020. (Indeed, North Carolina Democrats wanted him to run this year.) A Cabinet gig lets him build familiarity with the national issues he’d need to address in a Senate campaign and, more importantly, lets him travel around and become known outside his Charlotte base. And while North Carolina is more conservative than your average state, it’s becoming close enough that any Democrat running for statewide office shouldn’t feel too much need to distance himself from the national party.
Clinton, meanwhile, faces zero doubts about the depth or breadth of her experience or her ability to call on a network of old Washington hands for graybeard wisdom. She should let some of her credibility and star power shine on younger, lesser-known figures who can rebuild the party’s bench.
Where Cabinet help is needed
Democrats have a serious down-ballot problem in states like Ohio and Florida. These are swing states where a Democrat is certainly capable of winning. But they’re not liberal enough for just anyone to win. Candidate quality matters.
And with Democrats locked out of all statewide offices and in the minority in both houses of legislature, they’re stuck in a recruitment trap. They have no attorneys general or secretaries of state to run for Senate or governor. State legislators trapped in the minority can’t amass any record of achievement that they can run on. House members packed into gerrymandered, ultra-Democratic districts face pressure to position themselves to the left of where you’d want to be for a statewide run. Besides, these are large states containing multiple media markets, so it’s hard for a House member to obtain a statewide profile.
Both states feature 2016 Senate races, both ones where Democrats are likely to lose and both ones where the Democratic candidate is underwhelming. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s Patrick Murphy has been “dogged by criticism — even from within parts of his own party — that he's a ‘weak’ candidate,” and Ohio’s Ted Strickland has practically become synonymous with “lackluster campaign.”
But these aren’t cases of weak general election candidates winning primaries — there simply were no stronger candidates in the race.
Finding a role in the government for an appealing candidate like Annette Taddeo (Small Business Administration?) who hasn’t quite made it onto the political ladder would help. An Ohio mayor like Cincinnati’s John Cranley or former Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman as HUD secretary wouldn’t set the world on fire but would give the local party more statewide options.
So far, the department where we know the most about the transition team’s thinking is the secretary of agriculture slot. All five candidates under consideration seem extremely well-qualified, but the list is long on retreads and Californians. If she’s smart, Clinton will ask her team to take a good hard look at places like Wisconsin and Iowa to see if there’s an option out there who could strengthen Democrats in the Midwest, even if it’s someone who doesn’t have a built-in interest group fan base.
Last but by no means least, US attorney gigs — which are more plentiful than Cabinet jobs — can be a potent party-building tool. Especially because a US attorney is less closely identified, both personally and policy-wise, with the incumbent administration, this can be a great launch pad in an ideologically mismatched state. Janet Napolitano got her start in Arizona politics as a US attorney, and so did Chris Christie in New Jersey. States like Georgia and Texas, where demographic trends are pointing blue but public opinion is fundamentally still conservative, could especially use impressive, ambitious, youthful US attorneys.
Democrats have historically been weak party builders
Daniel Galvin, a political scientist at Northwestern University and author of Presidential Party Building: Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush, argues that historically there’s been a systematic partisan difference in party-building activity:
Democrats have used party organs to maximize immediate personal and political benefits, but have done little to leave behind a more robust party organization. In contrast, every Republican president starting with Eisenhower worked to build the GOP – investing in new organizational capacities to expand the party’s reach and enhance its electoral competitiveness.
He says this is no coincidence. Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush all self-consciously saw themselves as leaders of a minority party at a time when Democrats controlled a majority of down-ballot offices. Democratic presidents in this era, by contrast, took a strong Democratic Party for granted and saw it as a tool to be used rather than something to be invested in. The objective environment shifted in 1995, when the GOP secured control of Congress and reached parity in the states.
Not coincidentally, according to Galvin, Bill Clinton “made a number of targeted investments in party organization during his second term,” becoming the first Democratic president to do so. But huge Democratic wins in 2006 and 2008 led a perhaps overconfident Barack Obama to neglect these nascent efforts. Howard Dean’s “50 State Strategy” approach to managing the Democratic National Committee, for example, was abandoned in favor of a narrower focus on maximizing the DNC’s ability to help win swing states in 2012.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, pretty clearly finds herself in a position analogous to that of a late-20th-century Republican — very successful personally, but standing atop a rickety party structure. Turning that around requires money, time, and attention across a variety of fronts that go far behind the initial rollout of presidential appointments. But you have to start somewhere, and if she’s smart she’ll put party-building considerations into the mix from the very start of the transition.