Hillary Clinton campaign: Deval Patrick, Ron Wyden, Amy Klobuchar, and other Democrats who should challenge the front-runner.

Five Democrats Who Should Run for President, None of Them Named Hillary (or Elizabeth)

Five Democrats Who Should Run for President, None of Them Named Hillary (or Elizabeth)

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 12 2015 12:59 PM

Hillary Needs Competition

Five Democrats who should challenge the presumptive nominee.

US Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota; Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick; Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg; Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen. Sherrod Brown, former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, and Sen. Ron Wyden.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images; Paul Marotta/Getty Images; Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call; Matthew Stockman/Getty Images; Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Hillary Clinton is not doomed. One terrible press conference won’t mean the end of a long, storied political career. As of now, it is far more likely that she will win the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, then win the White House, than it is that she will fade quietly from the political scene.

One nevertheless wonders whether the latest Clinton miniscandal will lead at least some Democrats to think, Hey, why not run for president? What exactly do I have to lose? If nothing else, a 2016 presidential campaign would lay the groundwork for a future run, when there will be no Clintons blocking the way.

With Clinton as the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination, only a handful of no-hopers are willing to make a go of it. Vice President Biden seems eager to make a third attempt at winning the top job, with an eye toward forever cementing his role as America’s Mortifying Uncle. Bernie Sanders, the beloved cranky socialist from Vermont who caucuses with Senate Democrats, has expressed interest in running in a Democratic primary or two, presumably to ensure that his brand of left-wingery is adequately represented. Ex-Republican Jim Webb, a loner polymath and decorated veteran who served briefly and unhappily as a Democratic senator from Virginia, has also made noises about running as an economic populist. Sadly, no one seems to care. Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, is similarly trying to carve out a place to Clinton’s left. Unfortunately for O’Malley, he is perhaps best-known as the inspiration for one of the more oleaginous characters on The Wire. It’s widely believed that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would like to run for president, but he now finds himself under a cloud of suspicion as federal prosecutors investigate corruption in the Empire State. So you can scratch him off the list. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the most formidable of the potential primary challengers we hear about from time to time. Yet Warren insists that she’s not running, and there’s good reason to believe that she means it. For one thing, Warren might actually be better off as the Democratic Party’s chief ideological enforcer than as an also-ran presidential candidate.

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So who should get in the mix? To run a successful primary campaign, you have to either have or be able to raise money. Before you even get to that point, however, you have to have something to say. That’s the really tough part. Ideally, you have something to say that is distinctive and that resonates with a decent-sized swath of the primary electorate. The Democratic Party has changed since the Bill Clinton years: It is less white than it was then, for one thing, and as conservative Democrats have left for the GOP, it’s also become more consistently liberal on social and economic issues. With all of this in mind, I give you my wish list of Democratic presidential contenders:

Any contest for the Democratic presidential nomination needs an earnest, nerdy liberal technocrat who appeals to the intelligentsia. Bill Bradley played this role in 2000. Howard Dean put a brilliant spin on earnest, nerdy liberalism in 2004 by also being full of rage. There have been rumors that Russ Feingold, the former Wisconsin senator known for his civil libertarian streak and his devotion to stringent campaign finance regulations, might enter the fray, and he’s certainly an interesting possibility. My pick for this role is Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. 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.

While Wyden woos the nerds, Sherrod Brown, the gravelly-voiced, tousle-haired senator from Ohio, could step in as the red-meat populist, who’d bash China for its unfair trade practices, offer a blueprint for revitalizing organized labor, and demand that the big banks be brought to heel. He’d back Medicare for all and big increases in the minimum wage, all while ferociously attacking Beltway Democrats like Hillary Clinton for their coziness with Wall Street. Though Brown is a solid social liberal, he’s managed to win over Ohio voters by appealing to their nationalism. In Rust Belt primaries, Brown could rail against “Benedict Arnold CEOs” for outsourcing jobs to great effect. Building on the American left’s recent bout of Pikettymania, he could make the case for a progressive wealth tax, a measure that Clinton, who’s grown quite wealthy since leaving the White House, would find awkward to oppose. Though it’s hard to see him defeating Hillary Clinton, he could certainly push her to the left, which should be motivation enough for a true believer like Brown. Alas, Brown has sworn off any interest in higher office. But he has an avenue should he choose to pursue it.

One of the more notable political subplots of last summer concerned how national Democrats would react to the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests that followed. At a speech in San Francisco, Hillary Clinton spoke of “the inequities that persist in our justice system,” and she asked whites to empathize with blacks who feel targeted by the police. Though Clinton took some time to respond to the events in Ferguson, her remarks were generally well-received on the left. It’s also true, however, that Ferguson galvanized many black progressives, and it’s easy to imagine that black Democrats will welcome a nonwhite candidate willing to speak directly to issues of racial justice. The awful news in Ferguson on Wednesday night serves as a reminder that the Kulturkampf over racial bias in policing is not about to go away, and Democrats who’d prefer to avoid the issue are out of luck.

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More than one-fifth of self-identified Democrats are black, and black voters play a large role in Democratic primaries in the Deep South. Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in 2008 in part because he was able to unite college-educated white liberals with black voters, a coalition that could re-emerge. But who could match Obama’s appeal? New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is arguably as charismatic as Obama, but his star has dimmed. His friendliness with Wall Street conservatives marks him as an unreliable friend to the hard left, and his devotion to school choice has earned him the enmity of the teachers unions, which are an extremely important Democratic constituency. Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, is a better bet. Though Patrick failed to prevent a Republican, Charlie Baker, from succeeding him, and though he has denied any interest in running for president in 2016, he has a sterling liberal résumé, having worked as a civil rights lawyer for much of his career. While Obama spoke cautiously about race during his 2008 presidential campaign, the conversation has changed. Patrick would, in theory, have the freedom to press harder on the theme of racial justice. Like Obama in 2008, Patrick has been dismissed as an empty suit. During his first run for governor in 2006, however, Patrick turned these attacks against his critics. When his Republican opponent accused him of being better at making speeches than offering specifics, Patrick replied with the following: “Just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Just words. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words. ‘I have a dream.’ Just words.” Barack Obama himself seems to have been inspired by the rhetoric.

To be sure, not everyone is a Patrick fan. Having served two terms as governor, he’s had to make compromises, and some critics to his left see him as more of a cautious, corporate type than an inspiring liberal firebrand. Yet his time in office also means that he could go toe to toe with anyone, Clinton included, on executive experience. I can see why Patrick might want to wait to run for president, but he has an excellent opportunity to make a mark.

So far, most of Clinton’s would-be challengers have been coming from the left of the party. There might, however, be some room to her right. Bill Clinton ran as a moderate New Democrat who could appeal to middle-class white suburbanites. For a brief period, former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh tried to occupy this role in 2008, and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner flirted with doing the same. Warner, still quite popular in his home state despite a near-defeat at the hands of GOP lobbyist Ed Gillespie, could fill this role tolerably well. Andrew Cuomo could as well, the threat of corruption charges notwithstanding. But I like the idea of Mike Bloomberg running as the sober centrist. Yes, Bloomberg ran for mayor of New York as a Republican, and he now identifies as an independent. Even so, it’s fairly clear that Bloomberg is a moderate liberal, albeit of the Wall Street variety, and that his decision to run in New York as a Republican was first and foremost a matter of convenience. Bloomberg’s brand of centrism would be quite different from Bill Clinton’s ’90s version, not least because Bloomberg is, if anything, less culturally conservative. He would present himself as the turnaround artist America needs—kind of a pro-choice, anti-gun Mitt Romney. It’s easy to imagine Bloomberg, like Ross Perot, saturating the airwaves with detailed discussions of how he’d fix America’s roads and bridges, and how he’d put our entitlement programs on a sounder footing. If this idea doesn’t thrill you, you are dead inside.

And then there is Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who, despite having served eight years in the Senate, still counts as a fresh face. Klobuchar is one of America’s most popular senators, and she’s cultivated a reputation as an indefatigable, impeccably bipartisan problem solver on issues ranging from combating drug abuse to fighting sex trafficking. She also worked closely with moderate Republicans to put an end to the 2013 government shutdown. On most issues, she fits neatly in the Democratic Party’s liberal mainstream. Yet as a product of the politically competitive Upper Midwest, she makes a point of appealing to more conservative voters at every opportunity. Klobuchar’s nonconfrontational vibe makes her the mirror image of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, something many Democratic voters might appreciate. Just as Barack Obama promised to move America toward a less divisive politics, perhaps Klobuchar could do the same. And to state the obvious, Klobuchar can speak to the struggles of working mothers, a crucially important part of the Democratic coalition, from experience. Who better to make the case for the liberal dream of universal child care than a temperamentally moderate Minnesotan? It’s unlikely that a candidate with Klobuchar’s profile would gain much traction in a race against Hillary Clinton. But in a race without her, Klobuchar could go very far.

Consider this list my sincere plea that Democrats (and quasi-Democrats) with a national profile not allow next year’s Democratic presidential contest to become a coronation. Hillary Clinton is more vulnerable than many Democrats seem to think, and it would be a shame if other Democrats who represent the party’s future rather than its past failed to make a go of it.