(Politico) – Everyone knows about the “Ready for Hillary” Democrats — the rapidly proliferating parade of elected officials and activists getting behind Hillary Clinton’s increasingly likely 2016 presidential campaign.
But there’s also a smaller but increasingly vocal group making its presence felt lately — call these Democrats the “Wary of Hillary” Democrats. They’re not outwardly opposing a Clinton candidacy. But they are anxious about the spectacle of a Clinton juggernaut, after seeing what happened when she ran a campaign of inevitability last time.
Some feel a competitive primary, regardless of the outcome, is good for the party. Others say Clinton, who’s been out of electoral politics for five years, needs to be tested. And some Democrats are merely concerned that the party won’t have an open airing of views on economic policy.
The reservations, expressed mostly in private company, have been given voice in recent days by some of the party’s most prominent governors.
“She is an enormously capable candidate and leader, but I do worry about the inevitability, because I think it’s off-putting to the average voter,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a longtime Obama ally, told CNN earlier this month. “And I think that was an element of her campaign the last time. As an enthusiastic Democrat, I just hope that the people around her pay attention to that this time around.”
The public commentary about the risks of Clinton as fait accompli seems less a harbinger of a messy primary fight than an effort to nudge Clinton to the left. There’s no apparent candidate with President Barack Obama’s political skill to catch Clinton by surprise this time. But the Democratic base doesn’t want Clinton to get a free pass, lest she give short shrift to the progressive agenda and tack to the center before the primary campaign is even fully underway.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, who was endorsed by Bill Clinton in his 2010 gubernatorial race but who challenged him for the presidency in 1992, also praised Clinton but suggested she needs to act with care in the coming months.
“She’s got the capacity,” he told ABC News. “But like any front-runner, she has to be cautious and wise in how she proceeds forward.”
Patrick recently told POLITICO “maybe” when asked if he would consider a national run, although not necessarily in 2016. Obama said in March that Patrick, one of his close supporters, shouldn’t rule out 2016. Brown, who sought the presidency three times in the past, had been seen as leaving his options open for 2016, but he told reporters in January that running this cycle is “not in the cards. Unfortunately.”
Whatever concerns Patrick and Brown have about Clinton, said former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, they’re not something she is bringing on herself.
“Secretary Clinton’s inevitability, or what appears to be inevitability, is something that is happening [on its own],” Strickland, a Clinton supporter, said in an interview. “So what to do about it? You accept it for what it is — a grass-roots movement.
“I don’t know that there’s a lesson to be learned from what happened several years ago. The circumstances were very different then,” he added.
The comments by Patrick and Brown came on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid remarking to NBC News’ Chuck Todd earlier this month that the bloody primary fight between Clinton and Obama six years ago was “an extremely healthy process.
“I think it was wonderful. People learned about these two people” things that they didn’t know before, he added.
Reid prefaced that by noting that “everybody knows I love the Clintons … including Chelsea.”
Reid, known for his blunt style and rarely shielded opinions, may have been simply speaking his honest opinion, not reflecting a theory about the strength of Clinton as a candidate.
Some of what the anxious Democrats are expressing is simply common sense, say a number of party strategists, including some with ties to Obama. In 2008, Clinton was surprised by the uprising on her left and logistically hobbled compared to the better-organized Obama campaign; as Patrick suggested, voters don’t like being told who to vote for, and she turned out not to be the invincible figure she had seemed.
Clinton’s delayed decision-making process has rankled some activists and donors, who retain a lingering fear that she ultimately will decide not to run. But potential warning signs that might give her second thoughts — a downturn in the economy, for example — haven’t emerged.
Indeed, despite the attention surrounding potential challenges from the left — by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Vice President Joe Biden or former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has been openly critical of her ties to Wall Street — Clinton remains in a position of tremendous strength. The number of Democrats who are speaking with caution about her are vastly outnumbered by people formally endorsing her, even without knowing for sure whether she’ll run. So far, through the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary, she’s been backed by seven senators, more than a dozen members of Congress and two governors.
The one figure beloved by progressives who might cause Clinton real heartburn, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), has been adamant she’s not running. Even if she did, Warren lacks Obama’s broad-based appeal or innate political skill.
Asked about the remarks by Brown and Patrick, one Democrat who worked for a Clinton rival in 2008 said this in an email: “The party is still having a discussion about who we are — the corporate-friendly party of the 1990s, or a progressive/populist party that sees how the rich & powerful have rebounded mightily from the recession while so many middle-class people find themselves slipping into the ranks of the poor.”
The comments by the governors, this person added, are “on some level … [are] about keeping Hillary honest — making sure she’s bold and progressive and offers a vision that’s true to the blue-collar roots of the party instead of running a play-it-safe campaign that makes 2016 a battle of personalities instead of ideas.”
Clinton’s upcoming book, “Hard Choices,” will focus mostly on her tenure at the State Department. But in her public comments ahead of the tour to promote the book, she’s been lavishing praise on her husband’s economic record and talking far more candidly about gender issues and sexism than she did six years ago.
The book tour gives her an enormous early opportunity to demonstrate a candidacy that isn’t just about herself but a forward-looking vision for the country.
Yet even if she doesn’t deliver that, most Democrats don’t believe history will repeat itself.
“I don’t think … this talk of inevitability is a negative to her; I think it’s more of an asset than a liability,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who worked on the John Kerry 2004 campaign. “She is stronger than any challenger has ever been. She has the strength of an incumbent president seeking reelection. That’s her position.”
He added that Clinton has been helped in part by being a team player with Obama, and in part because her husband’s poll numbers are now so high.
“I don’t see some anti-Hillary movement rising up in the Democratic Party,” he said. “She’s not a polarizing figure within the Democratic Party.”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said Patrick and Brown have a legitimate point, but he said the bigger concern would be if Clinton is perceived as thinking she’s inevitable.
And he argued that both Clintons are cognizant of that.
Ultimately, Rendell said, “the rank-and-file Democrats, the political Democrats, the donor Democrats … are of the strong belief that only Hillary can pull this off,” whereas in 2008 they knew whoever got the Democratic nomination would be favored to win the presidency. “People come up to me on the street and say, ‘How can I write a check to Hillary?’ I’ve never seen anything like it, including in my own [campaigns].”
Noting that she could enjoy a full and active post-State Department life if she doesn’t run, he said, “We need Hillary more than she needs us.”