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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

August 29: “Keeping ______ Honest” Not a Great Rationale For Presidential Primary Candidacy

Since talk of a primary challenger to the presumed presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton is a topic that won’t go away for a while, it’s probably as worthwhile to think about what a challenger might say as to speculate about his/her identity. It’s a question I discussed today at Washington Monthly. I began by quoting Jonathan Chait:

The 2016 Democratic presidential campaign is beginning to take shape. It’s a highly unusual campaign. Hillary Clinton commands the massive party loyalty of an incumbent, except she’s not an incumbent, so it is possible for another Democrat to challenge her without the campaign necessarily signalling the all-out, you-have-failed opposition of a Gene McCarthy in 1968, Ted Kennedy in 1980, Pat Buchanan in 1992, and so on. The campaign, instead, is likely to center on organized liberals using a candidacy to pressure Clinton not to move too far toward the center.

Now think about how that affects a candidate and his or her campaign. Your goal isn’t power, but influence. You expect activists to give up their time and money not to elect the next president of the United States, but to exceed low expectations. Your success is ultimately measured by how someone else runs her campaign. It’s just not a prescription for excitement.
The precedent I keep thinking about, though it’s not precisely analogous (obviously), is congressman John Ashbrook’s 1972 primary challenge to Richard Nixon. Ashbrook was supported by some very high-profile conservatives (most notably William F. Buckley) who basically didn’t trust Richard Nixon as far as they could throw him, and were particularly worried about his detente policies towards the Soviet Union and China. The Ohioan’s campaign slogan was “No Left Turns,” and his candidacy was transparently not about beating Nixon but about, well, “keeping him honest” (laughable as that phrase may seem in reference to The Tricky One) ideologically.
In the primaries Ashbrook peaked at a booming ten percent of the vote in California, and dropped out, endorsing Nixon. If he had any effect on Nixon’s general election strategy, it was certainly hard to detect.
Now it’s true Ashbrook was no Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. But he was a respected figure in Congress and in the conservative movement. An awful lot of conservatives who voted for Nixon against him may well have sympathized with his cause. But it’s just hard to convince people to vote for one person in order to influence another. That reality needs to be factored into the talk about a challenge to HRC.

I got some blowback from WaMo commenters who assumed I was trying to discourage the idea of a challenge to Clinton. But that really misses my point: if someone’s going to challenge a candidate like her, with incumbent-level support and name ID, they’d better try to beat her, not just influence her or “keep her honest.” Uphill battles are hard enough with a clear vision of victory. Without one, it will be difficult to raise the flag.

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