By Grace Masback
WANT Original Content
As Barack Obama’s second term as president enters its last two years, it’s time to partake in the favorite activity of all political pundits — speculation about the next campaign for president. 2016 will be a very special election for teens born after 1996, as it will be our first opportunity to vote in a presidential election. What issues matter to teens and the country at large, how will social media change the 2016 election, and what candidates will resonate with the teen demographic? WANT will cover the election from start-to-finish, offering a unique teen perspective on what could be another history-making campaign.
The WANT coverage will follow the 2016 election in sequence. We’ll start with the primaries, where the Republican and Democratic candidates will duke it out within their own parties to determine each party’s nominee. We’ll do a deep dive on the key issues, the ones that will drive the conversation and the voters leading up to November 2016. Finally, we’ll cover the election campaign – the stump speeches, the debates, the attack ads, and the inevitable faux-pas. If ever it was important for the WANT team to provide “news for teens by teens,” this is it.
We’ll start by previewing the field of Democratic candidates. With a little over a year until the first primaries, the potential candidates face a daunting prospect. As Gail Collins of the New York Times detailed recently, no Democrat has been elected to succeed another since James Buchanan was elected in 1856. Will one of the Democratic candidates defy the weight of history? One guarantee – the next 20 months will be exciting.
Identifying potential candidates is an inexact science, particularly at the stage when all of them are going out of their way to deny any serious interest in being president, including those forming fundraising-friendly “exploratory committees.” At the moment, six Democrats are the subject of discussion: Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, James Webb, Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. For a variety of reasons, the overwhelming favorite is Hillary Clinton, but how the others manage their way through the thicket of the pre-primary and primary landscape will determine whether they have a chance to exploit her weaknesses and still be standing if she stumbles, or whether any of them get serious consideration as a vice presidential nominee. Let’s talk about each of them, finishing with Clinton.
The current media darling is Elizabeth Warren, the first term senator from Massachusetts. She has become the bete-noire of conservatives and Wall Street based on her unabashed pursuit of a progressive agenda. Like Clinton, she would offer America the chance to elect a woman president for the first time. Unlike Clinton, she has nothing to lose. A former Harvard professor, she has quickly captured the imagination of those concerned about Wall Street greed and economic unfairness. With many considering the Clintons as too close to Wall Street and the big banks and too far away from the challenges of the middle class, Warren’s background as a consumer protection advocate and her populist message resonate. She succeeds by being herself, speaking truth to injustice, and standing for something, all qualities that attract Democratic activists who turn out for primary elections. She says she has no interest in running for president, but that only leads to more speculation, and support ranging from Hollywood stars to Republicans hoping she’ll run and force Clinton to the left. But, let’s be serious — there’s no chance that a first-term senator could ever get elected president, right? That would have been conventional wisdom until 2008, when another first-term senator, Barack Obama, captivated America, defeated Clinton, and captured the White House.
What about the men? James “Jim” Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, is an intriguing possibility. Since serving in the Reagan administration, he has transformed himself into a moderate Democrat and served as a senator from Virginia for six years, choosing not to run for re-election because of his frustration with Washington gridlock. Webb’s military background and significant foreign policy experience make him an attractive candidate. In November, he became the first candidate to form an exploratory committee, which allows him to fundraise without committing to running for office. In his recent public appearances he has focused on the issue of income inequality in America, referencing rural whites, students, veterans, and inner city families to make his populist points. Some see him as an attractive running mate for Clinton, but few take him as a serious candidate for the top job.
Martin O’Malley, who just finished two terms as the governor of Maryland, has spoken openly of his national ambitions, citing his “executive” experience as governor and the mayor of Baltimore. Over the last few years, he has maintained a crushing schedule of appearances around the country, working tirelessly for local candidates in key primary states. While governor, O’Malley pursued a winning combination of reducing crime, repealing the death penalty, permitting same-sex marriage, and fiscal responsibility, making him the darling of liberal Democrats favoring his bold stances and pragmatic problem-solving. At 51, he’s the youngest of the prospective Democratic candidates by more than a decade and may run just to stay in the public eye for a future election cycle (he too gets lots of mentions as a possible Clinton running mate).
Bernie Sanders, the plain-talking, second-term Senator from Vermont, identifies himself as a “democratic socialist” in the mode of modern Scandinavian governments and was elected as an “independent” (though he did caucus with the Democrats when they controlled the Senate). His greatest strength is his willingness to advocate for boldly progressive policy alternatives. If Warren doesn’t run, Sanders would attract a lot of the “Hillary isn’t liberal enough” voters, though seems unlikely to be more than an irritant to Clinton and the others. The worst case scenario for Clinton would be if Sanders chose to run as an independent and siphoned off enough votes from her to tip a state like Florida to the Republican candidate (see Ralph Nader and his impact on the 2000 election in Florida).
Joe Biden has been clear that having served as Vice President he’d like nothing more than to take the top job. Still, he’s extremely unlikely to run if Hillary runs — having served America’s first black president he wouldn’t want to stand in the way of electing America’s first female president. Then again, he’ll almost certainly run if Clinton doesn’t, with his high likability factor after eight years as veep making him a formidable candidate. If Biden does run, look for lots of stories about his plagiarizing a speech during the 1988 primary election campaign.
Finally, there is Hillary Clinton, still not officially a candidate but clearly seduced by the chance to make history. Her centrist politics, experience in the White House as First Lady, time as Senator, and service as Secretary of State make her an ideal candidate to keep the presidency in Democratic hands, though her history and experience are a mixed blessing from an electability perspective. With Congress likely to be in Republican hands post-2016, only a DC veteran with deft political skills offers any prospect of moving the government and country forward. Clinton’s time as First Lady connects her to an era remembered fondly as a time of economic progress and some degree of political compromise, though her husband’s affair with an intern remains top-of-mind for many. Her stint as a Senator from New York gives her credibility as a former elected official, but it also provides a record for others to shoot at. Her time as Secretary of State gives her credibility and gravitas in the area of foreign policy, though she remains open to criticism for failing to adequate protect her diplomatic corps, particularly in Benghazi.
However, for all of the pluses and minuses of a Clinton campaign, three issues stand out as potential pitfalls. First, she needs to decide what she stands for. Having been on the public and political scenes for so many years and having been married to a former president offers great benefits in terms of name recognition, but she also risks being defined by others. Clinton has been convening geeky policy gatherings in which she kicks the tires on various issues, looking to identify what the public cares about and crafting positions consistent with her past views but in accord with today’s electorate. This may result in a winning set of positions, but it’s far from certain that she can settle on the message that grabs the public.
Second, she needs to put together a winning campaign team. Every indication is that Clinton will raise more money than any candidate in history, but don’t forget that when she lost to Barack Obama in 2008 she had a decided financial advantage that was squandered by a bloated campaign staff and tragic over-spending. This was caused and exacerbated by the constant infighting among her campaign team. For 2016, she needs a diverse, very loyal campaign team well versed in modern campaign tactics, including effective use of the internet, an area where Obama clearly outflanked her in 2008.
Finally, she has to manage the tricky issue of her famous name and husband. Though a clear advantage at the moment, her connection to a two-time president presents many dangers. For example, following a relentless right wing disinformation campaign during the Clinton presidency, both Bill and Hillary remain demonized for a large segment of the electorate. Also, aren’t the odds decent that Bill will stumble into some kind of controversy between now and November 2016? And, the highly likely entry of Jeb Bush into the Republican campaign for the presidency creates a negative “Bush/Clinton dynasty” storyline that undermines both candidates.
Ultimately, all 2016 presidential election stories lead back to Hillary Clinton. Given the current polls, there is already a sense of inevitability to her nomination by the Democratic party and some sense that the presidency is hers to lose. In many ways, this is an awful place to be, as it’s nearly impossible to generate stories about capturing momentum or upsetting the odds, the favorite fodder of pundits and journalists covering campaigns. She’s getting no shortage of advice on this topic. David Axelrod, a key strategist for Obamas presidential runs, says she needs to run “like an insurgent,” a challenger, anything but the front-runner. He believes she is someone who needs to use her formidable communications skills to connect directly with voters, something she failed to do in 2008.
This election holds strong relevance to the teen generation, as we will be electing the person who will represent us for the beginning of our adult lives — the time when we will be going to college, getting our first jobs, and maybe even starting a family. Issues like income inequality and climate change will have major influence on the world we emerge into and the world we start our independent lives in, so because of that it will be important to stay engaged in order to make informed decisions.