There are over twenty potential candidates in the Republican presidential field. While this might make the nomination process chaotic, it also signifies the strength of the Republican “bench.” The party has multiple governors, senators, and other luminaries it could insert into the starting lineup for the biggest game of all: the general election for the presidency. Contrast this with the Democratic Party. In spite of the recent controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton’s email archiving practices, no one has seriously suggested that anyone could usurp her position as the Democratic nominee. This is partly because the strength of Clinton’s resume, but also because the Democrats have no viable alternatives. Without Hillary Clinton, the Democrats would be stuck with Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, or Bernie Sanders, none of whom has the appeal to win a third consecutive term for the party. This situation is indicative of a far larger problem for Democrats: the lack of exciting, young candidates ready to run for president, senator, or even governor. This void threatens to constrain the party across the country in the not-too-distant future, and needs a quick remedy if its impact is to be limited.
The media has only recently begun to comment on the disintegration of the Democratic bench, but the process actually began several years ago. Four months before the 2010 election, the Democrats controlled 61 of the 99 state legislative bodies in the United States. By the end of the 2012 election cycle, that number had dropped to 36; today, that number stands at 30. Additionally, the total number of Democrats in the U.S House of Representatives dropped from 257 in mid-2010 to 201 after the 2012 election. Now, that number stands at 188. This steady loss of control in state legislatures and the House has bled the Democratic Party of contenders for offices like governor and senator, and by extension, candidates for president.
An illustration of this sad state of affairs is the lineup of Democrats vying for competitive Senate seats in 2016. In all likelihood, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Ohio will be Ted Strickland, who will be 75 by the time of the 2016 election. In Pennsylvania, Democrats will likely rely on former Governor Ed Rendell, or former Representative Joe Sestak. The Wisconsin Democrats will probably look to former Senator Russ Feingold to compete for Ron Johnson’s Senate seat, and in New Hampshire, current Governor Maggie Hassan is the Democrats’ top choice. In each case, the state party is seeking to either bring a former officeholder out of retirement or persuade an incumbent governor to leave her spot. Only in Florida and Illinois, where Reps. Patrick Murphy and Tammy Duckworth are slated for Senate nominations, are incumbent holders of less prestigious offices in line for a promotion.
The Democratic field for president sheds more light on this lack of rising stars. I’ve already mentioned that, aside from Clinton, the other Democrats running are long-shots to win national office. What’s even more unsettling, though, is that there don’t even seem to be any Democrats sitting out the race that would currently be viable. Elizabeth Warren is as popular as Beyoncé within the Democratic base, but it’s hard to tell if her economic populism would be well-received in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. Julian and Joaquin Castro will be political juggernauts within ten years, but neither has the name-recognition to be anything but a vice-presidential candidate at this point. Cory Booker and Deval Patrick are both handsome and successful, but for some bizarre reason, Booker rubs much of the Democratic party the wrong way, and Patrick may be ready to leave political life completely. Beyond that, the Democrats would have to begin looking at candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, both of whom have less of a national following than does Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto. Needless to say, the situation is fairly grim.
The factors leading to the depleted Democratic bench are not mysterious. As Larry Sabato noted in Politico, winning two consecutive presidential terms is a guarantee that a party’s bench will be severely weakened in the next cycle. According to Sabato, over the last eight two-term Presidents, the President’s party has lost an average of 10.7 governorships, 8.3 Senate seats, 36.4 House seats, and 450.6 state legislature seats. It’s no surprise, then, that Democrats, in the penultimate year of a two-term hold on the Presidency, are suffering from a depleted bench.
The manner in which House Democrats assign leadership roles in Congressional committees is also preventing the development of a strong bench. Unlike the Republicans, who subject their committee leaders to 6-year term limits, there are no limits on how long an incumbent Democrat can sit. As a result, the average age of the ranking Democrats on House committees is 67.8, while the average age of the Republican chairs of those committees is 58.6. Moreover, only three of those Democrats are age 60 or younger, while twelve Republican chairs meet that standard. Republicans thus have a relative advantage in preparing young House members for high office. In fact, one of the party’s young chairs, Paul Ryan, recently served as Mitt Romney’s running mate at the tender age of 42, and now has the political caché to run for president himself someday.
One final reason why the Democrats have failed to produce legitimate presidential contenders aside from Hillary Clinton is the recent selections of running mates by Democratic nominees. John Kerry’s 2004 vice presidential choice, John Edwards, seemed a strong pick at the time, but his career ended in disgrace after he was found to be carrying on an affair while his wife was suffering from breast cancer. Joe Biden, while always amusing, isn’t disciplined enough to run a national campaign, and was always going to be too old to run by 2016. In any event, President Obama didn’t select Biden to be a future standard bearer for the party, but rather to be an experienced counterweight to Obama’s youth. As Biden and Edwards received the three most recent Democratic Vice Presidential nominations, the Democrats have no “next-in-line” from the vice presidency to challenge Clinton for the nomination.
Luckily for Democrats, fixing their lackluster bench is relatively easy. They can begin by repairing their broken process for selecting committee leaders, a change that some in the party are already pushing for. Hillary Clinton can also help the cause by choosing a young, prominent Democrat as her running mate; ideally, Julian Castro, who, at 40 years old, has already served three extremely successful terms as mayor of San Antonio, and is currently the U.S Secretary for Housing and Urban Development. Combined with his background (Stanford undergraduate, Harvard Law School), his rhetorical skill, and his ethnicity (Hispanic in a nation with a rapidly growing Hispanic population) Castro was practically genetically engineered to become President in 2024. Should Clinton pick Castro and win two terms, the Democrats won’t need to worry about finding a viable candidate for 2024. Lastly, though Democrats would much rather win the Presidency in 2016 than not; a loss would likely replenish their reserves with new candidates for all manners of high public office. So, if a Republican takes the White House and destroys all the progress made by President Obama, at least we’ll have some new senators as a consolation prize.
Brett Parker, a sophomore studying political science, is the law editor of Stanford Political Journal.