The Democratic Party’s Urgent Need for a Deeper “Bench”

The Democratic Party’s Urgent Need for a Deeper “Bench”


by Andy Schmookler

The first Democratic national convention to which I paid rapt attention was in 1960. The outcome, going in, was uncertain, but what a splendid field of possibilities was in contention.

There was the eventual winner – JFK – who squeaked by at the end of the first ballot. And his main rival, and soon-to-be running-mate, the Senate Majority Leader—LBJ.

But also three others, including two other big-time Senators: Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Stuart Symington of Missouri.

And finally, but not least, there was the Democratic nominee from 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson (who was favored by Eleanor Roosevelt, an adored figure from a glorious past visible high up in the arena, and whose name was put into nomination by Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota with a thrilling speech that ignited perhaps the most passionate demonstration from the convention).

The Party had five candidates of undisputed stature available at that moment, after two terms of Eisenhower’s Republican presidency. An embarrassment of riches.

Compare that with the Democratic Party of today. In Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party has a reasonably likely winner for the upcoming presidential election. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders – at 74 – is performing a most useful role, and performing it brilliantly. But one has to say: the Democratic Party today is woefully, almost unprecedentedly, without “bench strength.”

We have two surviving presidents—Bill Clinton, who cannot be president again, and Jimmy Carter, who is 90 years old.

We have two excellent former Vice Presidents: Al Gore, who has declared himself a “recovering politician,” and ruled out his returning to elective office; and Walter Mondale, who is now in his late 80s. And we have our current Vice President – Joe Biden – who is already more than 70 years old and could hardly begin a presidency in 2024, if Hillary wins now and serves two terms, or in 2020, if the Republicans win now and the Democrats need a new candidate in four years.

Our 2004 presidential candidate, now Secretary of State John Kerry, is about to turn 72, and like Biden is beyond the point of being “the future of the Democratic Party.”

The surviving former Democratic candidates for the vice presidency on losing tickets are both, in their own ways, disgraced. Al Gore’s running mate, the embittered turncoat Joe Lieberman, is hardly anyone that we Democrats would want to nominate for anything, let alone the presidency. And John Edwards, John Kerry’s former running mate, turned himself into a moral embarrassment with his well-known scandal.

Neither the Minority Leader in the House (Nancy Pelosi) nor the Senate Minority Leader (Harry Reid) are conceivable future standard bearers.

So, when it comes to a bench of potential presidential candidates, what the Democratic Party has now is an embarrassment of poverty.

What all this implies, is I see it, is that when the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee chooses a running mate, he/she should take into account, to a degree more than usual, the Party’s need to groom a good potential future presidential nominee.

It is important to win in 2016, of course. But it is essential also to prepare for 2020 or 2024, i.e. whenever a new candidate is required.

Postscript: One thought I have in this regard, admittedly not fully baked. I have been very favorably impressed with Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, whom I have seen numerous times interviewed on MSNBC. He is thoughtful, sane, clear-eyed, appealing, and articulate.

Admittedly, he does not provide any regional balance for either Hillary or Bernie. And admittedly, Senator Murphy’s strength in foreign relations would not fill any void in Hillary Clinton’s background. But he looks like presidential timber to me, and that is a quality that seems to me rare and especially precious for the Democratic Party in this era.

(Elizabeth Warren, of course, is another person of substance—who also does not provide regional balance for 2016’s ticket—who might already be considered part of the Democratic bench. But, of course, as a woman, Warren does not seem appropriate as a running-mate for the Democratic front-runner, who would be the first woman president in American history.)

I invite others here to propose who else there is, prominent enough to belong on the 2016 ticket, who would be a worthy candidate for president on his or her own right, and who also performs the usual ticket-balancing functions of a vice presidential candidate.