US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

“I think coronations are bad things,” Howard Dean told Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker’s Washington correspondent. The two were discussing Hillary Clinton’s impending presidential campaign, and her status as a strong, perhaps prohibitive, front-runner in a race that hasn’t officially started.

In the piece, “The Inevitability Trap,” Lizza wondered whether Clinton’s favorability among Democrats — which he noted has been as high as 73 percent this year, a record for the party in the modern era — had a downside, sending journalists in search of a horse race and voters in search of a fresher face. But inevitability isn’t just a trap for Clinton — it’s also a trap for the Democratic Party.

In the aftermath of last week’s midterm elections, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, announced a “top-to-bottom assessment” of the party. But the promised post-mortem will focus on “tactics, messaging, get-out-the-vote operations and digital efforts” in non-presidential elections, rather than more fundamental concerns of policy and ideas.

Make no mistake about it, though: Democrats have a policy problem. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes, Democrats have begun talking about income inequality as a pressing problem the party aims to change. But Marshall rejects that framing. “[A]s a political matter inequality is a loser. What is driving the politics of the country to a mammoth degree is that the vast majority of people in the country no longer have a rising standard of living. And Democrats don’t have a policy to change that.”

They don’t have policy answers, in large part, because when it comes to debates about policy and ideas, the Democratic Party has been moribund since the wrenching foreign policy fights over Iraq. The party has in some ways been a victim of its own success. Electoral victories seldom lead parties to reflect on what they could be doing better, and the belief that Democrats have a naturally growing demographic advantage has likewise led to laurel-resting.

Compounding the problem is Republican obstructionism. Time and again the Democrats have buried internal policy differences in order to beat back GOP intransigence (Exhibit A: Obamacare). When those differences couldn’t be contained, Republican stubbornness again came to the rescue. After President Barack Obama embraced the so-called “grand bargain,” a program of entitlement cuts balanced by tax increases, House Democrats revolted. In 2013 more than half of the House’s 200 Democrats signed a letter vowing to vote against any bill including entitlement cuts.

But rather than witnessing a war within the Democratic Party, 2013 instead became a blur of Republican-led government shutdowns and debt-ceiling showdowns. Big debates over the future of the Democratic Party were subsumed to regular bouts of crisis management.

Which brings us back to the inevitability trap. If Clinton retains her unprecedented popularity through primary season, no serious Democrat (think former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb or Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts) will step in to challenge her. When Clinton finally fleshes out and defends her positions, it will be in debates against a Republican. Thus her policies will become the party’s policies, tamping down debate for yet another cycle.

Democrats may hesitate to model themselves after the GOP. After all, the Republican Party faces serious problems, which is why it has spent so much of the last decade fighting internecine battles over policy and ideas. But that civil war, while destructive at times, has also been remarkably generative. The GOP’s 2012 post-mortem produced the "Growth and Opportunity Project,” a lengthy study of the party’s weaknesses at the national level.

Likewise the “reformicons,” a group of reform-minded conservative intellectuals, have provided ongoing debate not only about principles but policy as well. The Young Guns Network produced a 120-page document called “Room to Grow,” which, while not without its shortcomings, shows conservative thinkers tackling tough problems. (The reformicon problem is selling those ideas both to the Republican base and the tea party caucus that represents it.)

Democrats may not need a civil war — but they do need a debate about what liberalism is in the 21st century, and what policies best fit the needs of workers whose wages no longer rise as their productivity does. If Clinton sails through the primaries unopposed and wins the White House, that vital debate will be forestalled once again.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report