The Democrats understand the power of the bully pulpit
—Hillary Clinton entered the Democratic presidential nomination race as the presumptive nominee, with huge poll leads, only to see a combination of attacks on her record, some campaign missteps and a rival senator able to mobilise the grassroots to take it all away from her.
That was 2008. And, despite the wobbles of recent months, it seems difficult to see how Clinton will not be her party’s candidate for next November’s election.
Clinton’s inevitability has been her strength and weakness. Last time it left the space for Barack Obama to be the insurgent. Her liberal rival, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, has tried to make Clinton’s Iraq war vote the wedge issue that Obama did in 2008, but it does not have the same resonance now as before.
This time she has managed to find a more compelling argument for her candidacy, combined with strong debate performances, getting the better of the Republicans at the Benghazi hearings, and showing humour playing Val the bartender on Saturday Night Live to calm nerves and put herself in pole position.
She has also talked more about being the first woman president, which she seemed oddly reluctant to do at the start of her 2008 run.
What is clear from the Democrats is that having Barack Obama in the White House has reminded them winning does make a difference. It has provided the ability to shape the national conversation, and they want to keep hold of the microphone a little longer.
There is one thing for Democrats to reflect on and that is the lack of depth of their bench going into this election. We can debate their merits or otherwise, but the Republicans have more than a dozen candidates who think they are able to compete for the White House. The Democrats are already down to three before the first vote is cast next February.
It is true that Clinton’s candidacy has scared a lot of people off. No doubt Joe Biden as the incumbent vice-president would have had the best claim had she not run.
Indeed, the former Delaware senator and most famous Amtrak passenger, making the daily commute back to his own state, must feel personally aggrieved that he was never really spoken of as a successor to Obama, despite Biden serving his boss loyally and, on some issues, such as equal marriage, providing a welcome nudge to the commander-in-chief.
Had he jumped in during Clinton’s email-dominated summer then his candidacy might have had some traction this time. But, having run unsuccessfully in 1988 and 2008, a third shot with a less than clear route to victory was best avoided.
This lack of depth is also partly because the Democrats have struggled to win enough governor’s mansions in recent years. One is the third Democrat still in the race, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, but the point of his candidacy remains unclear.
O’Malley won high praise as a modernising mayor and governor, was a key figure in the third way Democratic Leadership Council group, but he is not even carrying that flag in this race and it is difficult to see him lasting much beyond February.
None of this means that Clinton is able to take her victory lap just yet. The primary process means that Sanders could still chalk up early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, due to a combination of the process and his local appeal.
Deep down, however, Democrats know that Clinton has the best chance of keeping the Oval Office and recognise that, whatever their desire for America to be a country that will elect a self-defined socialist senator from Vermont the president, they know that just ain’t so.
The Democrats at least look like they have kept their focus on winning a general election, not just picking a candidate to make them feel good – something parties forget at their peril.