Yes, pundits of all stripes are already starting to handicap the presidential fields for 2016. Yes, that’s a long time from now … although we are under three years to the Iowa Caucuses, and probably just about two years from the first debates, so it’s not all that long. More to the point: as long as the candidates are running—and they are—there’s no reason to pretend the contest hasn’t started yet.
While the identity of the next Democratic and Republican nominees is important, what’s even more important is what they intend to do if elected. Indeed: the nomination process is important because it’s how parties sort out their differences and make decisions about who they are, and what kinds of public policy they support. Moreover, the nomination process is the best chance for groups and individuals within the party to have a chance of affecting what the party will do if it wins. In general elections with huge electorates, there’s not much one person can do that makes any difference. In the nomination process, however, it's possible for relatively small groups of people to affect what parties will stand for and what they’ll do if they win.
So, as much fun as it is to list presidential contenders, I’m going to do something that perhaps at this stage is more useful: a top-five list of the issues likely to be contentious in the Democratic nomination process. What I’m looking for is not so much on what the candidates will run on, but what they are likely to disagree on, for various reasons. So no marriage equality; every serious contender will support it. This is admittedly speculative, but then again so are the candidate lists—and this one is more important. Consider it a conversation starter.
2016 Democrats will of course all support policies to fight climate change. The near-consensus on cap-and-trade, however, is unlikely to hold after it crash-and-burned in the 111th Congress. It’s possible interest groups could converge on a single policy and get all the candidates to go along, as health care reform advocates managed to achieve in 2008; more likely, candidates will try to compete on who has the strongest plan, with cap-and-trade, a straight carbon tax, and other ideas all out there.
Drones and Terrorists
Mainstream liberals are divided on the use of drones in particular and on aggressive military action against Al-Qaeda remnants and spin-offs in general; expect candidates to match those differences in opinion. It would probably be good for the party if they could agree on a specific climate program, but on drones it would probably be good for the party to argue it out in public during the nomination process.
Work and Families
There’s a huge opening here within the party for new programs to support parents (and children) in the workplace. Don’t be surprised if a senator or governor emerges who makes this a major theme, and then brings it to the presidential race—or if other candidates try to compete by emphasizing somewhat different policies.
Democratic presidential candidates—at least this side of Dennis Kucinich—usually take a pretty moderate position on defense, calling for modest overall cuts while finding one or two places where they can advocate spending more. However, if 2016 turns out to be the first (mostly) peacetime election in 16 years, one or more viable nominee may really choose to take on the Pentagon—and one or more candidate may oppose it. Again, a good fight for the party to have.
No one will be able to skip the Iowa caucuses and win the nomination; however, it is possible to compete but lose in Iowa and still become president. As a result, candidates from both parties feel constrained to support corn-based energy. But within the Democratic Party, environmental and perhaps budget concerns might be strong enough to convince a candidate to go for the contrarian position, hoping to win the small group of anti-ethanol liberals in Iowa (there must be some, no?); getting points from the press for being a truth-teller; and winning further support from urban and suburban Democrats in other states. That might be paired with a second possible debate within the party over fracking. Either way, the current “all of the above” energy strategy will likely be challenged.
Those are my top five prospects. Of course, all of this depends on whether current issues such as immigration, Afghanistan, and the budget are at least off the front burner and are resolved in ways that unify the party. And of course brand new issues could emerge by 2015 and 2016—or old, seemingly settled ones could flare up. It’s also possible, especially if Hillary Clinton runs, that the candidate field will be so small that no differences on the issues will emerge. If there is healthy competition for the Democratic nomination during this cycle, however, these are my best guesses about which public policy positions will be key to the fight.