Grading the Dems' 2016 Arithmetic

Elizabeth Warren walks offstage after addressing the 2012 Democratic National Convention (Photo by Jared Soares for PBS NewsHour)

Wow. That was some humdinger of a speech, huh? Clears up a lot about the upcoming election!

No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama's closing address. Sure, the conventions serve as the unofficial kickoff for the final leg of the presidential campaign. But there’s always another story: Who’ll be the nominee next time? Up-and-coming pols have always used conventions as launching pads for future runs; they hobnob in hotel corridors with the Richie Riches who can fund their early ads in Florida. They make small talk with the New Hampshire county chair in the crazy hat. And they aren't always so subtle; many of the 2016 wannabes schlepped over this week to offer presentations to the Iowa delegation.

But more than anything, primetime speaking slots on the main arena stage present an unusual opportunity to introduce oneself to a national audience. As everyone has been reminded countless times this week, Barack Obama was merely an Illinois state senator and U.S. Senate candidate until he turned in a stunning speech at the 2004 convention. While knockout convention speeches aren't a prerequisite to gaining a party's nomination—if you thought Bill Clinton's tried the patience on Wednesday, go back and watch his snoozefest in '88—they can turn a once-obscure senator or governor into a national figure.

Here, in ascending order, is the Prospect's report card for some possible contenders in the class of 2016.   


Andrew Cuomo, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar

These three are often bandied about as top-of-the-ticket material, and for good reason. Thanks to his early moves supporting same-sex marriage in New York, Governor Cuomo won a lot of hearts—but his troubles with labor could sink his hopes to fulfill his father's legacy. Either the ambitious Senator Gillibrand, also of New York, or the genial progressive Senator Klobuchar of Minnesota have the chops to become the first woman nominee. Though they all made the trek down to North Carolina, however, none addressed the full hall of delegates, opting for a low-risk approach. Maybe they scored in the back halls, but as far as regular Democratic voters go, they all skipped class.


Martin O'Malley

Where's David Simon when you need him? Tommy Carcetti O'Malley was granted a plum spot, kicking off the coveted 10 p.m. hour on Tuesday—the time when network stations tuned in. The Maryland governor, whose unabashed progressivism and likeability have made him a much-talked-about contender for 2016, couldn't afford to let that slot go to waste. He'd already irked his fellow Democrats at the start of the week, when on CBS's Face the Nation he played right into Republicans' talking point of choice, saying that “no,” the country wasn't better off than four years ago. But in his chance to resuscitate his rep, O’Malley bombed. He pushed a "forward, not back" slogan on the crowd, hoping to replicate some of the "fired up, ready to go” magic. Instead of an inspirational figure, he came across as a standard radio shock jock brought in to warm up the crowd for Michelle Obama, except that he left all the shock back in Baltimore.


John Hickenlooper

Surprisingly dry for a governor who is such a fan of craft brews. The Colorado governor didn't necessarily stumble when he spoke on Wednesday evening, but he surely didn't soar. His name receives minor speculation, and that won’t change after this week. Still, he's perfect bait for the urban hipsters the Democrats want to cultivate. Surely there’s room in the next race for a former brewpub-owning, bicycle-enthusiastic candidate?


Brian Schweitzer

Just look at how folksy the Montana governor is. He wears jeans and an open shirt with a bolo tie at a political convention. He inspires stodgy DNC delegates to chant along with "that dog don't hunt." On Thursday night, he even channeled Larry the Cable Guy's "git ur done," a turn of phrase one doesn't often hear at a gathering of liberals. But therein lies Schweitzer's problem if he wants to take a crack at 2016. He tries to echo the rural populism of a twangy Bill Clinton, and he is certainly a compelling speaker. But the Democratic Party isn't the same since Clinton first ran. The Third Way mindset is out of vogue—even for Clinton, judging from his speech—and Schweitzer doesn’t just rhetorically cling to the center. When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act but allowed states to opt-out of the Medicaid expansion, Schweitzer critiqued the law and indicated that his state won't go along with the Obama program. If the incumbent loses this election and Democrats conclude Obama was too far-reaching, perhaps Democrats will revert to the middle and look for a candidate like Schweitzer. Otherwise, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour will have to suffice.


Deval Patrick

Tasked with dismantling his predecessor as Massachusetts governor, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the attack-dog role served Patrick well. He tends to receive a bit less attention than some of the others on this list, but that might well have changed after Tuesday. He deftly weaved broader themes into his policy denunciations of Romney. He hollered a little too much, but it still played well in the arena. Patrick landed a punchy line with "it's time for Democrats to grow a backbone and standup for what we believe," which could become the rallying cry of a presidential bid.


Joe Biden

Sure, the vice president literally has another election on his mind first. And the fact that he'd be turning 74 the same month as the 2016 election does him no favors. (Remember how old McCain looked last time? He was a ripe young 72). Yet Biden can't let the dream die. He first toyed with running for president in 1984, gave it a shot in 1988, considered it in 1992 and 2004, and finally gave it another go in 2008. Could 2016 finally be his time? He's dropped plenty of hints recently, subtly through advisors to The New Republic and then straight out to New York magazine this week. And he helped his case Thursday night. Accepting the VP nomination, Biden switched back and forth between blistering attacks on Romney and a personalized defense of his running mate. He took Mitt to town for leaving the troops out of his convention speech and, channeling The Onion, touted his love of cars when defending the auto bailout. Biden appeals to the traditional Democratic bases while still speaking to the white working class. His future fortunes largely rest on the next four years. If the Dems win and leave office beloved by the country, Biden could conceivably carry the Obama mantle in 2016 and knock aside all those young pups aside.


Michelle Obama

The political spouse who appeared uncomfortable in front of the camera four short years ago upstaged almost every other speaker this week. Inevitably that set off the chatter. Will Malia and Sasha spend an extra eight years in D.C. prep schools? Perhaps, but they probably won't still be sleeping in the White House. Let's be real: Michelle Obama delivered a rip-roaring speech, but running for president as a first-time candidate is not in the cards. The “mom-in-chief” has never been shy about her distaste for politics (though it didn’t show this week). But if the spirit moves her, she's clearly set up to make a run at the Senate or House. Maybe she can retake her husband's old seat by challenging Republican Senator Mark Kirk in 2016?


Elizabeth Warren

For someone appearing on stage at her first Democratic convention, the Senate candidate from Massachusetts certainly received a welcoming response from the Democrats in Charlotte—the loudest applause outside the Obama-Biden-Clinton orbit. In primetime on Wednesday, introducing President Clinton, Warren walked out to Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," a fitting launch to the populist assault she then unleashed. Few in the Democratic Party can so eloquently link the social safety net to the interests of the middle class and working poor—precisely what’s made Warren many liberals’ fondest hope. Her speech had Clintonesque touches, drawing on a working-class Oklahoma upbringing to explain economic injustice. She's the #realtalk candidate, expressing exhaustion at the concept that women receiving equal pay is still up for debate and unabashedly articulating the interests of regular people against large corporations. "People feel like the system is rigged against them," she said. “And here's the painful part, they're right. The system is rigged." That lack of mincing words is something Democrats have been begging and pleading to hear from Obama over the last three years. The big problem: Warren has a tough fight ahead of her, in a close race with incumbent Republican Scott Brown, before she can even begin contemplating 2016. Her Senate race is, after all, her first political campaign and has had its share of stumbles


Hillary Clinton

What's that you say? Hillary didn't speak? Sorry, we got too lost in the '90s nostalgia of Bill Clinton's Wednesday-night speech. Democratic delegates are still suckers for some inspirational Fleetwood Mac. Hillary couldn’t come to Charlotte—the Hatch Act bars secretaries of state from appearing at conventions—and had to watch the proceedings from East Timor. But Bill made sure she wasn’t entirely absent. "President Obama appointed several members of his Cabinet even though they supported Hillary in the primary," her husband said. "Heck, he even appointed Hillary.” It was a great applause line, followed by a paean to “the job she and the national security team have done for America” and to her partnership with Obama, which sends a signal to the world “that democracy does not have to be a blood sport, it can be an honorable enterprise that advances the public interest." Nothing this week changed the fact that Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite to become the Democrats' next presidential nominee—if she wants it.

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