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Are the Democrats the Royalist Party?

Hillary Clinton could become the first non-incumbent president in more than a century to win the Democratic nomination without a fight.

April 15, 2015

On the eve of the 1960 convention, Vice President Richard Nixon secretly flew on Eastern Airlines to New York to meet with his Republican nemesis, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. That July 22 dinner meeting at the Rockefeller triplex at 810 Fifth Avenue stretched until 3:30 in the morning as the two men hammered out a 14-point statement of political principles that would be incorporated into the GOP platform.

Dubbed the Compact of Fifth Avenue by the press, this agreement prompted Rockefeller to abandon his ill-defined plans to try to overturn Nixon’s nomination at the Chicago convention. As Richard Norton Smith notes in his recently published biography, On His Own Terms, the 1960 campaign probably offered the New York governor his best shot at the White House — if he had only run.  

That Nixon-Rockefeller deal led to the last time a non-incumbent president was nominated without facing an active fight in the primaries or at the convention. Nixon won virtually unanimously on the first ballot in Chicago with the only dissenters, 10 Louisiana delegates for Barry Goldwater.

This history serves as a reminder of the nearly unprecedented nature of Hillary Clinton’s dominant position 15 months before the Democratic convention. In the last century, the Democrats have never nominated anyone without a battle, incumbent presidents aside. More the Democrats’ style was the 103 ballots it took to nominate John W. Davis as the sacrificial challenger against Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

Even the Republicans—a party supposedly famous for its orderly succession arrangements — have only nominated four candidates by virtual acclamation since 1912. (Whoops, I forgot to type “incumbent presidents aside”). It is a less than Mount-Rushmore-worthy roster: Herbert Hoover (1928), Alf Landon (1936), Tom Dewey (1944) and Nixon.   

Now there remains a chance that Hillary will have some anxious moments during her triumphal procession through the primaries — or even somehow lose the nomination. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb have as plausible presidential credentials as, say, Rick Santorum, who won the 2012 Iowa caucuses and then fought Mitt Romney hard in the Michigan and Ohio primaries.

With that caveat, let’s assume that the odds-makers are right and Clinton does shatter the glass ceiling to thunderous applause at the 2016 convention in Philadelphia. That gives rise to the question: Is the lack of a Democratic Party nomination fight for two elections in a row (2012 and 2016) good for democracy?

Franklin Roosevelt was president the last time that the Democrats went this long without an intraparty brawl. And a recent Bloomberg Politics Poll found that 72 percent of Democrats surveyed said that it would be “a bad thing for the Democratic Party” if Hillary Clinton lacked “serious competition” for the nomination.

That polling question — with its binary “good” or “bad” answer — implicitly focused on whether a Clinton romp to the nomination would improve the Democrats’ chances in November 2016. But it did not address whether the nation is served by a sudden burst of royalism transforming a traditionally rambunctious political party.

Complicating the issue is the reality that the way America chooses its presidential nominees is a far cry from one-person one-vote. Residents of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have disproportionate influence on the outcome every four years. Unlike the 2008 Obama-Clinton marathon, many presidential primary races end with a de facto nominee long before most Americans get to cast their ballots. And do not even get started on the implications of low turnout caucuses (no absentee ballots or early voting) and, for the Democrats, unelected super-delegates. 

The best justification for the current system of nominating presidents is that things used to be far more undemocratic. Before the expansion of the presidential primaries by the Democrats in 1972, most convention delegates were selected in backrooms. In fact, a quarter of the delegates at the 1968 Democratic convention were chosen in 1967 before Eugene McCarthy launched his anti-Vietnam War insurgency. And while a second ballot for president at a convention might be a great dramatic spectacle (the last one was in 1952),it is hard to regard the vote trading on the convention floor as a high point of representative government.

In theory, there are dozens of reforms that would make the presidential primary and caucus system more democratic. The problem is that most of them would enhance the power of money in politics. (Yes, things could be worse than the current Super PAC buy-a-thon).

A national primary, for example, would rule out any under-funded candidate, since it would be impossible to compete in all 50 states at once without $100 million or more.  And while other states would love to displace Iowa and New Hampshire at the head of the line, these two states, in particular, have developed vibrant traditions that allow under-dog candidates to emerge from the pack.

The probable Hillary Clinton coronation might arouse more concern if the White House and Democratic bosses were suppressing dissent over a major issue. That is, after all, what happened in the tumultuous 1968 campaign that, in effect, ended the old style of nominating presidents at the convention rather than through binding primaries.

Today, though, it is hard to find a major issue dividing Democrats. The party is united on social questions (gay marriage, abortion) and major domestic issues (immigration, support for Obamacare and a willingness to burst Republican-imposed budget shackles). Yes, the so-called Elizabeth Warren wing of the party wants to be tougher on Wall Street than the Obama administration, but that sentiment is not attached to specific legislative proposals arousing deep passion. And wishing, alas, cannot create a full-throated Democrat debate over the direction of American foreign policy in an era of never-ending war in the Middle East, parts of Africa and Afghanistan.

The best reason, though, to accept the near certainty of a Hillary Clinton nomination is that ancient political truism: You can’t beat somebody with nobody.

All major Democratic figures with presidential ambitions from Joe Biden on down are voting with their feet — choosing to flee the political battlefield rather than confront the Clinton juggernaut. Presidential politics is not a rigged game like professional wrestling in which a challenger can roar ferociously, throw a few chairs and then settle down to his scripted fate of losing the match.

So, in the end, trust the voters in the Democratic primaries. If they want a real fight for the nomination, then they will coalesce around a challenger to Clinton. Otherwise, all the would-be presidents in the Democratic Party (at least, the younger ones) can wait until 2020 or 2024.

(Photo: Flickr/U.S. Department of State)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.