I remember when Rachel Maddow of MSNBC wrote this opinion piece, informing us that the administration of George W. Bush did nothing to cultivate a deep bench of Republican leadership prospects. As far as Maddow was concerned . . . well . . . let’s let her words speak for themselves:
In the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, no hearty saplings were ever able to take root in the shade of that big tree. No one expected Vice President Dick Cheney to ever be a contender for the presidency — part of his effectiveness was his willingness to say and do very unpopular things. . . .
[. . .]
Unlike the Reagan administration, the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, the George W. Bush presidency elevated precisely no one to the ranks of national leadership who wasn’t there before. The 2008 Republican presidential primaries were like some odd eight-year cicada hatch in which the candidates went underground in 2000 and then birthed themselves after Bush and Cheney were gone, as if the intervening years had never happened.
The 2000 second-place finisher, Sen. John McCain? You’re next in line for 2008! And four years later: second-place Mitt Romney? You’re next in line for 2012!
The unpopular presidency of George W. Bush has proved to be a blackball on the résumés of a generation of Republican leaders. Maybe Cheney’s daughter Liz will break the pattern next year with a successful Senate bid in Wyoming, but if you made it through that sentence without spitting coffee out your nose, you’re in rare company.
Maddox went on to state in her piece that “Barack Obama looks less likely to repeat” Bush’s alleged failure to develop a new and vibrant leadership class. But nearly one and a half years after the writing of Maddow’s article, we see that her expectations of President Obama’s leadership were (naturally) too high:
One of the most underappreciated stories in recent years is the deterioration of the Democratic bench under President Obama’s tenure in office. The party has become much more ideologically homogenous, losing most of its moderate wing as a result of the last two disastrous midterm elections. By one new catch-all measure, a party-strength index introduced by RealClearPolitics analysts Sean Trende and David Byler, Democrats are in their worst position since 1928. That dynamic has manifested itself in the Democratic presidential contest, where the bench is so barren that a flawed Hillary Clinton is barreling to an uncontested nomination.
But less attention has been paid to how the shrinking number of Democratic officeholders in the House and in statewide offices is affecting the party’s Senate races. It’s awfully unusual to see how dependent Democrats are in relying on former losing candidates as their standard-bearers in 2016. Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, Pennsylvania’s Joe Sestak, Indiana’s Baron Hill, and Ohio’s Ted Strickland all ran underwhelming campaigns in losing office in 2010—and are looking to return to politics six years later. Party officials are courting former Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina to make a comeback bid, despite mediocre favorability ratings and the fact that she lost a race just months ago that most had expected her to win. All told, more than half of the Democrats’ Senate challengers in 2016 are comeback candidates.
On one hand, most of these candidates are the best choices Democrats have. Feingold and Strickland are running ahead of GOP Sens. Ron Johnson and Rob Portman in recent polls. Hill and Hagan boast proven crossover appeal in GOP-leaning states that would be challenging pickups. Their presence in the race gives the party a fighting chance to retake the Senate.
But look more closely, and the reliance on former failures is a direct result of the party having no one else to turn to. If the brand-name challengers didn’t run, the roster of up-and-coming prospects in the respective states is short. They’re also facing an ominous historical reality that only two defeated senators have successfully returned to the upper chamber in the last six decades. As political analyst Stu Rothenberg put it, they’re asking “voters to rehire them for a job from which they were fired.” Senate Democrats are relying on these repeat candidates for the exact same reason that Democrats are comfortable with anointing Hillary Clinton for their presidential nomination: There aren’t any better alternatives.
I don’t expect Rachel Maddow to write anything about Barack Obama’s failure to one-up George W. Bush in the leadership-cultivation department. That would require intellectual honesty on Maddow’s part; something that is generally frowned upon by the so-called “reality-based community” in general, and by MSNBC in particular. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t notice Team Obama’s utter failure to build up a new generation of leaders for the Democratic party. In Maddow’s piece, she admonished the Obama administration and Democrats to “[g]row your successors, nurture your legacy.” Mission most emphatically not accomplished.