The New, Scary Question Facing Democrats: If Not Hillary Clinton, Then Who?

Being an "inevitable" candidate has its drawbacks. And Democrats don't have many other options.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hilllary Clinton attends EMILY's List 30th Anniversary Gala at Washington Hilton on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

In 2013, The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza posed a question: "If not Hillary Clinton in 2016, then who?"

That's a question that Democrats may have to begrudgingly ask themselves in the coming weeks, as a New York Times story about Clinton's email use during her time as secretary of state—compounded with earlier reporting on the Clinton Foundation—roil Clintonland.

Clinton's allies are already insisting the email story—that Clinton exclusively used her personal email address while at the State Department—is a nothing-burger. It isn't news. It will blow over after conservatives have had their 48 hours of outrage. After all, it's unclear whether Clinton actually violated any rules! Move along, nothing to see here.

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But the story doesn't make the Democrats' only current hope look good. The news fits perfectly into the narrative that Clinton's opponents are already trying to create: that she and her husband are secretive, less-than-scrupulous career politicians who are more interested in preserving their own power than being held accountable to American voters. In other words, that they are a real-life Frank and Claire Underwood.

And while that characterization may not be fair, Democrats may find themselves wondering if they need to start looking for an alternate candidate who does not represent entrenched power, much like in House of Cards season 3. Mild spoiler alert: finding such an alternate to back is a lot easier for the fictional Democrats than in real life. If Clinton's email problem continues to dog her into the campaign—or if she surprises everyone and decides not to run—the Democratic Party could be caught flat-footed.

Speaking in terms of pure probability, Republicans are putting forward far more serious candidates than what the Democrats are offering, a veritable buffet of options versus a prix-fixe menu. While Clinton is still polling light-years ahead of any potential Democratic opponent in the primaries, it's tough to predict how that success will translate to the general election.

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"Any lead Clinton does have is almost entirely attributable to being better known," FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten wrote in December. "Not only are her numbers dropping, but she is running on par with a Democratic brand in its weakest shape in a decade."

Clinton's name identification has been the ship that has kept her afloat for months. It's the reason why former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia had to announce his candidacy in November, while she can wait until April or May. It's why Webb and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley don't get as many think pieces (like this one!) written about them. It's why donors are just waiting for Clinton to give the signal so they can whip out their checkbooks. Clinton being a known quantity in politics is her main defining quality.

But presidential elections are not won on name ID alone; just time-travel to 2008 and ask freshman Senator Barack Obama. Some poll results have shown that Clinton may not be quite as inevitable as the predominant media narrative has suggested. Since 2009, her net favorability has eroded.

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But Democrats with wandering eyes may find themselves in a very tough spot: The window for other Democrats to jump into the race is quickly closing.

Let's start with the candidates, floated in years past, who can be eliminated: Brian Schweitzer and Howard Dean both made Cillizza's list two years ago. Today, it's hard to see either of them making a go of it, especially considering Dean has already endorsed Clinton and Schweitzer self-imploded. Elizabeth Warren? Don't start that again.

What about a Democratic governor? If Clinton somehow ends up not running, Andrew Cuomo could draw New York-area donors, but he would face the same criticisms Rudy Giuliani faced in 2008: that as a New York politician, he's out of touch with Real America. Jerry Brown and Deval Patrick are in a similar camp.

Bernie Sanders? If you can see a socialist in the White House, I may have to check to see if you are Frank Zeidler reincarnated. Alright, what about Joe Biden? He has hinted at being interested, but it's hard to see the vice president, whose past presidential campaigns have flamed out, being perceived as anything but Obama Lite. That leaves O'Malley and Webb, two Democrats with little in the way of major political accomplishments, whose names barely register to voters outside the Beltway.

Besides, if the national conscience continues to be preoccupied with the spread of ISIS, foreign policy could stick as a dominant theme of 2016. That means Democrats might be better positioned to put up someone with political experience. Who, apart from Clinton and to an extent Webb, can proffer the hawkish Democratic brand that might appeal to security-minded voters in 2016? Sen. Bob Menendez, for one. In his AIPAC speech Monday, Menendez successfully alchemized his disagreement with fellow Democrats over Iran sanctions into favor with the pro-Israel crowd. But aside from the fact that he has never really publicly entertained the idea of a presidential run, Menendez now has criminal corruption charges to deal with.

And then there are the lawmakers who fall into the Obama camp; the younger members of Congress who may have their eyes on 2020 or 2024 but could take a gamble and strike out on their own a cycle early. To throw out a few names: Amy Klobuchar? Kirsten Gillibrand? Cory Booker? Mark Warner? Julián Castro? These suggestions may sound unserious, but they are a pretty thorough roster of the Democratic bench. If Clinton's campaign somehow implodes, Democrats have no contingency plan.

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Perhaps what the Democratic Party needs as a Clinton alternative is a nonpolitician, something like what Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina are offering on the Republican side. Maybe Democratic recruiters need to look outside the Beltway to Silicon Valley. At that point, the name game turns into word association, with few big names, save maybe Sheryl Sandberg, showing any signs at all of wanting to get into politics.

There are still many, many people out there who want nothing more than to see another Clinton in the White House. That was on full display during Clinton's appearance at an EMILY's List gala Tuesday night. Between groups like Ready For Hillary and Correct the Record, there is an entire cottage industry devoted to helping Clinton before she declares an official campaign. On Tuesday, both Correct the Record and Media Matters—two pro-Clinton groups under the same corporate umbrella—were sent into a flurry flacking against the email story and, by extension, against The New York Times.

It's still early. Polling at this point in the cycle is hardly predictive. Obama could get more popular, thus raising Clinton's stock. The Republicans could nominate Ross Perot by accident. The ghost of Ronald Reagan could appear to Erick Erickson in a dream and convince him to endorse Clinton.

Nothing is decided. But if Hillary Clinton doesn't start defining herself against the narrative her opponents are putting forth, she can't expect to sleepwalk her way back to the White House. And Democrats can't afford to wait for her (and her staff) to wake up.