The bench is out there: Democrats hunt for a new generation – and Clinton’s VP

20 Apr


As 40-something conservatives line up for the White House and Hillary Clinton stumbles over issues that swing young voters, liberals swear help is on the way


Julian Castro is seen as an early contender to become Hillary Clinton’s running mate. “She needs a little tomorrow to offset yesterday,” a longtime friend tells the Guardian. “He provides a perfect complement if she needs one.” Photograph via hudopa / flickr


The campaign for US president is barely a week old, but 43-year-old Marco Rubio added a new wrinkle with three words: “Yesterday is over.”

In declaring his candidacy the day after Hillary Clinton began the race for the White House in earnest, the Florida senator previewed a key line of attack that Republicans are already using against the 67-year-old Clinton, casting her as a “leader of yesterday”.

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But in contrasting himself – and what on Friday night he called people “like myself” – with the decades-old familiarity of a potential Clinton-Bush redux election that could have symptoms of early-onset voter fatigue, Rubio was also demonstrating a broader argument from Republicans about what they say no star Democrat has right now: youth.

Clinton and other prospective contenders for the 2016 Democratic nomination, such as vice-president Joe Biden, former Virginia senator Jim Webb and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, are all within a few years of 70, critics have warned. Now,as a historically young Republican field shapes up alongside Clinton in New Hampshire this weekend, many voters are wondering not just about who else might run against her but where all the young, rising liberal politicians have gone.

Thirtysomething aides in Washington and political veterans across the country, however, swear the Democrats don’t have an age problem – the next generation, they say, is simply waiting in the wings.

Indeed, as Clinton’s confidantes and campaign wranglers try to fend off concerns that the former secretary of state will struggle connecting with young voters, one of the left-wing leaders emerging from Barack Obama’s administration is already favored in some circles to be her running mate.

“It’s a bit of mythology that the Democrats don’t have a bench,” a national Democratic operative told the Guardian, insisting that the party’s candidates-in-waiting are not just young but also diverse. “There are folks out there, but there isn’t an opening in the primary in a way that there was even in 2008. [Clinton] is very popular with primary voters and cleared the field by nature by that.”

The operative, who requested anonymity to speak freely about national Democratic priorities, added that young voters are “the ultimate values voters” – preferring issues over parties.

“Hillary Clinton is very popular with young voters in poll after poll and it’s because of where she stands on the issues, plus there is the historic nature about her candidacy that young people gravitate towards as well,” the operative said.

The historic appeal of a first woman president


Hillary Clinton posed for selfies and visited a community college in Iowa during her first week on the campaign trail – and found herself on the defensive regarding issues like immigration and same-sex marriage, which can make young voters susceptible to switching allegiances. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Neera Tanden, a longtime Clinton adviser and president of the Center for American Progress, honed in on that history – the potential for a first woman president – as a generational change of its own.

“I’ve always marveled about how we’ve talked past Hillary’s gender – it’s also representative of diversity and inclusiveness to have a woman president,” Tanden told the Guardian. “I don’t think we should just quickly cast a woman president as not being a fundamental change.”

Polling shows that voters, particularly those aged between 18 and 29, are warming up to the historic element of Clinton’s candidacy – an element many Clinton watchers believe she downplayed to her detriment in the 2008 campaignbut that her team has openly embraced this time around.


New Jersey senator Cory Booker, 45, video-chats with college students about net neutrality. Photograph via sencorybooker / flickr

Clinton also wallops every potential primary opponent for president in most polls, an advantage that has kept many challengers at bay – including younger politicians who have plenty of time to make a run for the White House.

Democratic aides, who strongly dispute the charge that their party lacks younger candidates who might seek the White House or a powerful Senate seat in leading a potential majority comeback in Congress, listed off a host of prolific Democrats under the age of 50: New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro and his brother, Texas representative Joaquin Castro.

Had Clinton not entered the race on Sunday, they argued, any one of those names could have entered the fray.

The threat of issue-addicted young voters


Hillary Clinton, as her campaign launch video presented her – and as Saturday Night Live did. Photograph: YouTube; NBC

Democrats also pointed out that Republicans have struggled to appeal to so-called millennials because of their positions on women’s reproductive rights as well as same-sex marriage and immigration.

While the majority of young voters lean Democratic, some political watchers and pollsters have warned that Clinton doesn’t necessarily have millennials wrapped up in 2016 after struggling in 2008 with a voting bloc that twice proved critical in boosting Obama.

The more younger voters get to know a candidate, pollsters say, the more susceptible they become to switching allegiances. And what many know of Clinton is largely drawn from the image projected in the media – less cable news than the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, which last saw a Clinton impersonator growling in a “selfie” video to voters.


Martin O’Malley, 52, at a marriage equality event while Maryland governor in 2012. “I’m glad Secretary Clinton’s come around to the right positions on these issues,” he told the Guardian on Thursday. Photograph via governoromalley / flickr

Getting out ahead of the skepticism, Clinton kicked off her campaign on a two-day listening tour with voters in the early battleground state of Iowa; she will head to New Hampshire for similar events next week. In addition toembracing a more populist rhetoric with echoes of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, she has also shifted her stance on same-sex marriage and immigration reform.

In a sign that Clinton herself could be vulnerable to a challenge from the left on those two issues, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, perhaps her leading potential Democratic opponent, has now taken his first thinly veiled swipe at Clinton by confronting her shifting positions on them.

“I’m glad Secretary Clinton’s come around to the right positions on these issues,” O’Malley said on Thursday, in response to a question from the Guardian about Clinton’s sudden evolution on same-sex marriage as a constitutional right and documentation for illegal immigrants. “I believe that we are best as a party when we lead with our principles and not according to the polls.

“Leadership is about making the right decision, and the best decision before sometimes it becomes entirely popular.

The tomorrow progressive – and a vice-presidential option


Julian Castro, 40, at a Department of Housing and Urban Development event this month with vice-president Joe Biden, 72. Photograph: hudopa / flickr

Some argue Clinton could go a step further than issue-by-issue messaging by roping in a younger Democratic up-and-comer at the top of her ticket. Many have already focused on 40-year-old Julian Castro, the former San Antonio mayor who delivered the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention – the same speech that brought Obama into the national spotlight eight years earlier.

Now the youngest member of the Obama cabinet as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Castro is already seen as an early frontrunner for the coveted spot of Clinton’s running mate.

“She needs a little tomorrow to offset yesterday. He provides a perfect complement if she needs one,” Evan Smith, who has known Castro for over a decade and serves as the editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, told the Guardian. “He presents a fresh face to counter what many perceive as an unfresh face.”

People who view Clinton as too captive of the center might like to have Castro on the ticket – he’s a progressive.

Evan Smith

While Clinton must contend with her image as a creature of Washington, Castro has a compelling personal story – similar to the one that endeared Obama to voters in 2008.


Castro and his brother were raised by a single mother who was a prominent activist in San Antonio. It represents “a compelling narrative with regard to his ability to represent a new generation,” said Walter Wilson, associate professor at the Department of Political Science and Geography at the University of Texas-San Antonio. “That’s part of what people see in him, in addition to the fact that he’s simply well-spoken and attractive as a candidate.”


Castro has already emerged as a favorite in Democratic circles for his record on issues such as poverty, education, healthcare and workforce development. At HUD, he has focused on extending housing vouchers to domestic abuse victims and ending veteran homelessness.

“People who view Secretary Clinton as too captive of the center might actually like to have Julian Castro on the ticket – he’s a progressive,” said Smith.

Castro has deflected questions on his political ambitions, but many have viewed his move out of Texas and directly into the Obama administration as a hop-step introduction to national politics.


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