By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Writers
And now for a look at the Democratic presidential field for 2016 — hey, hold on, where'd everybody go?
All right, at the moment there's little suspense. Make that no suspense. If Hillary Clinton wants the nomination -- and there's no indication to the contrary -- she can have it. Winning the general election is another story, but the Republican Party seems willing to be more of an aid than an impediment.
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I've been in the minority that believed Clinton had made no final decision about running, but I'm switching to the majority view. If she were going to step aside, party loyalty would dictate she should have done so by now so that other Democratic contenders could begin to assemble campaign teams, court donors and introduce themselves to the nation. Instead, Clinton continues to draw away all the political oxygen.
In the primaries, she faces just one significant -- and familiar -- opponent: her own inevitability. This year, however, already differs from the 2008 cycle in important ways.
The last time Clinton was expected to cruise to the nomination, it was clear at this point that a charismatic young challenger was days away from announcing an insurgent candidacy. It did not seem terribly likely that Barack Obama, then a first-term U.S. senator, could defeat the Clinton machine. But it did not seem impossible.
This time, the only plausible figure who could fill the Obama role -- Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts -- firmly denies she is running. More to the point, she has done nothing to put together a campaign apparatus. If Clinton somehow falters, one must assume all bets are off. For now, however, Warren seems content to use her standing with the party's progressive wing to muscle Clinton toward more populist positions on economic issues.
As for other challengers, well, let's be real. Vice President Biden says he might run, but he's no Obama. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is not going to win the nomination, and neither is former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia. Realistically, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's candidacy is more about putting himself in the running for vice president.
And remember how Obama won -- not just with soaring rhetoric but with a smart, well-executed strategy for ambushing the Clinton campaign, especially in caucus states, and building an insurmountable lead in convention delegates. If this is allowed to happen again, Clinton doesn't deserve to be president.
Would a dearth of competition in the primaries leave Clinton untested and untempered for battle against a Republican opponent who presumably will be in midseason form? I'd like to meet the politician who would rather endure a hard-fought campaign against a dangerous foe than cruise to nomination virtually unopposed. And Clinton, after a life in politics, is nothing if not experienced. She knows how to do this.
A recent Washington Post poll showed Clinton with a commanding advantage over a number of potential Republican opponents. She leads New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie by 53 percent to 40 percent; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by 54 percent to 41 percent; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul by 54 percent to 41 percent; 2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney by 55 percent to 40 percent; and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee by a yawning 56 percent to 39 percent.
Of course, those are just five of the many potential candidates for the GOP nomination. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio seems relevant again, or at least not irrelevant. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is still generating lots of buzz. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a political novice, is actually putting together a campaign. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is asking for another chance, while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is straining to be heard. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has formed an exploratory committee. And does anybody doubt that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is planning some sort of grand entrance, perhaps via golden chariot?
At this rate, they'll have to hold the Republican primary debates in shifts.
The Democratic Party's message -- which Clinton is free to choose and hone -- should be clear and focused, pretty much from the day she makes her candidacy official. The GOP message, on the other hand, will be in flux. Will it include Huckabee's anti-Beyonce stance? Bush's views on education? Paul's skepticism about the use of U.S. military power? Graham's eager hawkishness? On immigration, does Romney still believe in "self-deportation"? Does Rubio still support his own reform bill?
You have to admit, Clinton has handled this whole pre-campaign period quite well. Her silence, so far, has been golden.
Reach Eugene Robinson at email@example.com.