2016: The Coming Train Wreck

Six months ago, the 2016 election looked to be predictable and boring: Clinton II vs. Bush III. Advantage: Clinton.

Well, forget about that.

The Republican demolition derby has been getting most of the publicity lately, but one should worry more about the Democrats. Consider:

Hillary Clinton is sinking like a stone. She's falling in the polls. Conversations with her longtime friends and admirers indicate grave worry. She is not generating the excitement that the first prospective woman president should; the email mess is not going away; even the money advantage is not what was anticipated.

And a self-declared socialist could defeat her in Iowa and New Hampshire. Even as she tacks left to excite the base, there is no way she can out-Sanders Sanders.

If she could just vault over the rest of the pack and claim the nomination, as she hoped when she declared her candidacy, Hillary Clinton might still be a strong nominee. But that's not going to happen. As best, the fight for eventual nomination will be a long slog, with Clinton in the role of piñata.

As sharks are drawn to blood in the water, Hillary's miseries are attracting other candidates. The latest is Joe Biden.

There is much that is admirable in Biden; but if anyone will be a weaker candidate than a wounded Clinton, it has to be Biden.

The man will be 74 years old on Election Day. That's five years older than Ronald Reagan was at the time of his first election, and Reagan's age was a liability in the campaign. Clinton, like Reagan will be 69 -- youthful next to Biden.

Worse, Biden has proven himself on two occasions, 1988 and 2008, to be a dreadful presidential candidate. He has been a competent vice president, but that is no reason to think that he will be a more effective candidate now than in his previous outings. But he could well draw off enough of the anybody-but-Hillary support to make the nomination quest even more of an ordeal.

And if Biden gets in, others may. Well-placed sources say John Kerry is tempted. He's been a surprisingly good secretary of state. But he blew a very winnable election in 2004. Like Biden, he's a better public official than a candidate.

Can you imagine the geriatric Democratic field? Sanders and Biden at 74, maybe Kerry at 73, and the young sprite of the pack, Hillary Clinton at 69. Jesus wept!

Granted, the Republicans have their own problems. Trump is sucking out all the oxygen, making the rest of the pack both even crazier and more obscure. Trump probably can't get nominated, but he could well run as an independent.

However, don't be so sure that an independent Trump would pull only Republican votes. He's the candidate of the angry and the disaffected, which includes a lot of working class whites. If the Democrat is the opposite of populist, an independent Trump might well pull some votes that would otherwise vote Democratic or stay home.

A toss-up election will turn entirely on who is nominated by each major party -- and how badly they are damaged along the way. A Kasich-Rubio Republican ticket, for instance, would spell big trouble for almost any Democrat. Even a Bush-Kasich ticket would be strong.

On the Democratic side, I have long thought that a badly wounded Clinton might lead to a scenario in which a reluctant Elizabeth Warren agrees to run. Despite the much exaggerated "schoolmarm" critique, Warren has a terrific capacity to connect with regular people, and she has only gotten better with time and experience. I believe Warren would be a formidable national candidate -- a more electable version of Sanders.

If Biden gets in, however, Warren as late entry becomes even less plausible. His confidential meeting with her, leaked by the Biden camp, was an obvious effort to associate himself with her appeal, solicit her support, and determine whether she really means it when she says she won't run.

Biden, as noted, is a good guy. But he's no Elizabeth Warren.

To sum up: The 2016 Republican field is more of a Mutually-Assured-Destruction mess than any in my long lifetime. It's not only much too big, but far to the right of American public opinion. The exceptions are a surprisingly strong John Kasich, who is probably too moderate to be nominated, and Jeb Bush who may well be too clumsy. And then there is Trump.

In general, that's all good news for the Dems. But never, never, discount the Democrats' talent for doing themselves in. If this were an HBO series, it would be one hell of a show, albeit a little far-fetched. Unfortunately, it's our life.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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