The latest polls, insofar as they have meaning at all at this very early stage, have Hillary Clinton ahead by almost 45 points in the race for the Democratic nomination for president. It's a nearly insurmountable lead for any challenger.
Yet it's becoming clear that this total lack of competition may be as much a threat to Clinton as a benefit. Without even a token race, she may be tempted into a complacent platform that will be highly risky in a general election. Challengers like former Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont could force Clinton to adopt a more left-wing policy — and in the process put her on track to win in 2016.
A clear illustration of the dangers faced by Clinton can be seen across the Atlantic. Left-leaning British folks have long lamented the spinelessness of the Labour party, exemplified by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Labour and Conservative politicians too often are doughy, barely distinguishable products of the exact same institutions, whose respective policies merely offer a greater or lesser degree of incompetence, failure, and mass impoverishment — what Charles Stross calls the "beige dictatorship."
Such a situation is greatly fueled by what British economist Simon Wren-Lewis calls "mediamacro," the idiotic yet fervent devotion to austerity found in the U.K. press, which is even worse than that of the U.S. Witness Channel 4's Jon Snow, who barks austerian talking points at Labour Party leader Ed Miliband that could have come from a Conservative Party press release. "You did not mention the deficit...that is the essence of our economic crisis!" (Utter hogwash.)
Miliband pushes back on this argument, but weakly. He says the deficit is a low priority, but that he'll still reduce it. He doesn't take the stronger and more convincing course, which is to say that austerity is an affirmatively bad policy until full employment is reached, and that the prolonged spell of high unemployment following the 2010 election of the Conservatives was a direct result of their austerity policy.
All of which is to say that a generation of neoliberalism has drastically weakened Labour. The cultural hegemony of austerity is such that he dares not challenge it — but it also makes it impossible to run on the anti-austerity merits, or to draw a strong contrast between Labour and the opposition.
Something similar has happened to the Democratic Party over the last generation or so. In the 1980s and '90s, they discarded most of their New Deal traditions in favor of essentially laissez-faire policy. They thought the problems of capitalism had been solved, that markets could self-regulate, and that a bright future of innovation and prosperity awaited us all.
It turns out that none of those problems had been solved, only kept in check by the fading momentum of New Deal policy — momentum that is now completely spent. And without a major political force pressing the case for social-democratic policy, and with Republicans sprinting ever-further towards the right, the cultural-political space for solutions to deal with failures of capitalism — like, say, a financial crisis, or skyrocketing inequality — has narrowed dramatically.
In theory, now would be a great time for Clinton to simply dust off FDR's old playbook, make a few updates and alterations, and go on a barnstorming tour making her case. But it would be a steep uphill battle. The public is totally unused to hearing things like "Social Security is good and should be expanded," and bonehead mainstream commentators will react with stunned outrage at the idea that the deficit isn't going to throttle us in our sleep.
So like Miliband, Clinton will likely run on meaningless centrist rhetoric, especially because that won't upset the donor class. On inequality, for instance, she's apparently concerned, but as yet has not proposed to do anything about it (compare that to FDR). That is distinguishable from Ted Cruz only in that Cruz preposterously claims government policy makes inequality worse.
The fact that Cruz is talking about inequality at all means that the 2016 election will probably be fought on dramatically more left-wing ground than the last one. But the discussion will just be completely muddled. Clinton will shrug and talk about charter schools, while the Republican robotically repeats that food stamps cause poverty.
This is where O'Malley comes in. He will almost certainly lose, so there is no reason not to run on a left-wing platform. It's the best fit for a time of stagnant median wages and booming inequality, and he's already putting parts of it together when it comes to financial policy. If he can put up a reasonable enough showing, he can force Clinton to actually argue over left-wing policy. That discussion will start the process of making the case to the public.
And that, in turn, will put Clinton (or whoever wins!) in a decent position to actually argue the merits of Democratic policy against conservative agitprop. Because if she's got nothing better than the typical liberal mealy-mouthed lines about education and opportunity, there's a good chance she'll lose.