If Hillary Clinton doesn't run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 — and there's one chance in five of that — the party could have a nervous breakdown.
On the national level, the Democratic bench is weaker, or more overshadowed, than at any time in the past several decades. There are several reasons. The election disaster in 2010 wiped out many possibilities, especially at the gubernatorial level. More important, with two heavyweight camps President Barack Obama and the Clintons there is no political oxygen for anyone else.
Suppose, for example, that upon taking over as secretary of state, Clinton had declared that she wouldn't run for elective office again. The field might look much different today.
For one, several ambitious female Democrats might be dipping their toes in the presidential waters: for example, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota or Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Now, the Democratic political sisterhood is completely vested in Hillary.
This sense that America is overdue to elect a woman is powerful and extends even beyond its borders.
"I'm optimistic I'll live to see a female president of the United States," former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in an interview last week.
If Clinton doesn't run, the focus will be on 71-year-old Vice President Joe Biden, who is personally popular with Democrats. But his two previous presidential runs crashed, and in 2016 he would be older than Ronald Reagan was when he was re- elected in 1984.
Most of the passion in the party would center on Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Her brainy populism puts her more in sync with party activists and most voters than any other major figure, including Clinton. But she's a political neophyte — 2012 was her first campaign — and she has expressed doubts privately about whether she would be comfortable with a national run at this stage.
Other women certainly might jump in if Clinton is out. So, too, could New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, testing whether his brand can fly outside the Empire State.
Then there are the what-do-we-have-to-lose guys: Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana, and a little less likely Martin O'Malley, the governor of Maryland. No list is complete without Jerry Brown, California's maverick 75-year-old governor, who was first elected to that position 40 years ago.
Then, the overarching narrative for the primary campaign would be: If only Hillary …
The reticence of any other Democrat to raise their hand now doesn't reflect a lack of talent in the party. Just consider the rich menu of running-mate choices candidate Clinton would have.
She has a keen appreciation, associates say, of the dynamics, the pull of electing a woman president. Thus, her initial instinct in selecting a running mate might be to emulate her husband in 1992 and shun convention.
By choosing Al Gore, also a young centrist progressive Southern policy wonk, Bill Clinton made the election about generational change instead of seeking geographic and ideological balance on the ticket. Similarly, Hillary Clinton might look for a woman, though there is no natural fit. With her long experience, she might have more leeway to pick the head of the Senate Budget Committee, Patty Murray of Washington, or Klobuchar, or Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.
More likely, she'd take a conventional approach, and there would be attractive options, starting with politicians from two swing states: Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both former governors (a job qualification that is lacking on Hillary Clinton's resume), or Colorado's Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet, once superintendent of Denver's public- school system. Or, if she wants to emphasize fiscal issues, Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen. All would be top-tier choices.
For 2016, the Democrats have no shortage of political talent, except at the very top.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.)