Democrats' only choice? Defend Hillary Clinton

Story highlights

  • Gloria Borger: Democratic Party has no real alternative for 2016 and its bench is painfully thin
  • She says it may not be fun, but Democrats have no choice but to defend Clinton on issues like the email question

(CNN)They were not-so-affectionately dubbed the "bed-wetters" by then-Obama senior adviser David Plouffe. The definition: Democrats who run to the hills every time there's a bump in the road. The Chicken Littles. The woe-is-us crowd.

Well, they're at it again. Not surprisingly, it's because of the Hillary Clinton email brouhaha, an unforced error that is now ricocheting around the political world. And the home team stands in place, just watching, somewhat stunned.
But Democrats don't actually have the luxury of standing by and seeing how this all plays out. Hillary Clinton is their candidate; their putative nominee. "Their only viable plan is to make her the best candidate possible," says one senior Democratic strategist. "And from time to time, this may require an intervention."
    Gloria Borger
    Now might be a good time.
    But while the anxious Democrats shake their heads about the state of affairs — and the lack of serious alternatives in the presidential lineup — they might do well to look at themselves. Over the past six years, there's been a sharp structural decline of elected Democrats everywhere below the presidential level.
    Sure, we all know about how the Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2014, but what about the fact that blue-state governors fell like tent poles?
    Or that GOP governors now outnumber the Democrats by almost two-to-one, 31 to 18. Or that Republicans have complete control of nearly three times as many state legislatures as the Democrats, 30 to 11. And down the ballot, Democrats under Obama have lost more than 900 state legislative seats: the worst showing of any modern president.
    That's eye-popping.
    So, the conventional judgment that the Clinton behemoth is just too big — too well funded, too well supported, too historic — all helps account for the paucity of alternatives, to be sure. But there's much, much more to it than the phenom of Bigfoot Hillary. It's the phenom of Barack Obama, too — and the very strong counterforces he's generated around the country. The gains at the presidential level have not been cost-free: The country is polarized, the Democrats are often on defense and they're losing ground. One result: a thin presidential bench, which is painfully evident.
    And if you take a peek at those blue-state governors who might be president, consider this: At 76, Jerry Brown, an able leader, is probably past his sell-by date for a presidential bid. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made very few moves to raise his national profile. And Democratic governors are very thin on the ground in the heartland. Any time you have Republicans winning the gubernatorial races in Massachusetts, Illinois and Maryland, Democrats should pay attention.
    As has been the case with other presidents, for Obama party-building has not been on top of the agenda. But it shows. And so when Hillary Clinton runs into some trouble, the Democrats ought to worry. The Republicans have a deep and varied field; the Democrats have one real horse in the race no matter how much she stumbles out of the gate.
    Speaking of Hillary Clinton, part of the problem right now is situational. Those Democrats who want to defend her say there's a problem -- they're not quite sure what they're defending, because they're not sure exactly what happened, or why. In other words, the wagons are circled, but the surrogates are left outside.
    Next, while Team Clinton may have considered the upside of waiting to announce her candidacy (Why not let the GOP battle it out? No need to give the GOP early target practice?), the downside is now obvious: How do you mount a defense with no real or organized apparatus to respond? If you're out there making personal appearances, it looks odd to ignore the elephant in the room. No matter how much you tweet about it.
    Bottom line, there is no organized pushback and there is no Plan B. (OK, Jim Webb, Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders, we know who you are, and that you're probably running, but still.) Or at least no Big Plan B. The pre-presidential league on the Democratic side is not exactly overflowing with big-time candidates. (Unless you think Vice President Joe Biden is running or Secretary of State John Kerry is running, which they likely are not. Same for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.)
    So "bed-wetters," beware. The truth is simple: Your job is to defend Hillary Clinton, not to bury her. Yes, it can be hard. Even annoying. But think about it this way: If you don't, her problems become your own.