Monday, May 12, 2014

The Great and Powerful Name Dropper

"You're out of the woods
You're out of the dark
You're out of the night
Step into the sun
Step into the light"

For as long as I can remember, someone has been running around and whispering names of potential presidential candidates in the ears of anyone who would listen — and even some who wouldn't.

The great and powerful Name Dropper probably predates me, which tells me there must be a family of Name Droppers, not one individual. Maybe it's kind of like a family business with the younger generation taking over at some point.

If that is so, then the family business has really been booming in the last couple of decades, thanks to the proliferation of cable TV and the internet. I doubt that we'll ever be rid of them.

But there is never a shortage of prospective nominees. Most never leap to the next level and become presumptive nominees. But they serve their purpose. They reinforce the credentials of the great and powerful Name Dropper.

Every time you turn around, someone is dropping someone else's name. Then, before you know it, there will be an article in a newspaper or a magazine or on the internet or on cable news proclaiming someone to be an up–and–comer, a rising star. The buzz builds.

Rising stars seem to flame out rather quickly, though. Sometimes it is more like the flavor of the month, falling from favor almost as rapidly as it ascended. When that happens during a presidential election, it can be a disaster for a party. But when it happens at this point in the election cycle, it really doesn't mean anything.

You know how this works, don't you? The great and powerful Name Dropper mentions that [INSERT NAME HERE] is a possible presidential candidate — even if he/she is not really thinking about it. (Oh, I know, once they're in Washington, they all think about it at some point, even if only fleetingly, but they will really think about it when others start talking about them.)

When the buzz has been generated, he/she will be thinking about it, might even form an exploratory committee to look into it.

The formation of such a committee fuels more talk, and, before you know it, [INSERT NAME HERE] is showing up in public opinion polls. [INSERT NAME HERE] may have done little to encourage such talk and may only be generating a support level that falls within the poll's margin for error, but, as they say in show business, any publicity is good publicity.

Speculation always seems to be especially rampant at this point in the election cycle — the midterms — when all that the polls really reflect is name recognition, not whether Candidate A or Candidate B would be a successful nominee who connects with voters outside the party.

And that really is what both parties need, right? Their nominees can't win with their parties' votes alone, especially since more than 40% of voters self–identify as independent these days, so the parties need nominees with across–the–board appeal.

That doesn't mean that an insurgent can't win a party's nomination, but such nominees usually come from a party's extreme wing, and they take advantage of deep divisions within the party's mainstream to win the nomination. They seldom heal those divisions or win general elections. For every Ronald Reagan who wins in November, there is a Barry Goldwater and a George McGovern who got no traction after the convention.

There have been relative unknowns who went on to win the presidency — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama come to mind — but, usually, the Frank Churches and Gary Harts of presidential politics fizzle out long before they can start working on an acceptance speech.

Vice presidents often seem to think they will be anointed as the successor for the president whom they have served, but that isn't usually how it works — at least, not for a couple of centuries. After Vice President Martin Van Buren was elected to succeed Andrew Jackson in 1836, the only vice presidents who succeeded the presidents with whom they were elected were the ones who were in office when those presidents died or resigned — until George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Reagan in 1988.

Bush is still the only sitting vice president in nearly 180 years to be elected president — so, if I were Joe Biden, I don't think I would be looking to move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in January 2017.

Biden has another strike against him — his age. For a country that blatantly practices age discrimination in most professions, American politics does offer opportunities for older Americans. Many folks have been returned to Congress in their 80s and 90s, and Americans have valued seasoning in their presidents, too — up to a point.

Reagan was first elected president a few months before his 70th birthday, and he was re–elected a few months before his 74th birthday, but he was the historical exception. Since Reagan's presidency, only the first Bush, the one who succeeded Reagan, was over 60 when he was elected. The three presidents who have succeeded Bush were in their 40s and 50s when elected.

Hillary Clinton, too, will be pushing the historical age barrier if she runs in 2016. She will be 69 just before the election.

The great and powerful Name Dropper doesn't need to drop Clinton's name. After eight years as first lady, eight years as a senator and four years as secretary of State, she is familiar to Americans. She has sought the presidency before, and most people are assuming she will do so again, even though she has not made a formal announcement.

It does not benefit the great and powerful Name Dropper if there is no campaign, though, so Name Dropper has been trying to promote the idea that, whether Biden runs or not, Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat who took back Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in 2012, would make a plausible candidate.

A few problems, though. She is only a couple of years younger than Clinton so any age argument that could be made against Clinton could plausibly be made against Warren, too. The bigger problem, though, is that Warren doesn't seem to be interested in running — as Politico observed in a headline that said so many things.

For a long time, the pattern in presidential politics was that Democrats were more open to freewheeling races for their nominations than were Republicans, thus making it more likely that Democrats would nominate insurgents; Republicans had a tendency to award their nomination to "the next in line," whoever that was perceived to be.

These days, though, the parties have switched places. If Clinton does indeed win the nomination, she will be seen by many as being the next one in line.

Meanwhile, the Republicans seem to be setting themselves up for a Democrat–like free–for–all in 2016. Their 2012 standard–bearer, Mitt Romney, is mentioned by some as a possible candidate, but that can't be Name Dropper's doing. Romney is hardly an unknown.

Besides, once–beaten presidential nominees have rarely attempted it a second time, no matter how close they came to winning the first time. My guess — and I am sure it is Name Dropper's guess, too — is that Romney won't run.

Many of the names being mentioned on the Republican side are reasonably well known — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush. At least one prospective candidate, outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, sought the GOP nomination in 2012.

Some of the others from that campaign — Rick Santorum comes to mind — as well as other prominent Republicans are said to be considering a run in 2016. Name Dropper has had his/her hand in that, too, I am sure, but Name Dropper really excels when dropping names that few have heard.

As we embark on the 2014 primary season, there may well be candidates who spring from virtual anonymity and articulate the popular mood strongly enough that they win their party's nomination — and then the election — launching them into the 2016 conversation.

Then the great and powerful Name Dropper, fresh from a few months of restful observation, will leap into action and begin whispering in the ears of party leaders that so–and–so is an alternative to Clinton or that so–and–so can unite Republicans.

And the influence continues.

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