Sunday, February 1, 2015

Looking Ahead to 2016

Bet you thought that, once the midterms were over, we'd get a reprieve from politics for awhile. Well, you were wrong! At best, all you get is a chance to catch your breath.

America's political pendulum is always swinging. Sometimes the swing is so modest you need a microscope to see it. Other times it swings wildly. In recent years, both parties have made the mistake of misreading election results and assuming they had longer–term implications than they had. Success is fleeting in American politics.

The midterm election was held in early November. By Thanksgiving, I had already read/heard several reports about people who were considering seeking their parties' nominations; then, Jeb Bush put his foot to the gas pedal and accelerated the process. Interested parties need to jump in soon, or all the resources in money and advisers will get locked in for Bush.

As it stands, 2016 will be a non–incumbent year, which means both parties' nominations are up for grabs. Technically speaking, that is. At this point in the process, it's still mostly a name recognition contest. Bush has the name — which isn't as toxic as it was a few years ago — and he's been grabbing up the money and the people even though few people outside of Florida know much more about him than the fact that he is the son of one president and the brother of another.

That was enough for 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, I guess. Romney wisely withdrew yesterday.

I didn't get to see his announcement, but it sounded like an impression of Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront."

Recent polls showed him in the lead, he said, particularly in the states whose primaries come early in the calendar, and he was "convinced" he could have won the nomination a second straight time — something no non–incumbent candidate in either party has been able to do since Adlai Stevenson.

("I coulda been a contendah.")

Once these guys (and gals) get the fever and start looking at themselves in the mirror each morning and imagining "Hail to the Chief" being played when he/she enters a room, the only cure for it seems to be the grave. Maybe it's an addiction. I don't know. But the word addiction has been expanded considerably in recent years. I wouldn't be surprised if politicians are prime prospects for addiction. Many already have addictions of other kinds as well, and being a narcissist almost seems like a key component of a politician's DNA.

I believe Romney is a sincere, well–meaning man who allowed himself to be defined by his opposition. Those things happen in campaigns. Both parties have done it so neither party is innocent; no point in pointing fingers on that one. There's plenty of blame to go around. The bottom line is, once you have been defined by the opposition, it is even more difficult to prevail the next time. To a great extent, Romney had been defined within his own party by his previous campaign for the nomination and by the opposition party in the general election.

Recent speculation of which issues Romney would choose to champion this time seemed to revive the old stereotypes of Romney as elitist, cold and calculating. It reminded me of what I heard when I was a child during Richard Nixon's comeback campaign of 1968. The emphasis was on the new Nixon. Nixon was always reinventing himself, and Romney has slipped into that mode as well.

But he resisted its lure. Good for him. It was the smart thing to do, and it most likely closes the door on his presidential ambitions. If the 2016 GOP nominee fails to win the election, Romney would be 73 in 2020. That isn't too old to win the nomination, but, historically speaking, it is too old to win the election. But my guess is he will continue to hear "Hail to the Chief" when he looks in the mirror each morning.

Barack Obama is barred by law from seeking a third term so, unless he issues an executive order repealing the 22nd Amendment, the Democrats will need a new nominee. Conventional wisdom insists it will be Hillary Clinton.

Really, how often does the frontrunner win the nomination? (I am speaking, of course, about non–incumbent presidential elections. Incumbents are rarely challenged for the nomination if they decide to seek another term — and even more rarely are those challenges serious.)

In the last 40 years, I suppose it has happened more often on the Republicans' side than on the Democrats' — Romney, John McCain (2008), George W. Bush (2000), Bob Dole (1996), George H.W. Bush (1988), Ronald Reagan (1980) and Gerald Ford (1976) all were frontrunners. The narrative on the Republican side was that the nominee always was the runnerup the last time the nomination was up for grabs. That hasn't always been the case, but it has been close to it for nearly 40 years. And those frontrunners almost always faced viable challengers from within before claiming the nomination.

Democrats have been more freewheeling. Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner heading into the primaries and caucuses of 2008 but lost to Obama, a newcomer to the national stage. The argument can be made that the nominees in 2004 (John Kerry) and 2000 (Al Gore) were frontrunners when the primaries began, but they, too, had to fend off challenges.

Clinton's husband was lightly regarded when his 1992 campaign began, but Mario Cuomo decided not to run, and Bill Clinton emerged from a pack of supposedly second–tier candidates dubbed "the Dwarfs."

Heading into 1988, Gary Hart — an insurgent challenger from 1984 — was regarded as the frontrunner until his campaign imploded. Michael Dukakis emerged from a group of largely unknown candidates to win the nomination.

Hart's insurgent candidacy made things uncomfortable for former Vice President Walter Mondale, the original frontrunner who went on to win the nomination. Mondale's former boss, Jimmy Carter, first won the nomination as an unknown riding a populist wave. Four years before that, the extreme left wing of the Democrat Party seized the nomination in the person of George McGovern.

Hillary Clinton may well go on to win the nomination, but she will have to overcome the problems we already know about — she really wasn't a very good candidate the last time, and her recent public remarks suggest that a lifetime in the public eye hasn't taught her much about diplomacy, her years as secretary of State notwithstanding.

What's more, there are rumblings about members of the liberal base pressing for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to seek the nomination. Not surprisingly, Clinton has been trying to improve her standing with the far left wing.

Historically, a non–incumbent presidential election has been an opportunity for both parties to write a new chapter in their history. Unfortunately, it appears that both parties are taking a trajectory that seems likely to give both nominations to dynastic retreads.

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