Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Eternal Randomness of Presidential Politics

"There's something happening here
But what it is ain't exactly clear."

Buffalo Springfield

Peggy Noonan recently observed in The Wall Street Journal that, so far, the 2016 presidential campaign has been full of surprises.

She made this observation in the context of another column that she wrote earlier this year in which she anticipated a "bloody" battle for the GOP's presidential nomination and a "boring" one for the Democrats' nod.

Now, she writes, the Republican campaign has become "exciting" with a record–setting debate night, and the Democrats' campaign has become "ominous." In other words, the presidential campaign — in which not one single vote has been cast in either party — has been full of surprises for Noonan.

That in itself surprises me. I've been aware of Noonan for 30 years, going back to when she wrote President Reagan's moving speech to the nation after the explosion of the Challenger in January 1986. If she's been around presidential politics at least that long, she should know how unpredictable it can be. Really. When has it ever been anything else?

As we approached the time last spring when Hillary Clinton made her candidacy official, I began to have a peculiar feeling about this campaign. Everyone acted as if it was a done deal that Hillary would not only win the Democrats' nomination but would breeze to victory in the general election.

Now, in my experience, nothing is that positive — and I have been following presidential politics most of my life. To be sure, there have been times when non–incumbent front–runners ended up cruising to the nomination as expected, but they usually struggle along the way, losing at least a primary or two. In keeping with history, it hasn't been the fait accompli that Hillary Clinton's march to the nomination appeared to be only a few months ago — and no one has even voted yet.

Now, Hillary insists that she never expected an effortless glide to the nomination, that she always expected it to be competitive. Part of that may be the residual effect of having been the presumptive nominee in 2008 only to lose it to an inexperienced — and largely unknown — guy named Barack Obama when the party's voters began participating in primaries and caucuses. And at least part of it is sure to be P.R.

It reminds me of Election Night 1980, when Hillary's husband lost a narrow race for re–election as Arkansas' governor. I guess you had to be in Arkansas at the time to understand just how popular Bill Clinton was there then — and how shocking it was that he had been voted out of office. True, he lost his first race, in 1974, for the U.S. House seat representing Arkansas' Third District, but he took 48% of the vote in that heavily Republican northwest quadrant of the state. Two years later, he was elected Arkansas' attorney general, facing only modest opposition in the primary and none in the general election. Arkansas elected its statewide officials every two years in those days, and, in 1978, Bill Clinton was elected governor.

1980 turned out to be a Republican year, with Reagan sweeping Jimmy Carter out of the White House and Republicans seizing control of the U.S. Senate. There were clear indications prior to the election that it would turn out that way nationally.

But Arkansas was solidly Democratic in those days. Four years earlier, it had given Carter his highest share of the popular vote outside of Carter's home state of Georgia. Even with a Reagan victory more or less expected, the feeling in Arkansas was that Carter would prevail there again.

But he didn't, and neither did Clinton. Both lost narrowly, and, when speaking to his supporters that night, Clinton said that he and his campaign staff had been aware, in the closing days of the campaign, of shifts within the electorate that pointed to the possibility that he would lose. It didn't come as a shock to them, Clinton insisted.

But I'll guarantee it came as a shock to many Arkansans.

I was probably too young at the time to recognize that for what it was — an early manifestation of the Clintons' obsession with controlling the conversation, whatever it was about. Even if you have been blindsided, never let 'em know that.

That trait is often interpreted as deceitful, and perhaps it is. What I have known about Hillary Clinton for a long time — and others only seem to be understanding now — is that she is a cold fish politically. Her husband is a scoundrel, but he is a likable scoundrel. He has sure–footed natural political instincts. It is why he hasn't lost a general election since he was beaten in that 1980 campaign I mentioned earlier. He lost some presidential primaries but always won the nomination he sought.

Hillary has none of her husband's strengths and all of his weaknesses. It is a combination that isn't likely to hurt her much in the race for the nomination — but it is apt to be troublesome when she is trying to win as many independent and even Republican votes as possible. Because she can't win a national election on the votes from her party alone. No one can — not in a country where more than 40% of voters identify as independents.

Self–defined independents are important because they now outnumber Democrats and Republicans. They may lean to one side or the other, but the fact that they call themselves independent suggests that they cannot be taken for granted.

In spite of what Noonan says, though, I'm not sold — yet — on the narrative that holds that the emergence of Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail and the possible entry of Vice President Joe Biden — who met with Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently in what may have been the strongest signal yet that he will throw his hat in the ring — suggest that a race Noonan once described as "boring" is becoming "ominous." Well, perhaps "ominous" really isn't the right word. Perhaps Noonan — who is a gifted writer — should use a word like "threatening," because, at the moment, that is what this looks like to me.

As usual, I look to history for guidance. All history, really, but I prefer recent history when it is applicable.

There have been times in the last half century when insurgents have won their parties' nominations. Historically, Democrats have been more prone to it — eventual nominees George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, even Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were nowhere in the polls more than a year before the general election when they were the standard bearers for the out–of–power party — so history does suggest that Sanders might have a chance to win the nomination — provided he can peel off some rich donors and make inroads into certain demographics that currently are in Hillary's camp.

But those donors and demographic groups are going to have to get a lot more nervous about Hillary before they'll be ripe for the picking. The fact that Sanders is drawing huge crowds on the campaign trail indicates to me that a sizable segment of the Democrats craves a real contest for this nomination, one that requires Democrats to take clear stands on issues and promote policies that are designed to help the voters, not the candidates.

I think that is true of voters of all stripes. They want to have a conversation about the issues that affect them and their children. They don't want that conversation to be disrupted by distractions. And the emergence of people like Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina suggests voters have lost confidence in career politicians to confront and vanquish the problems and are looking for someone who can bring common sense from another field to the White House.

I would say that Hillary is still the odds–on favorite to win the nomination, but those odds are growing ever smaller. If Biden challenges her with a platform that appeals to an electorate that has clearly soured on politics as usual, things could get dicey for the Democrats. Hillary Clinton could find herself in political history books with all the other sure things — like Ed Muskie and Gary Hart.

Then there's Donald Trump.

A lot of Republicans fear that, if Trump is denied the GOP's nomination, he will run as an independent — and, in the process, hand the White House to the Democrats for four more years. I suppose they are the new Republicans, the ones whose party has lost five of the last six popular votes, a skid that began with Ross Perot's first independent candidacy.

I'm not so sure about that one, either. Hey, it is still very early in the process, and the folks who fear that Trump, with his deep pockets, will keep the Republicans from winning the presidency by running as an independent overlook a few key points that separate 2016 from 1992.

In 1992, the Republicans had been the incumbent party for a dozen years. They never had majorities in both houses of Congress simultaneously — in fact, for half of that time, Democrats controlled both houses — but the general public perception was that the Republicans had ownership of just about everything.

In 2016, Democrats will have been in charge of the White House for eight years, and the policies that will be debated are policies that, by and large, are products of this administration. If historical trends persist, voters will hold them responsible for conditions that exist, even though Republicans have controlled one or both houses of Congress through most of the Obama presidency; and Trump, although he has been seeking the Republican nomination, was supportive of many of those policies — and may tend to draw as many votes from disaffected Democrats as Republicans if he runs as an independent in the general election.

In short, an independent Trump candidacy won't necessarily work against Republicans, as many fear.

I learned a long time ago not to predict what voters will do until we are close to the time when they have to go to the polls. Attitudes are volatile more than a year from the election, and there may be events ahead that will shape the race in ways we cannot imagine.

One thing that voters in both parties must decide is whether essentially political matters are best left to essentially non–political people. If the answer to that is no, the primaries will bear witness to a thinning of the Republican field. I think that is bound to happen anyway. Virtually none of the GOP candidates mired at 1% or 2% in the polls can afford to stay in the race for long, and I am convinced the field will be half its current size before New Year's Day. At least one of the non–politicians is certain to be among those who drop out.

That will make it possible for all the candidates to participate in the same debate — and voters can judge them side by side. The race will become more focused, as it should.

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