Analysis on steroids
20 March 2018 21:38 (South Africa)

It's here: The US 2016 Presidential race

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Politics
Brooks on 2016 us presidential election

Never mind that there are still many Republican Party primaries to come; that Mitt Romney hasn’t been formally nominated as the Republican Party’s candidate for president yet; and that he and incumbent president Barack Obama have not yet squared off in the general election. And, of course, Americans have not yet lined up at thousands of voting stations across the country. Doesn’t matter. The race for the 2016 nominations is already underway. Really it is. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Years ago, Bill Clinton’s campaign team popularised a term that has taken over the American approach to elections – the never-ending campaign. No sooner does a politician get elected than he (or she) begins the process all over again to raise campaign funds, capture a nomination and get elected. As a result, an election is just one more position on the electoral hamster wheel of American political behaviour.

And that is why the political cognoscenti – unbelievable as it may sound – have already started to handicap the 2016 presidential race. The Daily Maverick does not want its loyal readers to be left out of this churning, so here is our first stab at what – and who – to watch for as potential candidates jockey into position for 2016.

There is obviously one most important, critical variable for this exercise. This, of course, is whether Barack Obama wins his battle for re-election this year. Or, put another way, whether there is a new Republican president for the US, come 20 January 2013. Spoiler alert: If Mitt Romney wins the election, there will be no Republican battle for the nomination.

But, working off an increasingly safe assumption – based on polling trends that have been shaping up for the past five or six months and assuming the economy continues to heal and the Middle East doesn’t undergo some kind of nuclear meltdown - Barack Obama will get a second term. Accordingly, there will be no incumbent president come 2016. This would leave the races in both parties wide open and very wide ranging.

Let’s take the Democrats first. The Washington Post put it cleanly for the Democratic Party’s prospects, come 2016. “No matter what happens on Election Day in November, when Mr. Obama wakes up the next morning, he will no longer be the future of his party. If he loses, attention will immediately turn to which Democrat might be able to pick up the pieces from the deep disappointment of his one term. If he wins, the party will begin turning to who might be able to accomplish the difficult task of winning a third straight term for one party. Already, the jockeying for 2016 has begun.”

If for no other reason than she came “that” close to the nomination the last time around, Hillary Rodham Clinton will be a sentimental favourite for a whole lot of Democratic Party activists, women’s activists and many in the commentariat, unless she definitively and absolutely rules out running when she leaves the State Department at the end of this term. And, even then, she could always change her mind - if late at night in the quiet of her own thoughts she decides the GOP has embarked on a path of national or international destruction and it is her task to save things – and no one will gainsay her for that. This is what is usually called “options” – and she will have them for years to come, until the filing date for the New Hampshire primary in 2016 passes, to be exact.

If she goes for it, she will be the tested commodity – she’s been through the fire of a national campaign (or two or three), she definitively knows the issues domestically and internationally (that is, she’s already had to answer a whole duty roster’s worth of those 3 AM phone calls), and she already has political favours she can draw upon across the width, depth and breadth of the nation. And because she has said she is determined to step down as secretary of state at the end of 2012, she will have years and years to pile up still more political IOUs as she campaigns for Democratic candidates in various off-year and mid-term elections everywhere she can. She is a political animal, after all.

And the biggest of the big kahuna of reasons in her favour, of course,  is that she will be “unemployed” (unless Obama appoints her to the next vacancy on the US Supreme Court, thereby taking running for office again off the table). Being unemployed is a net plus in the presidential sweepstakes. She will have all the time in the world for the big tease: first the leaks to the press and the rumours on the Internet about who is encouraging her to run; then on to the big buildup to an announcement that she will decide soon; then for her to decide and announce; then to campaign; then to win. That, at least, is how a legion of Hillary-ophiles will see things. And maybe that is how she and her husband see it too.

There is a downside to the Hillary dream, of course. For many people, she is not the future of her party but its past. She’s been in national politics since 1991 as an indefatigable campaigner: First Lady, senator and - most recently - secretary of state. (She started her political activism as a young republican as early as 1961 – Ed) By the time she would be president, she will be 69 and in the league of those two really elderly elected presidents - William Henry Harrison and Ronald Reagan. Being president isn’t for sissies – or old people either - unless you are Ronald Reagan whose minders and Nancy Reagan very carefully managed his time, attention and energy – and carefully guarded his naptime as well.

But if Hillary Clinton represents the party’s past in many people’s eyes, who might be its the future? First of all, forget about incumbent vice president, Joe Biden, he’s older than Hillary is. But there is no dearth of other politicians who think they might be ready to answer that national summons to duty in 2016.

One of the more obvious ones whose name is being bandied about is Maryland’s governor, Martin O’Malley. He’s already used to the scrutiny of an inquiring national press (the Washington Post is right next door), he’s been a big city mayor in Baltimore and so knows urban issues, as well as broader state ones. And he’s given lots of attention during his tenure in office to education. Despite the damaging effects of the financial crisis on state tax revenues, Maryland’s overall educational quality (except perhaps in downtown Baltimore) is among the best in the nation – and education is likely to be a key issue for the future, especially in terms of national competitiveness against China and the rest of the world.

Then there is Andrew Cuomo. He served in the Clinton cabinet as secretary of housing and urban affairs while still a young man. He’s governor of the very big, famously ungovernable state of New York and he has a superlative Democratic political lineage. His father, Mario Cuomo, was also governor and a sentimental favourite to run for president until “Hamlet on the Hudson”, as he was often called, decided not to undergo the stress of the run through that campaign gauntlet.

In writing about 2016, The New York Times has already noted “Governor Cuomo has surprised his critics in the party, who remember him as an intemperate Clinton cabinet secretary, with his strong start as New York governor. His success pushing through a same-sex-marriage bill will help him with liberals, even though he seems more of a centrist, having confronted public-sector unions and opposed a millionaire’s tax.”

Others in the mix include governors Tim Kaine in Virginia, Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, Christine Gregoire of Washington, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jay Nixon of Missouri and Brian Schweitzer in Montana. Even some current mayors like Cory Booker of Newark, Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and RT Rybak of Minneapolis, may be potential future candidates, depending on what happens over the next nearly half a decade in the country and in their respective cities.

There is also another former Virginia governor, Mark Warner, currently a Virginia senator who, while governor, helped erase a budget deficit. He could run as a moderate but with some of the Southern appeal that helped Bill Clinton to come from Arkansas to the White House. And some people are even mentioning new New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand as well as the energetic, thoughtful Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz as potential presidential or vice presidential candidates, come 2016.

Kaine and Warner, like O’Malley, already have some national exposure via the Washington Post and they have won big in a so-called purple state – one that is neither loyally Democratic nor Republican. Meanwhile, Schweitzer is a Democrat in a generally Republican state (although he publicly lost his cool once and literally referred to Arabs as “rag heads” – something that may describe the inability to take the kind of pressure that will eventually condemn him to be an asterisk by 2016).

For some political observers as well, one other plausible newcomer for 2016 would be Elizabeth Warren. She was deeply involved in the creation of the federal consumer-protection bureau for financial products – a good place to hang one’s hat if a candidate is looking for an easy-to-explain accomplishment – and she is now running to become a senator from Massachusetts (against Scott Brown, the incumbent, Republican hero and the man who astonishingly replaced Ted Kennedy as senator). Warren’s ability to deliver a really punchy case for economic fairness and equity has made her a YouTube sensation. Of course she needs to beat Brown this fall, but if she does, she too becomes a contender for a try for the brass ring.

The Washington Post observes that while quick political ascents in America are not wholly new - witness Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama – such rises seem to be becoming more common, what with web-based campaigns that allow candidates to jump ahead of others who have spent years in the queue, cozying up to local party officials, other pols and editorial writers. In fact, that much-lamented Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that significantly relaxed campaign financing and gave space to those SuperPACs may end up helping outsiders, insurgents and newcomers like Warren who enter the political space and try for the centre ring.

Now, over with the Republicans, if Mitt Romney should happen to pull off a win, their 2016 campaign is simplicity itself: vote for our president and finish the job of rolling back those years of what that Kenyan-socialist-Muslim-fundamentalist did to the country. But if Romney should go down to defeat, the door opens very wide and very creakily, if for no other reason than that the Republicans will still have their unresolved conflict between the four conflicted wings of their party: the old line establishment; social values/attitude conservatives; libertarian-isolationists; and the so-called Reagan Democrats.

With a Romney defeat, the four-sided civil war starts all over again. Then the obvious name to begin with is Rick Santorum. Traditionally Republicans have gone with the man who was next in line and Santorum would certainly fit that categorisation – save for the fact that he would be seen as a particularly divisive candidate who would start the civil war all over again inside the party. Maybe the party’s elders (and voters) would want to look around further. Besides, Santorum’s future, like Mike Huckabee’s and Sarah Palin’s before him, may be more likely as a TV commentator on the Fox News TV network. There’s lots of money there and there is little heavy lifting to be done.

So, who’s left? Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has been earning points as a solid governor; former Florida governor Jeb Bush, despite his protestations that he doesn’t want the job, can not be counted out; and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and New Jersey governor Chris Christie passed on the honour this time around. But four years from now they might have undergone a real rethink, when the temptation might loom much brighter.

Others being touted include Florida senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky senator (and Ron Paul son) Rand Paul, Ohio senator Rob Portman, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, Nevada governor Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico.

The challenge for most of these individuals is their relative lack of national exposure, and name recognition and lack of identifiable programmes or policies they have championed or been linked to in the media. It may well come down to which of these people ends up as Romney’s running mate as vice presidential candidate (or at least on the very short list). That could put them next in line as the party’s heir apparent.

At this very early point Marco Rubio is getting a lot of critical attention and his bio is being rushed into print for June this year, perhaps as part of an effort to build up the Rubio bubble. While Paul is still a newcomer, he is not as dogmatically libertarian as his father, and he could well inherit a lively campaign organisation his father has nurtured for years.

In considering candidates for either party, there may be two other factors to consider as well. The first is the effect the combined weight of all those returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will have on the next race for national office. Consider that after the American Civil War, only one Democrat was elected to the presidency until Woodrow Wilson managed to pull it off in 1912, and that was Grover Cleveland who won two close, non-continuous races against mediocre Republican opponents.

But, importantly, from Ulysses Grant until William McKinley, every one of these Republican candidates had served in the Civil War, save one. Theodore Roosevelt was too young to have fought, but he took the precaution of being a volunteer colonel in the brief Spanish-American War in order to gain a kind of symbolic warrior status.

Then, after World War ll, Dwight Eisenhower was a natural winning candidate in 1952, having served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Meanwhile, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford all served in junior officer capacities in the same war and each used military experience as a way of drawing attention to their leadership capabilities.

A key question mark is how this newest crop of veterans chooses to draw upon their experiences in these two most current wars. Will future candidates reach back to refer to their military service as a badge of honour, demanding recognition for their sacrifice, as Republicans did in the late 1800s or as the World War ll generation did? Or will they draw upon their experiences in the military as Max Cleland (the triple amputee army officer and former Georgia senator) or John Kerry did from their service in Vietnam? Kerry, in particular, first gained national attention as a protestor against the war. Later on, he tried to draw upon it as a mark of national service, although his experiences in war were fatally undercut by scurrilous attacks on his reputation that painted him as an inauthentic, dilettantish, rich-guy warrior undeserving of his medals.
The other complication for which there is obviously no answer yet is whether a new party eventually forms as a result of the bitter stalemate in national politics, coming either as an entirely new movement that repudiates elements of the traditional two parties, or evolves from a realignment of some of the more ill-fitting parts of the current alignment. The nascent “Americans Elect” Internet-based movement already seeks to identify a kind of non-partisan candidacy to get on the ballot this year in almost every state, to try to find a post-two-party candidate like Michael Bloomberg who can ride their horse to office.

While that is unlikely, to say the least, this time around, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that disgust with politics as usual – a failure by politicians to grab hold of the critical budgetary problems of funding Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements; and a recognition that some kind of new post-partisan approach needs to be tried to address international competitiveness - might fuel some pretty serious changes in the political landscape of the future.

After all, today’s two parties are not fundamental to the country’s structure. The Republicans evolved in the 1850s from the inability of the now-defunct Whig Party and the Democratic Party to address the national conflict over slavery. And the Democrats evolved earlier in response to the long-gone Federalists and their ideas about centralised governance. Political alignments do change,  even in America.

Regardless of who will eventually become the candidates in four years’ time, the one absolutely certain fact is that the jockeying for position will begin promptly on 7 November 2012, very early in the morning, just as soon as Wolf Blitzer and all his TV colleagues announce the winner and the new president of the United States of America. DM

Read more:

  • The 2016 Election, Already Upon Us in The New York Times.
  • Presidential Candidates: Rising Democrat Stars to Keep Your Eye On at the Daily Kos.
  • Welcome to the Sweet 2016 in the Washington Post.
  • Democratic Presidential Possibilities: 20 in 2016 in the Huffington Post.
  • Plouffe: Hillary Clinton 'Would Be a Very Strong Candidate' in 2016 in the National Journal.
  • Time to Elect the Worst Idea (Gail Collins’ column debunking Americans Elect) in The New York Times.
  • Lexington – The endless campaign – More-or-less permanent races may be good for America’s democracy in the Economist.

Photo: Audio-Video Specialist Doncarroll Green places the Presidential seal on to a podium prior to an event by U.S. President Barack Obama. REUTERS/Jim Young.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Politics

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