I’m old. I’ve lived through a lot of presidential elections. I’ve even campaigned in a few of them—beginning in 1980 when, as a high-school student, I helped independent candidate John Anderson kick the shins of the mighty two-party system of American politics. So you may dismiss my opinions as jaded cynicism if you’re new to politics, and God bless if you do. We need your enthusiasm to keep democracy from being completely smothered by the handful of people who fund campaigns in the United States.
But experience prevents me from saying that "anything can happen" in the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, Jeb Bush is the strong favorite for the Republican nomination, and there is no realistic chance of a third-party candidate becoming a factor next November.
Some recent news items suggest a more rollicking campaign. On Sunday, the Boston Globe ran an editorial and three columns urging Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination. “She should not shrink from the chance to set the course for the Democratic Party or cede that task to Hillary Clinton without a fight,” write the editorial board, conspicuously holding back any promise to endorse the upstart if she actually became a serious threat to Clinton. On Monday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz became the first to announce he’s running for the Republican nomination, sparking speculation, probably for only a brief time, that the Tea Party faction can finally wrest the party’s top prize from the establishment. (According to the Houston Chronicle, “the key to victory, Cruz advisers believe, is to be the second choice of enough voters in the party’s libertarian and social conservative wings to cobble together a coalition to defeat the chosen candidate of the Republican establishment.”) And the Washington Post reported last week on Change the Rule, a “group of political elders” urging the inclusion of non-major-party candidates in next year’s presidential debates.
These are all developments with the potential to shake things up, an antidote to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s Eeyore-ish essay in The Week, “Why a Clinton-Bush Presidential Race Fills Me with Nothing but Despair.” (“The great dread cloud gathers beneath our feet. We should resign ourselves now to the fact that we deserved this for not stopping them a long, long time ago.”) But I can’t expect the unexpected.
Hillary Clinton’s grip on the nomination is as firm as ever. She barely lost in 2008, and I see no evidence that she’s shed any supporters since then. Warren unnerves Wall Street too much to get the nod, and I doubt she’s interested in running just to give Clinton some debate practice. And there is tremendous pressure to nominate a woman after the Democrats went with its first African-American nominee, so I don’t take Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb or Bernie Sanders as serious alternatives.
Upon announcing a couple of weeks ago that she won’t seek another term in the U.S. Senate, Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski reflected on the progress of women in American politics and said, “Now we're going to go for the big enchilada, which is Hillary.” And last month, Sen. Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, dismissed the idea that Clinton’s time has passed: “If she is yesterday’s news, I must have missed that moment in history where we could say ‘Madam President.’” The Democratic Party elite is not interested in seeing how much fury they can engender by choosing someone else.
Writing as part of the Boston Globe’s “we want a home-state candidate to cover” effort, Robert Kuttner claims, “Since 1968, every early front-runner—save Al Gore in 2000—was either denied the nomination or badly bruised.” But there’s a huge difference between these two things, and Clinton in 2008 stands as the only clear front-runner to actually lose a nomination bid, by the narrowest of margins. The man who beat her, Obama, was hardly an insurgent; Senate majority leader Harry Reid encouraged him to run, and Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry endorsed him before the “Super Tuesday” primaries, snubbing Clinton even after her surprise win in the New Hampshire primary.
In 2008, many in the Democratic establishment saw Obama as less of a partisan figure, and thus more electable, than Hillary Clinton. They were vindicated when Obama won in November, but as we now know, his election did nothing to slow down the polarization of American politics or save our possibly “doomed” form of government. Electability is not a factor for the Democrats in 2016, since any nominee will represent a third Obama term to voters in November. As much as political reporters would love a fight for the nomination, the party establishment has no interest in letting that happen.
The only slightly wobblier case for Jeb Bush
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush does not have a lock on the Republican nomination, but age and experience prevents me from betting against the guy with the easiest time raising money—or against the Bush family in general. The consensus is that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is now his strongest challenger, but 538.com Harry Enten has his doubts: “I’m not sure if he has what it takes to run a national campaign. I mean, you’ve seen these types of things where he makes foreign policy statements that make you go ‘huh’.”
Chief among those “huh” statements is this bit from his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, when he seemed to equate terrorism with the opposition to his anti-labor-union policies in Wisconsin: “I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil…. If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”
That statement may be forgotten by next year’s primaries, if the Bush campaign doesn’t put it in a campaign commercial or remind political reporters of it at every opportunity (off the record, of course). Bush, on the other hand, can survive just about any misstatement or infelicitous language on foreign policy by hauling out someone who worked in his father’s or his brother’s administration to assure reporters that there is actually much truth and wisdom in what the candidate said.
Walker also got some bad press for dumping a campaign staffer who had, before she was hired, was critical of the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses in Iowa. (“The sooner we remove Iowa’s frontrunning status, the better off American politics and policy will be” was one of Liz Mair’s tweets.) “Walker’s rapid capitulation” to Iowa GOP leaders “undermines his entire rationale for being a candidate,” fumed The American Conservative’s Jonathan Coppage.
Others felt that Walker had no choice, since the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are the only opportunities to break out of the pack and challenge a frontrunner for a presidential nominee. But frontrunners are always given every chance to bounce back from an early loss. In 2000, John McCain seemed to upend the race for the GOP nomination when he beat George W. Bush in New Hampshire. But the Bush campaign successfully planted the idea that McCain would have to win the South Carolina primary for his campaign to remain viable—even though South Carolina was among the states least likely to support McCain, given that the senator was attacking Bush from the left and saying that the evangelical right had too much influence in the party. (The press accepted the malarkey that McCain should have been strong in South Carolina because a lot of military veterans lived there.) McCain’s predictable loss in South Carolina was spun as a defeat from which he could not recover, even with more than 40 contests to go.
The Bush campaign is surely counting on an early loss somewhere and is already making precise plans on where it will recover; for example, last week Florida adopted a winner-take-all system for its early primary, making it more likely that Bush (or, less likely, Marco Rubio) will achieve a commanding lead in convention delegates a few weeks into the race. It’s still possible that Bush will be such a terrible candidate that he fumbles the nomination, but when you can get the rules rewritten on your behalf, you can survive a lot of bad headlines early in the game.
Finally, there’s the ever-present dream of a third candidate who can defy the major parties and beat both nominees (or, at least, “set the agenda”) in the fall 2016 campaign. BloombergView’s Jonathan Bernstein knocks down this scenario (“It’s Not Time for a Third-Party Candidate”), pointing out that such candidates have prospered only when one party is saddled with an unpopular president, such as George H.W. Bush in 1992: “Unpopular incumbents seeking re-election put their party’s weak partisans in a tricky situation. They don’t like their party’s candidate very much, but they aren’t eager to defect to the other party. An independent candidacy cures the dilemma.” This will not be the case in 2016; polls indicate that very few Democratic-leaning voters are disappointed with the Obama administration. The number of voters who are truly independent and dislike both major parties equally is vanishingly small, setting the cap on votes for minor parties at about 3 percent.
If all of this debunking strikes you as too cynical, look further down the ballot for surprises and upsets in 2016. Mavericks and iconoclasts like Warren have captured Senate seats for the Democrats, and the Tea Party–inspired group of “citizen legislators” has changed the policies and priorities of the Republican Party. For an exciting 2016, look away from the glittering presidency and watch what’s happening in races where youthful activists can make more of a difference.