Too Early a Start for 2016?

By Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

(Originally posted April 10, 2013) There’s nothing quite like starting early. Two and a half weeks ago—while vacationing and visiting friends in Florida—I was literally relieved that there wasn’t much to talk about in presidential politics these days.

My vacation from political chat was short-lived, for apparently Americans love our sequels.

In the business of Hollywood, the franchise gets mixed reviews. The Godfather Part Two exceeded original in quality and caliber, only for the third installment to land face-first in the mud. Later, the tread wore out completely on the Rocky and Rambo series. Still, all things James Bond remain enduring and fresh. And now, thanks largely to digital special effects and dazzling technology, we can extend almost any film franchise into an eternal future—Batman, The Matrix, Predator, Indiana Jones, and anything involving vampires, zombies, time-travelers and aliens (sometimes all four at the same time) can each become never-ending stories, with prequels, sequels and spinoffs galore.

But in politics, the sequel is a dicey affair. Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson had a famous rematch in 1956. The sequel did not produce noticeably better results for Stevenson. Richard Nixon battled, and lost to, John F. Kennedy in a famous squeaker in 1960, only to face the distinct possibility of running against his younger brother Robert Kennedy eight years later. Then, there is the “BCD” phenomena: Americans born after 1957—those who reached voting age by 1976—have never known a presidential election that did not include the name of a Bush, a Clinton or a Dole somewhere on the ticket, at least not until they voted in 2008.  Now, it seems, history could repeat itself. 

Over the last 14 days, two contemporary political dynasties have been maneuvering carefully, each side attempting to manage the media speculation which has already and improbably—some would say predictably—reached the boiling point. 2016 now seems not merely on the horizon, but looming like a Christmas Sale in June, and the names of Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have been so frequently mentioned and thoroughly discussed that you would think the start of the primaries and caucuses was only weeks away.

Speculation about Clinton reached a fever pitch over the weekend, spurred by a variety of factors, including: two major foreign policy and economics speeches by the former Secretary of State; notably loud encouragement by her husband Bill Clinton; and James Carville’s widely-reported announcement that he was going to work full time on her already busy political action committee. Clinton was at the center of the weekend news shows and Sunday morning roundtable chatter, and those close to her kept the rumors and discussions active well into this week.

Her legions of liberal and progressive followers filled Facebook and Twitter with pronouncements of their support and bold predictions that Clinton would crush any Republican who rises to meet the challenge. And some of her most active supporters suggest that her recent high-dollar book deal is a prelude to developing a full-scale marketing plan for a presidential bid.

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush, Florida’s popular former governor, remained cautious but seemingly undaunted—even in the wide and powerful wake of Clinton’s media attention—Bush alternated between cryptic suggestions that it was “too early” to say, and his steady stream of carefully-crafted hints that he had already begun the heavy-lifting and background work of a presidential contender. It may have been the first time in many months—perhaps since the conventions last summer, and certainly since Hurricane Sandy—that the press discussions of Bush have outweighed the seemingly constant attention paid to New Jersey governor Chris Christie, also considered a first-tier contender for the GOP.  Bush, too, is hawking his new book on immigration reform, a subject--like education--which is near to his heart, and a matter he feels has driven some Republicans to alienate significant swathes of the electorate.

A few recent, well-publicized polls have indicated an early lead by Clinton over her potential Republican rivals, including Bush, Christie, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul—the three most oft-cited GOP front-runners. The younger Paul may inherit the large shoes of his father, Republican iconoclast and libertarian, Congressman Ron Paul--the start of another family succession.  Paul was gaining a lot of media attention lately, but his bluegrass colleague Mitch McConnell and staff--in private strategy meetings--were secretly recorded using harsh adjectives to describe potential senate candidate Ashley Judd, thereby drawing the journalistic spotlight away, albeit perhaps only briefly.

In addition, Vice-President Joe Biden’s name has been floated as a potential contender for 2016, giving Clinton her first theoretical rival for Democrats engaged in early comparison-shopping. Biden’s son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, recently told the New York Times that his father has not ruled-out another run for The White House. Biden ran in the 2007/2008 cycle but dropped out after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.

So the dynastic franchise, large or small, lives on, with (predictably) even Chelsea Clinton hinting at her own possible political future, and setting the stage in our most grandiose and fanciful dreams of a day in the distant future when the daughter of Bill and Hillary steps out onto the national stage to face a grandchild or great-grandchild of George Herbert Walker Bush. But that’s way off in the future—and why would we waste time on that topic.

Officially, Hillary Clinton is coy, saying that she is not immediately interested in running for the job. But her supporters are many, and they are engaged and vocal about her chances. But by dodging a direct answer—yes, I will run; or no, I will not seek the presidency—she retains the high ground within her party, discouraging rivals, flushing out potential insurrectionists and vetting any naysayers. Biden may be the only Democrat with the political capital to even remotely consider stepping into the same boxing ring with the former Secretary of State.

Republicans, still cleansing cuts and treating their wounds, and still engaged in the arduous task of a party make-over, are faced with a similar conundrum—step into the fray early and invite incoming fire, or sit and wait patiently to see if anyone challenges the assumption of Clinton as front-runner-by-default. Either way, Hillary Clinton remains the tallest candidate from among all contenders, of both parties.

We’ve experienced this condition before in contemporary times—a well-known and oft-discussed political icon or superstar is widely discussed as presidential timber, in some cases, their name rising swiftly on the good fortune of endless media conversation. The results are not always rewarding for the prospective candidate. Talk of Bobby Kennedy’s challenge to Lyndon Johnson in 1968 reached a feverish pitch, but RFK waited perilously late. Only after anti-war candidate and Democratic insurgent Eugene McCarthy pulled in surprising numbers in New Hampshire did Kennedy finally make his announcement official, and the result was resentment among some progressives and liberals for RFK having deferred the hard work of trail-blazing to McCarthy.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was Mario Cuomo who inspired many on the left—but his inscrutable game-playing and interminable soul-searching eventually caused most of his followers to drift away in search of other charismatic progressives. He played the role of the Great Tease too long, and by mid-1992 Bill Clinton had captured all the high ground of Democratic real estate.

In the long run-up to the election of 1996, one thing consumed reporters and inflamed the passions of the Republican rank and file more than anything else: whether General Colin Powell—Gulf War hero and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—would run for President. His long wait and cryptic silence held the GOP field in check, and probably served to discourage some potential candidates from setting their machines into motion.  Powell would eventually announce his intention to not run, leaving the GOP field weaker for his absence.

Clearly, Hillary Clinton has time. The process works very much to her advantage this time around. Having largely overcome the demons of her GOP adversaries and having moved past the bitterness of her battles with Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008, she has nothing to prove to anyone.   Clinton can promote her upcoming book, continue her speaking tour, sharpen her message and voice—and for the most part a willing and compliant media will do the heavy-lifting.   Many Democrats will remain within her gravitational field for the simple reason that she looks like a sure winner in 2016.  Why wander off in search of the next John Lindsay, the next Bruce Babbitt, or the next Tom Harkin?

In the meantime, reporters and analysts bored or hungry or both, will continue the never-ending game of speculation. Why not? The election is only three and a half years away.