To a young me, the most interesting part of the Presidential races was the “weeding out” process. It’s kind of like watching American Idol ®: almost anyone can come to the auditions, but they are usually laughed at and ejected from the building (George W. Bush was the extreme exception.) The Constitution is fairly vague about who can be President, so nearly anyone with money and some name recognition can give it a whirl. That makes our democracy great – and makes the process amusing.
History is littered with Presidential wannabes, especially since the primaries began in earnest in 1960. Primaries mean anything can happen! Governors and Senators usually make the best candidates, but that’s not a requirement. Members of the House are free to try their hand, but always fail because a House seat doesn’t give you enough exposure to the national media. A House seat is a nice stepping stone to a Senate seat or a Governor’s mansion, but not to running the country (just ask Dick Gephardt and Ron Paul.)
In Texas Hold ‘Em ®, when dealt some great cards that can lead to one of the best possible hands, it is said that player has the “nuts” to a great combination. Becoming a President nominee is a lot like that. To be a competitive candidate for President of the United States, you need a few criteria to be working in your favor: money, credentials, educational background, name recognition, contacts, timing, a clear schedule (which helped give Jack Kennedy the 1960 Democratic nod over then Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson,) and intangibles. Intangibles are attributes like charisma, energy, speaking skills, a good staff, organizational skills, and political adeptness. Being telegenic really helps, as well. One need not possess all of these qualities, but it really does help; and, of course, having much of one can paper over not having so much of another.
Another, lesser noted factor is if you’ve tried before. This builds contacts, fund-raising networks, and name recognition (the importance of which cannot be understated – we are all far more likely to vote for a candidate with whom we are at least somewhat familiar.) Many eventual nominees succeeded only after having previously lost. Al Gore won in 2000 only after having failed in 1988; Bob Dole won in 1996 after having lost in 1980 and 1988; Reagan won in 1980 after losing in 1976 and having been a fringe candidate in 1968; and George H.W. Bush won in 1988 after having failed in 1980.
Another factor is age. Although the Constitution doesn’t specify what is “too old,” there is what I call a “soft age limit” (recently somewhat adjusted.) The “energy” factor comes into play here as older people have lower energy levels that do their younger counterparts and running for the Presidency is grueling. It takes two or so years of night and day activity to mount a successful campaign. This makes national-level politics a relatively young person’s game.
Anyone that does not currently occupy the White House who is much past seventy probably won’t win a major party nomination unless the choices are just not all that appealing. Ronald Reagan’s age caused a bit of a stir in 1980 as he was just about seventy; but Reagan was a very hardy seventy and didn’t look it. John McCain and Bob Dole were both seventy-two when nominated and neither man came particularly close.
A last factor that many candidates of late seem to ignore is what I call the “window” factor (named after a Space Shuttle’s launch window, which is the time frame for a successful launch. Once it’s gone, so are your chances of making it into space successfully.) There is a finite time period for politicians to make the jump to the big time. They are difficult to predict and once they’re over, so usually are the candidate’s chances. Many candidates wait until too long past their primes to run.
A great example of the window factor is former Sen. Bill Bradley. Bradley was a Princeton grad and an NBA Hall of Fame player. Nearly straight out of the NBA, he leveraged his contacts and name recognition into a seat in the U.S. Senate. He was a media darling and, while he was winning in landslides, was considered a contender for the biggest prize. But, thanks to Christie Todd Whitman and an auto tax issue (over which he, as a U.S. Senator, had zero power,) he had a close scrape in 1990 that left him gun shy and out of the wide-open 1992 nomination fight. Bradley retired from the Senate after 1996 and didn’t mount his only shot until 2000, when Al Gore was all but handed the crown.
The window factor is a phenomenon with which Mr. Gingrich is about to become intimately familiar. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m saying it is unlikely; and even if the candidate wins the nomination, they’re even more unlikely to be elected unless the other party simply pits a terrible nominee against them. There was a time and a place that Newt Gingrich might have had the gravitas to be considered a serious candidate; that time was 1996 and it’s gone!
Ronald Reagan was well past his prime in 1980, but he was running against Jimmy Carter in a terrible economy – so the voters gave him a pass and elected him anyway. Bob Dole circa 1996 was well past his expiration date, as well, and the people didn’t bite. Dole’s best shot was 1980 or even 1988 and he managed to be an also-ran both times. John McCain’s best chance would’ve been 2000, but he came up against a well-funded and organized George W. Bush and fell by the wayside.
The window factor is big reason why people who start and win statewide races while young have a better shot later. Al Gore, Jr. was twenty-eight when he was first elected to the House and was thirty-six upon going to the Senate. He was at just forty the first time he sought the Presidency and set himself up nicely for a near-miss (victory, really) at fifty-two. Bill Clinton was just thirty-two when he was elected Governor of Arkansas the first time and that set him up nicely to become President at just forty-six. President Obama was a bit older (forty-three) when he was elected to the Senate for the first time, but he’s the closest thing electoral politics has to Superman.
Lastly, the window factor is a big reason why I personally feel that Hillary Rodham Clinton will never be President of the United States. Mrs. Clinton was a relative late-comer to politics, as she was fifty-three when she was first elected to the Senate (this isn’t her fault since she was First Lady for the preceding eight years and couldn’t, in all conscience, run for anything.) Hillary had her shot in 2008, but ran up against the Obama juggernaut (and her own severe lack of charisma and retail political skills.) She’ll be approaching seventy years old by the time she gets ready to give it another go, and, Secretary of State or not, she probably won’t be anymore successful next time. This highlights why it is so difficult to become President: even if you have the skill set, can raise the money, are young enough with enough experience, and hit your window perfectly, there is still the competition. You have to be good and lucky! Hillary, unfortunately, was not and likely realized this, which is why she held on so long to her 2008 campaign. Props to Mrs. Clinton for realizing this, but 2016 will be a time for younger guns to give it their best.
I’ve already written on the GOP’s still growing stable of 2012 candidates. They are not impressive and there just isn’t that much in the pipeline. There are more current and former members of the House in it this time (there’s usually at least one that ignores reality and spends other people’s money in vain.) Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former House Speaker Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and Rep. Hunter Pence of Indiana (who recently all but ruled out a run) are all in the mix. Past that, we have the holdovers: twin former Governors and runner-ups from 2008 are Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Some other former Governors include Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Buddy Roemer of Louisiana. Strangely enough, no sitting members of the Senate seem to be interested, as the GOP’s best hope there is Sen. Jon Thune of South Dakota and he’s already ruled it out. As usual, the loser’s running mate is giving it a look: that would be former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.
Palin is a strange figure, as she may well have helped cost McCain the crown last time and resigned her Governorship of the nation’s least populous state midway through her first term. Beyond that, her rap sheet includes time as a small town mayor and a seat on the state pipeline commission. Mrs. Palin lacks any real qualifications outside of being attractive, fund-raising prowess, and the ability to give decent speeches as long as there is no question-and-answer period. Her disapproval ratings are in the sixty percent range (!!!) and she is better suited to a reality show than the White House.
Roemer is a blast from the past: a former one-term Governor, a party-switcher, and a man best remembered for having been lucky to have been elected in the first place. Gingrich is a serial adulterer who recently blamed his multiple affairs on his love for country (good luck selling that one, Newt.) As stated, Mr. Gingrich had a time and place and it’s where it belongs: in the history books. Although Gingrich is a brilliant man, he’ll be lucky if the GOP lets him speak at next year’s convention. Ron Paul is this year’s John Anderson and probably should bow out early and clear the airwaves for his prodigal son (and somehow now Senator from Tennessee,) Rand. Hunter Pence is fooling himself as, luckily for the rest of us, is Ms. Bachmann.
At this point, the battle for the GOP’s 2012 nod looks to be a contest between former Governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. Huckabee is a failed preacher whose only real virtue is a relatively scandal-free political and home life. “Huck” may play well with the tractor-as-a-motor-vehicle crowd, but the mainstream electorate will not be anointing the cum laude graduate of Ouchita Baptist University to run their lives unless President Obama is caught on camera committing bestiality.
Mr. Romney has problems, too, chief among them the fact that the evangelicals that will love Huckabee will cast a weary eye toward his religion (Mormonism.) Now, that isn’t fair, but neither is Presidential politics. Despite sterling academic credentials (Harvard undergrad and a joint Law Degree/MBA,) money (he’s worth around $200 million,) pedigree (his father was Governor of Michigan and Nixon’s Secretary of HUD,) Romney lacks any real political experience outside of his one term as Governor of a deep blue state (Massachusetts,) where his biggest accomplishment was signing into law (gasp) universal health care coverage.
The GOP field is still wide open and anyone could, and probably will, mount a bid. Pretty much anyone can give it a try. Heck, we live in a country where men like Howard Dean and Pete du Pont have gotten their dance cards punched! Even Alexander Haig, who never did hold an elected office, ran once. Why not? Who cares, it isn’t their money anyway!
In closing, the one person on the GOP side who bears close watching for the next year or so (but has tepidly ruled it out until the big wigs can talk him into it,) is none other than my least favorite former Governor of my home state of Florida, John E. “Jeb” Bush. His name recognition is off the charts; he’s also got nothing else to do. He’s said to be content planning for his son’s political future, but that could change tomorrow. The money would be there and who knows, maybe the electorate will forget exactly how stupid his brother is. Jeb is only fifty-eight and, although he lacks real academic credentials, so did Lyndon Johnson and he won in the greatest landslide ever in 1964. Bush is also still popular enough in Florida to all but guarantee himself the swing state and is much shrewder than either of the two former Presidents in his family, so he bears watching.