The media have a schizophrenic habit of deferring to politicians on the question of whether they’re running for president, while simultaneously covering their every move as if they are. It all depends on what your definition of "run" is. For us, if somebody is taking active steps toward a run, or allowing their supporters to take those steps, that counts as running, no matter what they say.
Take Rick Perry. The Texan was in Iowa this weekend, three years ahead of 2016, sitting down one-on-one with ABC News. That's running. And for campaign obsessives, who goes there and when is just as interesting as who doesn't. Earlier this year, Elizabeth Warren turned down an invite from Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin to speak at an event in his home state, looking to avoid the circus atmosphere that speaking there would spark.
The calendar also creates the spectacle of intra-party sniping, which is great for website traffic and cable ratings, but probably not much else. In the last few days, we've seen Hillary Clinton remind folks that she was a backer of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, while some other people, like, say, Joe Biden for example, were against it. She's just sayin'. And in the ABC interview with Perry, Jeff Zeleny practically begged Perry to call New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a moderate, and he sort of obliged.
For political reporters, the stretching of the campaign's time horizon means more time to fill, though not necessarily more good stories to write. "A Texas tussle could be on the 2016 horizon," Politico warns its readers in a lead story posted in November 2013. "Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry are both angling to run for president. And the prospect of a clash between the two Texas-sized egos who represent different eras of the GOP –- and who aren’t openly rivals but haven’t betrayed warm fuzzies for one another, either -– has tongues wagging."
Indeed, tongues will wag away from now until Election Day 2016 -- Nov. 8, 2016, for those of you keeping score at home -- and the media will be there to dutifully record all that wagging.
Today, as our contribution to the spectacle, we're re-launching a storied franchise, The Speculatron, led by Jason Linkins, where we will chronicle the comings and goings of the declared and undeclared presidential suitors and the media's fascination with them. We promise to do it with all of the tenacity they deserve, without losing sight of the fact that the election is, ahem, in 2016.
In the U.S., we know we’re going to have an election every two years, and a presidential election every four. And because of the separation of powers, parties are rarely able to implement the agenda they ran on, so it never gets fully tested. Bill Clinton, for instance, ran with universal health care as a major plank of his campaign. He was elected, but Congress blocked it from becoming law. So instead of running campaigns on policy, American candidates have focused instead on tearing down the character of the opponent. There was plenty to attack Andrew Jackson over, for instance, but the 1828 campaign -- the election that is said to have ushered in the modern political era -- was dominated by questions about his wife's sexual history. Whether by design or by accident, our system of electing a president on a schedule every four years has led to campaigns that are rarely about competing ideas.
The schedule also gets in the way of governing. The closer we get to an election, the less gets done on Capitol Hill. And the most-senior lawmakers are distracted by presidential ambition. In the runup to the banking and housing crisis of 2008, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs was literally living in Iowa, having moved his kids from Connecticut schools. Now that we’re only three years (!) from the next presidential election, congressional activity will slow to a crawl. It would take a constitutional convention, or one giant amendment, to fix this mess. Until then, we’re stuck with the system we have.
Odds are the 2016 election will come down to Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie, but that won’t stop dozens of pretenders and contenders from contemplating and carrying out runs. Just how much of a basket case is our system? Below are all the people who’ve been floated as serious or semi-serious presidential candidates who haven’t flat-out said they’re not running.
Welcome to 2016.