THE BLOG
09/29/2014 11:23 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

2016 Run for the Roses

Vesnaandjic via Getty Images

As autumn leaves begin to fall, the electoral countdown begins. Not just this year's but also the presidential contest in 2016 The tempo already has quickened as the could-be candidates skittishly begin to flex and caper in preparation for the big race: the run for the White House. This is a field day for the touts who are ever claiming the inside scoop about this one's strategy and that one's form. The smallest signs are seized upon as omens of what is to come.

It is all about appearance since there is little of substance except for the usual vapid sound bites. That in itself is not necessarily misleading since our elections do pivot on imagery and posturing rather than the candidates deliberate views on serious issues. The days when an exposition of public philosophy and concrete policy proposals captured the public attention are long gone. So it is not entirely pointless to take our bearings even though there are still 767 days until American voters go to the polls to choose the next occupant of the Oval Office.

So what can we divine from a scrutiny of the body politic's entrails as revealed to us at this early date? Most obvious are the indications that this will be another close election wherein party identity secures for each candidate a solid 45 percent of the vote or so. Results from the first polls confirm this surmise. The mock run-offs between Hillary Clinton and her array of possible rivals show only small variations from one Republican personality to another. As of now, at least 40 percent of likely voters would go for the GOP standard bearer no matter who he is (no women this time around). Forty-five percent or so of them opt for Hillary. Much of that difference may be due to the readiness of many women to make a firm pronouncement of their intentions on a gender basis. Then there is the enormous publicity that she has been given by the MSM as the celebrity personality of the season. Actually, the Hillary "phenomenon" peaked a number of months ago; she has been falling steadily in the polls both in her general favorability rating and in these mock elections. A reasonable inference is that when the campaign gets going in earnest, the two nominees will be about level.

This may seem surprising -- for a number of reasons. One is President Obama's declining personal popularity. The analytical error here is to presume an identity of person and party. Obama has been the least partisan president since George Washington. That has been intentional. His studied self-image is of a prophet and moral guide who transcends partisan bickering -- a sort of national pastor cum philosopher. He identified little with the Democratic Party, and gave minimal support to Democratic candidates in 2008, 2010 and 2012. The president whom he most admires is Ronald Reagan -- as proclaimed on a number of occasions.

This oddity of the politically androgynous Obama presidency also helps to explain to inability of the Democrats to benefit from the wide advantage they enjoy in public opinion insofar as policy preferences are much closer to their positions than to those of the Republicans. There are, of course, other factors contributing to this puzzling situation. The Democrats' utter ineptitude in branding and promotion, their milquetoast approach contrasted to the implacable aggression of the Republicans and their allies, the obfuscation of differences by the mainstream media, the betrayal by many liberal intellectual elites on issues other than abortion and gay rights -- all of these work in parallel with the abdication of leadership from the White House.

One could say that the Obama factor cuts both ways -- roughly speaking. Adverse attitudes toward him personally diminish support for Democratic candidates (presidential and otherwise); while the distance between him and the party spares them the full costs of his perceived policy and actual political failings.

Where does that leave the presidential candidates? Hillary, who undoubtedly will be the Democratic candidate, seems to have harbored hopes that she might sail into the White House as the country's consensual candidate. That is to say, as the person whom a reasonable majority see as best qualified to lead the country. Mature, experienced, a non-Obama, tougher on security issues than the incumbent, a living reminder of the "glory days" of the 1990s, as a woman next in line to make history -- in America and for America. That idea is proving an illusion. Her slippage in the polls belies the faith in her exceptional drawing power. Moreover, she cannot seem to decide whether the strategy is best served by reticence or by activism. So she remains silent about some big headline issues (Ferguson) but seeks the microphone to castigate Putin over Ukraine and to embroil herself in an acrid debate of what could or could not have been done in Syria in 2011 (but not about Iraq in 2014). This alternation leaves the impression of over-calculation and political maneuvering that undercuts the very image of the magisterial figure whose universal respect makes her a natural for the presidency. In the end, there will be no acclamation. Hillary will have to grind it out -- struggling toward the White House three yards and a cloud of dust at a time.

All the excitement and fun is on the Republican side. No front-runner, lots of bluster and the spectacle of the candidates trying to ride the Tea Party tiger. Some of those inching up to the starting gate would already have been relegated to the barn or pasture in past times. But in today's inchoate political world, there is no normal just as there are no limits.

Chris Christie is strutting around the paddock snorting loudly in the hope that voters, along with commentators, will ignore his recent scandals and continuing legal troubles. He is "testing the presidential waters" -- as we are told by endless newspaper columns. Christie surely is the first candidate to do so by practicing the dead man's float under the George Washington Bridge. Christie, inexplicably, benefits from the tacit support of the press -- especially The New York Times -- which barely covers his multiple scandals while featuring his campaign maneuverings. Last week it ran a several columns long story how his attempts to learn the rudiments of what's going on in the world. It was followed a few days later with an equally long account of his visit to Mexico where he was pronouncing on American energy potential. Then on Saturday, yet a third story was featured about Christie's meanderings south of the border. No other American's doings in Old Mexico has received such a spotlight of attention since "Black Jack" Pershing was chasing Pancho Villa around Chihuahua in 1916.

Christie's principle liability is that the movers and shakers of the old Republican Establishment have come to a tentative conclusion that Christie is a loser in the Presidential election itself. To nominate him would close off an historic opportunity to win the trifecta and seal their near control of American public life. However, there is a lot of maverick money out there that does not bow to Wall Street.

Paul Ryan, by contrast, has been relatively quiet. As the last vice-presidential candidate, as someone who enjoys a favorable -- if wholly unearned -- press as a "serious" man, as a bearer of the Tea Party Certificate of Approval, one might expect him to take the lead in the early going. It has yet to materialize. Another sober, number filled policy paper on how to deal with inequality recently was cast on the waters in an effort at once to garner headlines and to strengthen his reputation as the thinking man's Tea Partier. The arithmetic didn't add up, and the effects of his proposals would have been regressive if implemented but neither seems much of a liability in the eyes of the Far Right or an intellectually laissez-faire commentariat.

That brings us to Texas -- where never is heard a discouraging word, even for sure losers. Governor Rick Perry is chomping at the bit -- undeterred by his humiliation in the last stakes race or his indictment by a grand jury for his abuse of official power and coercion. Predictably, Perry has responded by firing shotgun blasts at all enemies real or imagined. They include the special prosecutor (Republican, appointed by a Republican judge), all Democrats, and President Obama whose allegedly lax border control policies are somehow supposedly related to his persecution. This being Texas, more attention is being given to his enraged grievances than to the charges.
Normally, one might expect the media (and political opponents) to connect a felony indictment to a 14-year pattern of abusing his powers (even if not criminal) in cronyism, conflict of interest appointments, non-feasance of mandated duties, endless scandals related to violations by state regulated institutions, etc. Nary a word. Even the national MSM have gone along with this strategy. The august New York Times itself quickly came to his defense in an editorial that pronounced him innocent of any criminal wrong-doing and castigating an overzealous prosecutor. To anyone who has observed Texas governance since 2001, casting Perry as the innocent victim of a Republican prosecutor is as outlandish as it gets.

The serious Texas candidate is Ted Cruz. He is ever in the headlines -- ever ready with a nasty crack about Obama and the Democrats, relishing the outrageous, reaching instinctively and genuinely as Far Right as possible. He also is indefatigable. All of this makes him a darling of the Tea Party and all those on the Right who like their meat raw. Those passions are so powerful and widespread that they may not be offset by sober reasoning which concludes that he cannot win a presidential election.

Here is where two features of the current political culture come into play. One is the complete absence of restraint. All kinds of atavistic emotions are provoked by a host of agitators among the media and the religious right. They are not counteracted by supposedly more responsible elements. So many voters no longer differentiate between the qualifications of persons running for high office and the friend whose vulgar dinette table insults of your enemies most tickle your prejudices.

The other wild card is the aforementioned political incompetence of the Democrats. They act and run scared -- even when confronted by crackpots whose positions are out of synch with the majority of voters. This timidity not only removes a possible check on the Far Right; but it also encourages Republican demagogues to press as hard as they can and to nurture the hope of winning the White House as they already have won Congress and the state houses.

There are other aspiring horses in the Republican stable. Marc Rubio of Florida, also a Tea Party prodigy, is the sentimental favorite of many. The telegenic Rubio is a sort of Ted Cruz with dimples. Whether that will prove a liability among the hard Far Righters and/or make him more palatable to a wider range of voters will be answered in the early primaries.

Rand Paul is the joker in the Republican deck. He is unpredictable and uncontrollable. That gives the party's powers-that-be fits. While his mix of libertarianism and Tea Party fervor makes him attractive to many of the rank and file, the prospect of a Republican candidate who truly opposes foreign military interventions and is serious about curbing NSA abuses is troubling. For it risks undermining the party's strenuous promotion of itself as the tough guys who can be counted on to keep America safe. (Paul has changed his tune on bombing ISIS once opinion polls showed 82 percent of Americans in favor of it; the surest sign that he will run). Similarly, Paul's shots at the Federal Reserve from the vantage point of a confirmed economic populist greatly irritate the financial barons who want to keep grievances fixed on "big government" rather than "big business."

Finally, Jeb Bush -- the Dark Horse. In the old days, he is the type of candidate who might very well emerge from a smoke filled room at a deadlocked convention. These days, there are no such rooms and no deadlocked conventions. Primaries, the end of "favorite son" candidates, and the popular psychology whereby someone becomes the fashion of the season militate against them. Is there a chance that he might win through the primaries? The guy in the bright checkered sports jacket says "yes"; and he also touted George W. Bush in 2000.

Conventional approaches to preparing a form sheet for the Republican race have built-in limitations. For the primary determinant of who will be garlanded depends not on what the candidates do or say. Rather, it is how they say it that really counts. The people who vote in the primaries are looking for emotional gratification. The closest analogy is a devout evangelical congregation who go to church in order to witness for Jesus. When they look for a pastor, they want above all less someone who moves them -- a fire-and-brimstone spellbinder. The visits and debates among Republican aspirants is equivalent to tryouts for that position. Whomever the flock feels can touch and give vent to their passions will get the job.

Perhaps the greatest peculiarity of the 2016 presidential election is that both parties are likely to nominate candidates who are eminently beatable. Whoever emerges from the Republican maelstrom would be crushed by a Democrat of conviction, who ran as a true Democrat and eagerly grabbed the saw to cut off the extreme limb that the Tea Party Republicans have crawled out on. Equally, a sane, politically astute Republican of demonstrated competence could overcome a tired, tiresome and compromised Hillary. Don't count on either happening.