The decathlon that is an American presidential campaign already has seen its first events. In this early phase, the hopefuls engage in the preliminaries: consulting the oracles, cozying up to deep pocket benefactors, floating various trial balloons, sounding out possible political consultants and operatives with dubious credentials, popping up on television shows in appropriate dark suits and other Executive Office props, and doing a bit of soul-searching -- to honor a process of measuring unlimited ambition against the aggregate costs of investing a few years of one's life in what likely will be a lost cause. This testing-of-the-wind only rarely includes any in-depth consideration of issues.
What's the state of play? A few things are obvious. All the action is on the Republican side. There, Tea Party ideas, Tea Party passions and Tea Party aspirants predominate. The skewing of the nation's political discourse toward the Far Right continues. The money gets spread around fairly widely but that is largely due to the Democrats' abdication of any commitment to a liberal agenda other than on issues of race and women's rights. That money is flowing in full spate thanks to the Supreme Court. It becomes all the more important since what a candidate actually says is eclipsed by how a candidate says it, with what frequency, illustrated by what imagery on the screen.
The sub-text to the many splendored free-for-all that is the Republican contest is the apprehension among the party's business wing about the runaway Tea Party elements whose antics offer the Democrats their only hope of avoiding relegation to subordinate status in national politics as predetermined by their own defeatism. In other words, the conservative program of Wall Street and the upper crust generally has won the war -- of ideas and imagery -- on every front that counts, even if by the default of a toothless opponent. On every matter of consequence -- the role of government in regulation and social policies, the distribution of wealth, and the service provided to the business community where and when needed -- they rule the roost. The only open question is whether they can win the White House and a Senate majority which would permit them to institutionalize fully the plutocracy's power. The Obama presidency's adoption of the key elements in their philosophy has neutered liberalism as a force in American politics. Now, the challenge is to exploit this historic opportunity so as to seal their dominance completely and permanently.
Tea Party extremism is what stands in their way. Metaphors of riding tigers and untamed bucking broncos are apt. In more conventional terms, the fanatical shock troops have seized command. Chris Christie was their great white hope. A blue-state electoral success, a blue collar pugnacious style, an uncanny talent for pulling the wool over the eyes of the media - and, above all, an arch devotee of market fundamentalist economics and austerity budgets - Christie was already as deep in their pocket as one can get. His only liability was a less than pure record on the so-called "social issues," on abortion in particular, that lie at the emotional heart of the Tea Party movement that exercises a veto on the Republican nomination. Still, some backtracking well lubricated by unlimited funding and a sympathetic media looked sufficient to top whatever hard-right champion the heartland fanatics would mount and to gain their eventual acquiescence.
That plan is now a dead letter for all practical intents and purposes - even if the official burial has yet to be scheduled. Christie is "living with the fishes," politically speaking. Yes, he is still making gurgling noises from below the surface, but no salvage operation has much of a chance of overcoming the shattering of the Christie mystique by his troubled bridge over the waters of the Hudson and associated sleazy matters. The New Jersey governor pretends to be ambulatory, but that bravura is discredited by his sodden look. The money flow has been dammed awaiting a decision as to whose pockets it should be diverted into. A few apparently are reluctant to drop the curtain - whether out of loyalty to their creation or a weakness for fantasizing over personal favorites. Eyes are now turned to Jeb Bush - W.'s elder brother, former Governor of Florida, retiree, and certifiably sane. Jeb is being strongly pressured to throw his family hat into the rink by the same crowd who fashioned his brother into a winning candidate -- supplemented by the movers and shakers of 'Wall Street" who dread the alternatives.
Jeb Bush would be a relatively simple sell: conservative with a small 'c,' heir to the crown, well-spoken, and endowed with a sedative manner. He is not wildly popular, though, even in Florida where voters had wearied of him by the end of his term and he has something of a shop-worn look to him. In addition, the Bush name could be a drawback for those whose memories of pointless wars sold with lies and of a financial crash have not yet completely faded. In truth, nobody has a confident idea of how he might fare either in the primaries or in a general election were he nominated. Is Jeb Bush real or just a ghost rider in the establishment Republicans' sky?
There are no other viable alternatives attractive to the old Republican establishment. We should bear in mind, though, that the core reality of American presidential politics these days is that anything can happen - as witness Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and 2012's menagerie of candidates. Anyone may be tempted by the hope that the stardust which lighted Obama's path to the White House will descend on them; anyone may realize that impossible dream.
The question marks trailed by a prospective Jeb Bush candidacy naturally focus attention on Paul Ryan. The Republican Vice-Presidential running mate to Mitt Romney, Ryan has impeccable Tea Party credentials. On fiscal issues and in his denunciation of spending on social programs (including Social Security and Medicare which are his special targets) he warms the hearts of Wall Street Republicans. In addition, his conduct as a national candidate was respectable in form and gave him a certain stature in the country. The perceived drawback is that Ryan is a creature of the "populist" wing of the party; he is not one of the establishment. That is a matter of specific concern in regard to monetary policy. Some doubts exist as to whether he could be counted on to continue the practice of the Federal Reserve Bank serving as the financial community's piggy bank. That is no small matter in the light of what has transpired since 2007.
Attitudes toward Ryan among the conventional Republican establishment will turn on how Jeb Bush fares. Were he to gain momentum, there would be little inclination to move toward Ryan. On the other hand, were Bush to fall flat, Ryan becomes a viable option - indeed, perhaps the only option. Then we could expect to see a comprehensive campaign to coopt him - wining and dinner the next in line, literally and figuratively.
The Tea Party will not readily swallow Jeb Bush. There would be a bitter primary battle. Ryan certainly will be in the center of the mix. Two of the other self-styled knights errant will be Texans. Outgoing Texas Governor Rick Perry reportedly is gathering enough local money to give it another shot. Whether this improbable effort is motivated by a desire to restore some measure of credibility after his embarrassing melt down last time or a dearth of other pastimes is not clear. In any event, a Perry campaign would be a short-lived one, even if he has remembered the name of the third federal government department he intends to abolish. He also will add some flammable material to what surely will be a fiery Republican contest, e.g. his voiced view that the botched execution in Oklahoma may have met humane standards. In the same breath, he boasts of Texas' exceptionally "efficient" system. Perry habitually neglects to mention that 164 Texans convicted of murder have been exonerated - a few posthumously.
The real firebrand is freshman Senator Ted Cruz, a fellow Texan. Cruz spits fire and brimstone when he opens his mouth. His stated, and genuine goal, is a political and governmental revolution that will reshape the United States according to the specifications of a nativist and Christian dogma whose roots are in 19th century frontier America. He recognizes no boundaries, verbal or political, in his crusade. Cruz's popularity in Texas and adjacent states of the Bible Belt are a testament to the Tea Party success in overwhelming the traditional Republican establishment by appeals to all manner of atavisms, tapping into the fears and discontents of contemporary America. However extreme, Cruz will not lack for money. Maverick money bags like the Koch brothers see in him their ticket to national power and, perhaps, Salvation when the anticipated Apocalypse descends upon us.
Wall Street and their allies don't worry about their fate in the Apocalypse. They worry about certain defeat in the run for the White House were Cruz nominated. Cruz is no dummy - having graduated from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. He does claim that most of his professors there were "communists."
Then there is Senator Marco Rubio of Florida - also swept into office in 2010. Rubio figures among the Tea Party new wave of fresh faces and brash spirits. Although his Washington experience totals only the three years since his election to the Senate, he already has spoken of possible presidential ambitions. His standing among the faithful was somewhat dented, though, by his sympathetic approach to immigration reform this session which brought him close to the White House line. (Rubio and Cruz are both of Cuban ancestry). He now must make amends for that misstep. He took his first step in that direction last week by vociferously joining the global warming deniers. Rubio is more telegenic than Ryan or Cruz. To run in 2016, though, probably means relinquishing his Senate seat. Trading Washington for Tallahassee is not easy - even for someone with a doctrinaire aversion to the federal government, especially since his hometown of Miami may be under water before too long.
That brings us to Rand Paul - also a freshman Senator (Tennessee) - who won in 2010 as a Tea Party favorite. Paul is a genuine Libertarian in the mold of his father and putative presidential candidate, Ron Paul. That means principled opposition to government taxes, most government programs, and government regulation. It also means a genuine attachment to civil liberties. Indeed, Paul has been the outstanding challenger to the spying activities of the NSA and CIA. In this, he has eclipsed every Democrat in the chamber - the latter ever fearful of being tarred as soft on Terrorism. That is a divisive position among Tea Partiers who are split between libertarians and autocrats like Cruz. Paul has further blemished his image by criticizing Ronald Reagan for having tolerated budget deficits, tax increase and an expansion of the federal government payroll. For Republicans, that is a blasphemy as great as a denunciation of Jesus Christ as a closet Sadducee. Even more troubling for the Establishment types is this stunning evidence that Paul suffers from a serious cynicism deficit - he seems prone to think for himself.
Those fears were intensified last week when Paul took exception to the Republicans' nationwide campaign to use photo IDs as a device to cut down the number of minority (and poor white) voters. Paul objected both on the grounds that it carried a racist message and its implicit infringement on the right to suffrage. This will cost him among Tea Partiers and rabid party partisans while embarrassing the national party.
That brings us to the placid waters of the Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton will be the nominee without serious opposition. She is being coy as to whether she will run -- but that is all an act designed to ward off questioning of her views about troubling issues of the moment about whish she prefers to say nothing. HRC's eye has been fixed on the Oval Office since her husband first occupied it - if not earlier. It is her abiding, all-consuming ambition. As one Dupont Circle skeptic with an ear for old blues lyrics has remarked: when Hillary imagines the White House, she looks like "a one-eyed cat peeking in a seafood store." In addition, she has been pressed by Bill who is consumed by a passion to spend his golden years lodged in his old stomping grounds.
Hillary is encouraged to grab for the gold ring by a celebrity status that is rekindled by pop star treatment. In the past, a politician who has spent decades on the public stage with links to the White House of one sort or another acquires a certain staleness. Hillary suffers from none of this shop-worn look. That is due, in part, to the times having changed. Politicos live longer and stay in better shape. Robert Dole first broke the tradition when at age 73 he ran for president in 1996 against Bill -- a full twenty years after being Jerry Ford's running mate in the losing campaign against Jimmy Carter. That second run for the roses became a segue into a semi-retirement highlighted by his appearance as a TV pitchman for Viagra. Hillary's mold breaking at 67 is of a different order; it is her gender rather than any association with ageism, much less Viagra, that she cultivates.
HRC might have expected that Joe Biden would be her rival. It is natural for a Vice-President to seek to succeed the incumbent. Moreover, Biden has been aiming at the White House since 1988 when he made his first try for the Democratic nomination. So far, he has been laying low. That is surprising. One reason may be the lack of encouragement from Barack Obama. The President over the past five years has done nothing to boost the electoral prospects of his Number 2. Indeed, his body language strongly suggests his backing Hillary. When she stepped down as Secretary of State, Obama organized a series of high profile public events to mark the occasion -- punctuated with effusive rhetoric. It was as close to a Roman Triumph as a sitting President can provide. All it lacked was gladiatorial games on the Washington Mall. Just what earned ceremonies worthy of a Pompeii or Caesar was not obvious. The political effect was. The Obama-Clinton relationship is a baffling one. He owes the Clintons nothing. There does seem something about her, though, that spooks him, just as there is something about him that spooked Hillary in 2008.
Joe Biden's fires of ambition may simply have cooled. There are reports from Washington that he has taken to wandering Blair House at night humming "As Time Goes By." If we hear issuing from the Vice-Presidential residence strands of Renee Fleming singing "The Last Rose of Summer," we will know that Biden has dropped the curtain on a long career. He is 72.
More hard-headed commentators suggest that Biden is inhibited by the feeling that Hillary and he are oriented toward the same constituencies of primary voters, and that therefore he would have few openings to exploit. There are reasons to question this logic, whether or not Biden is actually thinking along those lines. After all, there were no noticeable differences on the issues between Hillary and Obama in 2008. Democratic primary contests these days are all about personality and confected images. It may simply be that Biden believes that he cannot effectively pit the "experience" theme against Hillary's celebrity, money, and claim on those who find her persona as a "wronged woman" irresistible. In this respect, Monica Lewinsky's sudden reemergence from the shadows is a godsend.
There are no other serious aspirants among Democratic Senators and Governors. They are a dreary lot with little conviction who all follow the same defensive, ultra-cautious script. Mario Cuomo of New York surely has an interest; he clearly, though, has decided not to tackle Hillary. His self-transformation into corporate/austerity Democrat has drained him of the bite and reformist zeal his father displayed a generation ago. At this point, Cuomo is just another lapsed ex-liberal Democrat. His tenure as New York governor has seen a steady move toward a pro-business, conservative direction. In March he summarily disbanded a much ballyhooed (and much needed) anti-corruption commission - an action so questionable as to elicit an investigation by the Federal District Attorney in Manhattan. Cuomo has one additional liability: his deeply creased face and saturnine look that bears a resemblance to the portraits of a Venetian Doge plotting the next battle with the Saracens. It could serve him well were he called upon to preside over some deeply mournful national event, but is mismatched to the easy banalities that are standard fare on the presidential electoral circuit.
Money is not Cuomo's problem. When the financial crisis broke in 2008, he was Attorney General of New York State. He put on a good show of confronting the sins of Wall Street albeit with no results to show for it. Then, a short while before he announced his candidacy for governor, he publicly declared that investigations of financial misdeeds had reached their natural end. Cuomo, therefore, had no problem filling his campaign coffers from the same sources that have slaked the thirst of the Clintons or Obama, twice. That is why, when it comes down to it, the financial barons may be more comfortable with a tame Democrat in the White House than with a maverick like Rand Paul or a loose cannon like Cruz.
A serious challenge to HRC could only come from the liberal wing of the party. It is they who have been relegated to the margins of national policy-making. It is their ideals, and constituents, who have been abandoned by the two Clintons and Obama. The old New Deal coalition still represents at least half of the party voters - despite their disparagement in the media. A disenfranchised bloc of that size normally would inspire a few ambitious or principled souls to hoist their banner. That none has is a commentary on the extraordinary state of politics in America today. At the moment, there is only the red sail in the sunset and nothing much beckoning on the dawn horizon.
There is one name who could fill the bill: Elizabeth Warren. She has passion, she has guts, she is intelligent and she actually feels for the "common man." Warren also has shown that she can raise money (from non-corporate sources)- as she already has done for other liberal candidates. Those attributes, and the fact that she is a woman whose brains more than match Hillary's, scares HRC. Above all, she has that one alien trait which terrorizes Clinton and Obama - honest conviction. The latter thanks her lucky stars that the Massachusetts Senator is so junior, and a novice at national politics. Warren understandably shies from taking the brave plunge - although she is no fan of Hillary. American presidential politics is a brawl; Elizabeth Warren may be too decent and honest a person to contemplate entering the fray - at least until her skin toughens.