The 2016 election campaigns commence as soon as the dust settles from this year’s midterm elections. We’re going to elect a new president, so the question is: Will we lurch rightward, stay more or less on Barack Obama’s centrist course, or somehow tug ourselves a bit left of center for the first time in almost 50 years?
Polls won’t tell you much about that, on the surface. The polls have it today that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination in a walk, the Republicans will nominate a raving right-winger, and we’ll have a pretty close election in the fall. But eight years ago, Ms. Clinton was 50 points ahead of Mr. Obama, and just two years ago, the Republicans forsook a parade of raving right-wingers for the ideologically chameleonic Mitt Romney.
What polling does show is that voters remain deeply divided – about 40 per cent liberal and Democratic, about that many conservative and Republican, and the remaining 20 per cent up for grabs. By election day, that last slice will be down to about 2 per cent, and they’ll be mercilessly bombarded with targeted campaign gimmicks.
Those 40 per-centers on both sides are mostly committed ideologues, although in many cases they’ll be single-issue voters. What that means is that the next nominee for the Democrats, even if it is Ms. Clinton, will be a presumptive liberal (speaking here for both sides) who will have left herself enough room in public pronouncements to govern however she likes. She (or he) will be pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-environment in the most general possible way, and beyond that, you won’t really know that much.
The nominee for the Republicans will sound like an extremist Tea Partier by the time the primaries are over, but if they have the good sense to nominate Jeb Bush, he won’t be one. Without him, they will likely have nominated a genuine extremist, and a loser.
On the Republican side, apart from Bush, the possible candidates look like another clownish lineup of extremist Teabaggers: Ted Cruz and Rick Perry from Texas, Marco Rubio from Florida, Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania – that sorry ilk. As to Democrats, there’s Secretary Clinton and then there’s Martin O’Malley, the youthful governor of Maryland who, so far, is the only one who seems inclined to challenge the Clinton machinery. Don’t count him out. Here’s why:
Painful though it is to write this, Karl Rove, like the proverbial blind hog, stumbles across the occasional acorn. He points out that Clinton, if she ran, would be 69 on assuming the presidency and 77 upon leaving it after two terms. That’s Ronald Reagan territory, and there is nothing good about it. It helps to be at least in one’s 60s to understand what is so bad about it.
This gives people reason to explore their other doubts about Clinton. First, while the Republicans will be calling her a communist, which is what they say about everyone with the occasional independent thought, the fact is that there is a great deal of room to Clinton’s political left – and that is where most Democrats live.
Elizabeth Warren, the firecracker senator from Massachusetts, has been creating a huge amount of Democratic enthusiasm by standing up against Wall Street. It is going to occur to Democrats, at some point, that it was largely Bill and Hillary Clinton, in need of 1992 campaign cash, who sold their party out to Wall Street. The connection between their connections and the deregulation of the financial sector, and the connection between that and the Great Recession, will cause her some trouble.
Second, there’s the gender thing, which works hugely in Clinton’s favor for the moment. Practically everyone in her party thinks it’s time for a female president, and it is. But it is possible that some of them, maybe enough of them, would rather wait for a woman who got to the stage on her own. Somebody, surely, will say, “There are 330 million people, give or take, in this country. What are the chances that the very best choice, among all those people, is married to a former president?”
Third, there’s that former president. He is hugely popular, and people tend to remember the boom times of the 1990s. Rest assured that those people will be reminded of the other boom – the one the Clinton bubble made when it burst all over the world. There are other episodes of the Clinton presidency that will be re-enacted for campaign purposes. They won’t be any prettier the 100th time around.
Then there’s Ms. Clinton herself. Her husband possesses the most powerful intellect to have occupied the White House in a long time, prior to Barack Obama’s, but her intellectual talents may well eclipse his. Unfortunately, she regularly displays a tin ear for political reality, a lack of connection with ordinary people and a linebacker’s touch with a sentence. Remember Hillarycare? Remember when she was the inevitable nominee eight years ago, when the nomination was hers to lose and she proceeded to lose it? As for her campaign style, she exudes warmth and humor in a small group, but on a big stage or on television, she seems cold and condescending.
Finally, there is O’Malley. He’s telegenic and charming. He’s got a record of lowering violent crime dramatically when he was mayor of Baltimore, and of taking care of the Democratic base with immigration and same-sex marriage issues as governor. And he’s doing everything required to become a candidate.
When the anybody-but-Hillary movement cranks up, as it will, O’Malley will have the first leg up.