Friday, May 29, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 1)


SO WHEN the hell are you launching your presidential campaign? Got your PAC started yet? OK, maybe you won’t but you certainly could, or so it seems. Running for the American presidency is cooler than a mobile wallet. A dizzying number of aspirants to the Big Chair in the Oval Office have recently announced presidential aspirations no less far-fetched and impossibly quixotic than your own. The latest one happened on Thursday. There was one who announced a day before that. There’s another one coming a day or two from now. They can’t all win, of course, but they all think they can win. Democracy is a wonderful thing.

Since Hillary Clinton revealed the thoroughly open secret of her presidential campaign on April 12, no fewer than seven other political notables have announced the launch of their own campaigns. And since six candidates are on the Republican side (some declared before Clinton did) and other pols like Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie have formed exploratory committees, we’re moving beyond the previously ridiculous rhetorical vehicular yardstick.

The GOP clown-car metaphor isn’t big enough. We need a clown bus right now. Let’s look at three of the riders.

Pataki: Another governor heard from

The latest pol to formally announce a candidacy is making use of an impressive historical precedent. Like Thomas Dewey, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller before him, another former New York governor, George Pataki now seeks the presidency. The Republican announced on Thursday that he’s in the 2016 presidential race, and he did it with a surprisingly moving four-minute video.

In the video, we’ve caught Pataki on one of his mornings in America: dressing for some business engagement with the help of his wife, in the dawn’s early light. Pataki borrows from the intrinsically emotionally images of Freedom Tower and the 9/11 Memorial — incidental touchstones of a tenure in office that coincided with the worst terrorist incursion in American history. And he calls on the untied states to be, once more, the United States. “If we are to flourish as a people,” he says, “we have to fall in love with America again.”



Pataki’s campaign gets the patina of the new for a little while longer. He’s reportedly about to be eclipsed on the newness meter by former Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, whom several news sources say is about to jump into the White House game with an announcement from Baltimore on Saturday.

Santorum: Junior elder statesman maybe

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a son of coal country, announced his second bid for the White House on Wednesday, May 27. The Republican whose rise in 2012 was meteoric (he won primaries in 11 states) is back with a purportedly more populist economic message.

“As middle America is hollowing out, we can't sit idly by as big government politicians make it harder for our workers and then turn around and blame them for losing jobs overseas. American families don't need another president tied to big government or big money,” he said from Cabot, Pa. “And today is the day we are going to begin to fight back.”

For all the talk going on offense, Santorum in 2012 didn’t do that well. “Santorum has done a great job of making first downs on fourth and seventeen plays,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, to The Washington Post. Sooner or later, that kind of football gets you in trouble.

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I wrote this not long before Santorum quit the race for the White House in 2012: “By bowing graciously from the field of battle, by making the dignified climbdown, Santorum will have strong cards to play in 2016. That’s when he could come roaring back, not exactly as an elder statesman but certainly not as a newcomer to the pursuit of the nomination. Having that on-the-road experience, that taste for campaign blood gets you points in the Republican Party.”

It’s time for Santorum to play those cards. If he’s ever again to be taken seriously as a candidate, 2016 may be his best year. Like Mitt Romney, he lays claim to having run a presidential campaign at a high level. The fact that he lost is almost inconsequential right now. In a field this crowded, previous campaign experience is its own gravitas. This year, way more than 2012, there are options the Republican electorate has, right now, and that conveys an emeritus status to someone who’s done this rodeo before. Among those with the highest and most viable profiles in the GOP, that means Romney and Santorum.


The big question is who Santorum can appeal to, now and down the road. The audience for Republican candidates is incredibly stratified at this point (like the candidates themselves); there’s more or less a flavor for every emotional subdivision of the Republican identity. The Pennsylvania senator with the hardscrabble American backstory will presumably sway the evangelicals and conservative voters who gave him surprising traction in 2012.

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But if he gets through the primaries, Santorum will be forced much closer to the center of the social and political spectrum for the general — a place in the conservative Venn diagram where he’s shown he doesn’t want to be. Witness his ugly comparison of homosexuality to bestiality.

For sure, if anything is likely to doom Santorum’s campaign, it’ll be this inability to pivot, to move with the times that are moving his country whether he admits it or not.

Matt Beynon’s characteriziation of the 2016 Santorum suggests that nothing’s changed. “If you look at the message, it hasn't changed. It's how you deliver it,” said Beynon, a longtime Santorum aide and spokesman to CNN on May 28. “It's not changing your principles and it's certainly not pulling the wool over people's eyes either. It's being honest about where you stand, but you learn how to deliver a message, and I think that comes through experience.”

Sorry Matt Beynon. Einstein famously observed that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If the candidate’s message doesn’t change, doesn’t evolve along with the nation it’s being sent into, why should things in 2016 be any different than they were in 2012? Answer: They won’t be.

Cruz: Green campaigner and ham

Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz announced on March 23 his plans to seek the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2016. That fact alone has already fueled speculation among Beltway seers and analysts. They say Cruz is doomed to fail via political history, which records that no candidate who declared for a White House bid first has ever won. But they’ve come to the more pivotal assessment: Cruz will face an uphill battle because of the bridges in Congress he’s burned with a blowtorch over the last few years.

Cruz faces the daunting obstacle of seeking to be the standard-bearer of a party that doesn’t know what it wants to be itself, the same identity conundrum that’s persisted for years. The schisms of the Tea Party era that is now behind us have left wounds that haven’t quite closed. GOP infighting has been the order of the day since the new Congress was sworn in January. House Speaker John Boehner is as embattled now as he was before.

Cruz’s willingness to act as a self-aggrandizing firebrand and lightning rod plays well in Texas, a state with an appreciation of the outsize personality. How well it comes across at the national level is a big unknown. Nationally, he’s known as much for bloviating, raising hell and dividing people as for anything else. That’s a steep hill of perception to get over if you’re serious about a presidential bid with wide appeal.

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But you know he’s all in by the way he announced. “Today, I am announcing that I am running for president of the United States,” Mr. Cruz said at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. “It is a time for truth, it is a time for liberty, it is a time to reclaim the Constitution of the United States.”

If there’s any candidate likely to be working the arch, angry, sharp-elbowed Fox News/Pat Buchanan/Ted Nugent/Laura Ingraham axis of the modern Republican Party, it may be Ted Cruz, a senator as willfully divisive as any in recent history. That kind of divisiveness might not seem to have a lot of potential in a general election, but some campaign seers think otherwise.

“He has had the single best sound bite over the last three years, saying that the big problem in Washington is, we don’t listen,” said Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican pollster, to The New York Times. “That message transcends ideology and partisanship, because so many in the public think Washington is out of touch.”

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Cruz’s bigger problem, then, extends from Luntz’s observation. A lot of Americans — the ones Cruz’d need to win the White House — think he symbolizes Washington itself. Who was it who single-handedly shut down the federal government, to the outrage of his fellow conservatives? Who was it who kept fighting to repeal Obamacare long after it made any sense, to the outrage of his fellow conservatives — and everyone else?

For all of Ted Cruz’s darkly dazzling, Willie Stark/Lonesome Rhodes-style velocity into the national culture, the Cruz 2016 campaign is a long shot at best, violating as it does a main law of political thermodynamics: You can’t win the nomination of your party without the support of those in the leadership of your party.

Cruz is pretty broadly vilified by GOP power brokers, so characterizing his campaign as a longshot isn’t so much partisan as it is practical. If the elites keep hatin’ and voters look at their other, numerous options, Cruz may yet wind up standing on the political equivalent of a hotel balcony n Manhattan, howling “Maarrrshaaa!” into the night sky at the top of his lungs.

Image credits: Pataki, campaign logo: Stills from campaign video. Santorum: Via The Weekly Standard. Cruz: Carolyn Kaster/AP via Yahoo News.

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