Handicapping the 2016 Presidential Race Part One

We are now around two years from the 'overt' beginning of the 2016 presidential nomination races, and the 'invisible primary' made up of the search for gravitas and the support of influential party figures and donors is looming. The 2016 race is open, the incumbent can't run again, and, though the economy looks to me as though it could still teeter over at any moment, a collapse into war or depression won't favour either side.

Let's begin by discounting some known unknowns. Firstly, Obamacare is not going to be decisive, because it's messy and maimed, but where it works it may well depress premiums and put money into pockets, whereas where it doesn't, people are against it anyway.

Secondly, even with a possible Republican House in 2014, it also seems unlikely that the President will be impeached, resign or be assassinated; he has bought off the CIA, not challenged wall street, his Vice-president isn't really papabile for the national security state, and he's more or less gotten away with massive surveillance, drone bombings, assassinations, and gun running. It's actually gotten to the point where one wonders if there is anything other than not telling the truth about sex to lawyers for which one could be impeached. At the time of writing, he certainly can't be done for any sexual or financial misdemeanour, which is often the way these things take wing.

So, those of us interested in American politics should start handicapping the field. I have a reasonable record of this, or so I tell myself. After all, everyone thinks that they understand American politics (yet another reason why the whole process should be conducted in German) but, well, I've spent the better part of thirty years following it and two decades studying and teaching it. So, like, there. I've been laughed at in front of audiences in Chicago for predicting that Hillary couldn't win and that Gordon Brown would mess up, tut-tutted in Oxford for predicting the entire Clinton electoral cycle and presidency in 1992, and smacked down for describing how the Bushes would win, and then what would happen, in 2000. When I've been wrong--over Gary Hart, whom I liked before I met him, over Sarah Palin, over Richard Gephardt, and over Rick Perry, I plead good reasons, or at least only 50% sexual psychosis.

The first place where I would start is with the media stereotype categories, which many who come to American politics fall into thinking are ever new, but actually are as old as the republic. There are ten. In no particular order, they are;

1)   Foreign-born whimsy
2)   Military or business non-party figure
3)   Redeemed partisan hack
4)   Partisan hack
5)   Religious figures and nutters
6)   Criminal with seniority
7)   Throwback figure
8)   Hopelessly overqualified hopeless candidate.
9)   Media favourite with a rubbish campaign who'll do badly
10) The genuinely accidental candidate

Let's have a look at these categories in turn. It's a nice summer day and I have nothing better to do.

Foreign Born Whimsical Candidates

There are usually a few of these every thirty years or so, perhaps coinciding with the economy in some bizarre fashion. Surprisingly, many of them are German. I suppose Alexander Hamilton is the obvious one, but Carl Schurz, Henry Kissinger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jennifer Granholm tend to pop up in conversation when talking about these individuals. Madeleine Albright, I suppose, would have figured in discussions even before the Czechs offered her their presidency on a plate, but only for the Vice-presidency, and of course only whimsically. This time around, you have...well, Ted Cruz, who is somehow Canadian. He's more likely to make a bolt for the Texas Governorship when Perry steps down. One could argue that John McCain ticked this box as a Panamanian in 2000, but you'd have to be some mischievous hack to do so. In some other-dimensional theatre of the absurd, a Jerry Springer who had actually made it to the Senate, Barnum-like, may also have qualified.

Military or Business non-party figure

There really should be three sub-categories here, to include celebrities and partisan figures pretending to be non-party figures, but it's a hot day and I can't be bothered to change the heading. Whom to put here? Well, oddly, the list of historical business figures is small, possibly because business tycoons in America have historically had far more power outside of Washington than in, and partly because looking political is a great way of getting yourself audited and regulated. Lee Iaccoca at one point would have been this sort of candidate; Ross Perot was, twice. Wendell Wilkie more or less got the nomination on this basis in 1940. However, given that British intelligence were amongst Wikie's main backers, and that his career highlight was probably sleeping with Madam Chiang Kai-Shek on a diplomatic mission, he is not the best of models. Again, Donald Trump aside, there isn't yet a serious business person for 2016. I guess if Carly Fiorina hadn't predictably self-destructed after her appalling business career she might have been in with a chance, but the qualities to lead modern businesses--sacking people, hiring slaves and spouting masochistic nonsense--are more effective outside of the White House. The White House is for doing the opposite of that. At a push, this is the sort of candidacy Mitt Romney was pretending to run, until Newt pointed out that the only reason Romney ever had a long business career was that Ted Kennedy kicked his butt up and down Massachusetts when he sought elective office.

There have been, off the top of my head, ten Generals or Brevet generals elected president; Washington, Jackson, Grant and Eisenhower had full careers, whilst Pierce, William and Ben Harrison, Taylor, Hayes and Garfield had appointments to the title. Ben Butler was also, briefly, the Republican candidate in 1864, and I think that even Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur could be called General without committing fraud.* Teddy Roosevelt (best placed in the accidental or nutter categories) was, like Jefferson a colonel, and Truman was best defined by Battery D in the Great War, I suppose, though he never rose above Captain. Generals normally have a terrible time in politics, partly because their job depends either upon an administrative command of bureaucracies that exist to get things done (unlike DC), or on killing lots and lots of people until the enemy gives in. Patton and MacArthur, both of whom could have been plausible candidates, fit into that category.

The two outstanding non-political generals of our time are David Petraeus and Colin Powell, They're both now damaged goods, and Powell won't run, and won't be forgiven for not running in 96, obeying orders in 2003, and endorsing Obama in 2008. Petraeus could conceivably come back, but military men are normally too honourable to do the essentially silly walk of shame and repentance the media demand; would Eisenhower have done it for the Summersby thing?

 Norman Schwarzkopf was once innocently part of a dump-Quayle movement, but like his father, he preferred action in the desert and then retirement to fishing in the vice-presidential tundra. Who does that leave? It's not inconceivable that some silly Hollywood campaign gets launched on a midnight coke train, as Fred Thompson's was, or Ashley Judd, George Clooney, or Anderson Cooper might be. Cooper makes me think of Walter Cronkite, who would have accepted the 72 Veep nomination which McGovern was thinking of offering, until he gave it to Eagleton with such disastrous results.

So, two down, and we have Cruz, Granholm, Trump, Petraeus and Powell. Their names may well be in the mix, along with any genuinely unknown senior military person who distinguishes themselves in the next couple of years, and with the exception of Petraeus the scuttlebutt will almost certainly be wrong. I'll go away and have a lie down, and return with observations on the next few categories--mostly for my own benefit, since all my usual readers are on day release or outdoor duty in the good weather--tomorrow.

*Yes, I know--Arthur, who had the biggest ego in Washington until LBJ and went around naming busts of himself after himself, wasn't elected president. Nor was Johnson. But, hey, Johnson was a War Democrat and professional drinker who did one of the most spectacular campaign swings after Martin Van Buren, and Arthur has been referenced in a Die Hard film, which beats Gerald Ford. All he got was a bad impression in Beverly Hills Cop II and Ronald Reagan coming out of lalaland to undermine his candidacy in 1976.

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