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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Inevitable? Not so fast…

Nothing – nothing – is inevitable in politics. Let’s make that the first and last rule as we enter the long, grim slog to a national election in seventeen – oh my goodness, seventeen months.

A horse race, but not THE horse race.

The horse race oriented national political media absolutely loves the kind of campaign that is unfolding – mostly lacking in substance and long on measuring political furlongs. You might think the Belmont is the big race, but Iowa is the focus of the real horse race. And on they come down the straightaway. Lindsey Graham. Seriously? Lincoln Chafee? Give me a break. He’s too unknown to be a dark horse. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal couldn’t get elected to the Baton Rouge City Council right now, but he’s saddling up. Martin O’Malley sounds like an entry in the Irish Stakes, but he’s really in the Cedar Rapids sprint.

The Great Race…

Hillary-the-inevitable. Jeb-the-heir-apparent, assuming he actually announces. What else will he do with all that money which he has arguably illegally been gathering in with both hands, while maintaining the necessary fiction that he’s still deciding whether to become a candidate? What is Bush deciding actually? Whether the Iraq war was a bad idea? Whether next summer in Maine is better than next summer in, well, Nevada?

Can a divisive Midwestern governor without a college degree contend? Who wins South Carolina? Is Bernie a loony or just a socialist? What about Rick Perry? Yeah, what about him? His announcement of candidacy comes with stories about his indictment in Texas. The comment the former Texas governor made in 2012 when he couldn’t remember one of the federal agencies he proposed eliminating seems strangely appropriate to his second call to the post. “Oops,” he said. Who is to disagree?

With half dozen – or two dozen – Republican candidates likely to enter the race in the next two months, we’re in for much more of this kind of political discussion. God help the country and us. We get the politics and politicians we pay for, I guess.

The horse race is all about who is up and who is down, who is raising money or not and who “connects” with voters at a pancake breakfast in Davenport, Iowa. Gaffes, another word for stupid comments or even occasionally uncharacteristic candor bordering on truth, get lots of coverage during this season. The horse race is all about who looks best prancing around the paddock. The best horses don’t have to say much, just look good “trying out themes” or “courting big donors.” Heaven forbid that one of these show horses actually displays some gumption, as in staking out a position.

George Pataki at a Chipotle in Manchester, NH

If you are a horse who has been out to pasture for a long time say, for example, former New York Governor George Pataki, you only show up in the daily racing form by doing something out of the ordinary. Simply booking a Southwest Airlines flight to Manchester, New Hampshire does not qualify. The conservative writer Jonah Goldberg says Pataki is “like an order of bad clams, he keeps coming back up on me.” Book that Southwest ticket, George.

What is for Sure…

Very few things seem certain at this point in the horse race, but let’s focus on what is more-or-less obvious.

Ironically, it was Barack Obama in 2008 who identified a major problem that will likely confound Hillary Clinton on her long march (maybe) back to the White House. While debating during that long ago campaign, Clinton was asked – a silly question, but the kind we have come to expect – to comment on the fact that Obama seemed to be better liked by voters than she was. Hillary looked hurt by the suggestion and Obama set tongues waging when he remarked in response that Hillary was “likeable enough.”

Obama’s comment was widely seen as one of those “gaffes,” a comment that showed him to be peevish and less than gracious to his female opponent. Trouble was, Obama got it right. His was a gaffe of candid truth. Clinton is not particularly likeable. When her negative likability quotient combines with growing public concern about her trustworthiness, not to mention whether Clinton identifies with “people like me” and whether she inspires confidence, you get to the heart of what I suspect will be the lingering cloud hanging over the inevitable fading of the former secretary of state.

Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with locals at the Jones St. Java House, LeClaire, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Perhaps the strategists around Clinton have decided to keep in reserve any talk of the specific issues and concerns that drive her to again seek the presidency. So far she has said almost nothing of substance, while happily snapping selfies in Iowa coffee shops. Perhaps the Clinton brain trust has calculated that they will eventually need to pivot to real issues, say Syria or Wall Street regulation, when the candidate inevitably needs to change the subject from the next revelation about her finances, her emails or her husband. It is certain at this point that she is basing her campaign on – here is that word again – her “inevitability” and her gender. After all, that worked so well for her in 2008. Meanwhile we wait for evidence that Clinton has learned anything from her previous run.

Watching the Clinton campaign unfold one gets the impression that they make it up every day. Her campaign reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s famous quip about Oakland: “There is no there there.” What drives Clinton to run? Why the reluctance to spell out a real and specific agenda? The cynic might think, even after all these years in public life, that she hasn’t figured it out, or perhaps she really thinks “inevitability” and gender are enough. I long for a reporter to ask her, oh that’s right she doesn’t talk to reporters. Therefore, I long for her to give us three reasons why she wants and deserves to be president. I know, Christmas is coming, too.

Bernie: The Long Shot…

Bernie Sanders

Little wonder then that self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator elected as an independent, is drawing large crowds and sizeable online contributions even as many of the chattering class dismiss him as a hopeless long shot. Of course Sanders is a long shot. Being defined as “a socialist” has never been a resume line that gets anyone even close to the White House.

Still Bernie has something Hillary doesn’t – convictions, which also explains why people are showing up in Iowa and New Hampshire to hear him talk about the disappearing middle class, the need to break up the big banks and do a better job providing health care for people in the world’s biggest economy. The Nation has a fascinating piece on Sanders’ tenure as the small town mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He originally won that job by ten votes and then, based on his hard work to build and maintain affordable housing and deal with other real-life concerns in an American city, the good citizens of Burlington elected him again and again. Sanders later won a House seat and then Vermont elected a practical, progressive to the Senate. Go figure.

While politicians pander to the American sentiment of “supporting the troops,” Bernie actually used his perch as chairman of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee to do something for servicemen and women other than talk about them. One-on-one with Clinton he’ll make her squirm and the Clinton inevitability may not seem such a sure thing. Bernie Sanders won’t win the Democratic nomination, but he might help ensure that Hillary Clinton doesn’t either. Imagine Sanders running a strong second in Iowa and then eking out a win in New Hampshire (next door to his home base in Vermont). The Eugene McCarthy comparisons are already beginning.

The Clinton campaign, vacuous and “inevitable,” is a fully inflated balloon. The smallest pinprick could deflate the whole thing faster than you can say “my home computer server.” Democrats, at least in modern times, have never had a frontrunner more dominant or more vulnerable. “House of Cards” is more than a television series about politics and Washington; it may well describe the Democratic Party when “inevitable” gives way to “what do we do now?”

Making the Case for Any of Six or Eight Republicans…

Republicans have a different problem with their steadily expanding field of candidates. They may never get consensus about who to push forward next year or perhaps even worse they nominate a candidate so beholden to the Tea Party wing of the GOP that he (probably not Carla Fiorina) can’t possibly win a general election. Historically there has never been such a large Republican field or a field that lacked an obvious worthy, a candidate like John McCain or Mitt Romney, who can win in large part because they were just the next in line and have paid their dues. At this point you can make a case for any of six or eight candidates.

Comparisons are being made to 1952 when the politically untested Dwight Eisenhower captured the Republican nomination and the White House, but Eisenhower had a much greater national reputation at that time than any contender does today and Ike did help win a very big war. Needless to say there is no Eisenhower in the Republican field, no one with his stature, seriousness and bipartisan appeal.

While we’re making 1952 comparisons, let’s say that Clinton is no Adali Stevenson, a serious, principled man with a genuine of sense of himself, as well as a sense of humor. Stevenson lost to the five star general twice, but did credit to himself in the process. Oh, for such a choice next year.

Republicans, meanwhile, are positioning in the horse race by shedding positions faster than Bill Clinton is raking in speaking fees. Chris Christie was for the Common Core before he decided it wouldn’t play in rightwing primaries. Jeb and Marco Rubio once made the near-fatal GOP primary mistake of saying that the Republican Party ought to embrace immigration reform, but they jettisoned those positions just as quickly as they got rid of their autographed Denny Hastert photos.

This much also seems clear: Both parties are looking for a candidate with convictions and something approaching authenticity. Bernie Sanders is getting attention right now because, the radical label notwithstanding, what you see is what you get. Rand Paul on the Republican side has some of the same qualities. But, Paul the libertarian has the same problem as Sanders the socialist. Neither can be elected with their uncomfortable labels attached. This dilemma leads to the great political question of our time: can you appear to be authentic, while trimming what you really believe?

While nothing is inevitable in politics and all campaigns come down to a less-than-perfect choice between two flawed candidates, I’m pretty sure that when we arrive at November 2016, the candidate seen as the most likeable, authentic, trustworthy, honest and most sure of their positions will be the next president of the United States. We may have not seen them yet or, even worse, we may not see them at all.

Fasten your seat belts, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

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