The real race to watch

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIVE - AN­DREW MAL­COLM MCCLATCHY WASH­ING­TON BUREAU

Some peo­ple be­yond Wash­ing­ton might con­sider an­nounc­ing a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2018 for an elec­tion in late 2020 a tad pre­ma­ture. Those peo­ple would be cor­rect.

Here’s how things have changed over the years in our com­man­derin-chief sweep­stakes: John F. Kennedy an­nounced his pres­i­den­tial can­di­dacy on Jan. 2, 1960, 10 months be­fore the elec­tion. Bill Clin­ton an­nounced his 13 months be­fore the elec­tion.

Ge­orge W. Bush jumped in 17 months be­fore. Barack Obama was 21 months out. El­iz­a­beth War­ren made it about 23 months out, and she wasn’t the first.

Some coun­tries be­lieve ci­ti­zens can make rea­son­able lead­er­ship de­ci­sions based on a 40-day cam­paign. They would be right. But U.S. pol­i­tics are rowdy by na­ture. Hope­fully, few Amer­i­cans with a real life will pay con­tin­u­ous at­ten­tion to the 2020 races from now on. Of course, our per­va­sive me­dia will pro­vide daily—even hourly—cov­er­age be­cause most of the com­pe­ti­tion will be among its fa­vored Democrats.

Our pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns have grown too long, way too long. There are com­pelling rea­sons and silly ones, not to jus­tify but to ex­plain this.

Like money. Many wealthy donors and PAC-back­ers have mil­lions of dis­cre­tionary dol­lars avail­able to gam­ble on a pre­ferred can­di­date for the ex­cite­ment, ego-stroking, ac­cess and po­ten­tial in­flu­ence that money might bring them down the road.

Even small donors—those who give less than $200 and, there­fore, go uniden­ti­fied in fed­eral records—get a kick out of hav­ing skin in the high­ly­pub­li­cized cam­paign of some­one they may truly be­lieve in. It’s not un­like the surge in lot­tery ticket sales for the big prizes.

The TV in­dus­try hardly minds stok­ing na­tional cam­paigns that spend bil­lions on com­mer­cial time.

The 2016 Demo­cratic race was rigged for Hil­lary Clin­ton, but that didn’t keep Bernie Sanders fans from chip­ping in mil­lions on­line. Same for Repub­li­can Ron Paul 10 years ago.

War­ren an­nounced her can­di­dacy on New Year’s Eve, not a prime time to at­tract the at­ten­tion of sober ci­ti­zens. Her big thing is a large tax on wealthy peo­ple to spread it around more eq­ui­tably. You haven’t heard much about War­ren since, as she seeks to make full use of the year’s first 89 days to phone, visit, mes­sage and mas­sage the egos of would-be donors. This is a cru­cial time in pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns when dol­lars are votes. When first-quar­ter fundrais­ing to­tals are pub­lished for all cam­paigns in mid-April, she hopes her haul will be large enough to scare off other Democrats, es­pe­cially those of the pro­gres­sive per­sua­sion.

Al­ready, a Demo­crat few even knew was a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date has given up af­ter only two months. State Sen. Richard Ojeda of West Vir­ginia was short of money and at­ten­tion. Now he’s a trivia ques­tion.

Early re­ports in­di­cate Demo­cratic donors are go­ing to be slow to com­mit this time. That’s likely a wise move since the race is longer, and the field of lib­eral wannabes could well ex­ceed the 17 Repub­li­cans last time, 16 of whom lost, along with all their donors’ dreams. Even some may­ors think they’re Oval Of­fice-qual­i­fied.

So, why do so many seek an elec­toral prize only one will win? Am­bi­tion, ego, at­ten­tion, gen­uine de­sire to serve, to build name fa­mil­iar­ity for fu­ture bids, an in­ter­est in draw­ing pub­lic­ity to an ide­ol­ogy or pol­icy and to them­selves.

Re­mem­ber Alan Keyes? He was a lit­tle-known con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist who said he was seek­ing the GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion sev­eral cy­cles ago.

Back­stage at an Iowa TV de­bate in 1999, I asked him why he was tak­ing up one of the night’s six seats with zero chance of suc­cess. He said the can­di­dacy would dou­ble his speak­ing fees for the next year.

The 2020 race seems ex­tremely at­trac­tive be­cause of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and the sub­stan­tial stub­born ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans who dis­ap­prove of his job per­for­mance. You must have seen these daily polls me­dia pub­lish, as if to prove a point.

On the stump for ini­tial pri­mary de­bates, Democrats will at­tempt to out-loathe him. That may work in the pri­maries.

But so many hun­gry can­di­dates will split Trump’s op­po­si­tion. And that seems likely to pro­duce the same re­sult as the GOP ex­pe­ri­enced three years ago: No can­di­date dom­i­nates the field, just sev­eral with plu­ral­i­ties, al­low­ing an un­ex­pected one to eke out a tri­umph. Or per­haps an al­lur­ing in­de­pen­dent.

Gen­eral elec­tion cam­paigns, how­ever, are a dif­fer­ent species. They re­quire gen­uine pol­icy specifics and a cen­tral mes­sage about the fu­ture. Ask Hil­lary Clin­ton if that mat­ters.

Ev­ery cam­paign day is bru­tal, high-pres­sure and ex­haust­ing for can­di­dates and staffs, ripe op­por­tu­ni­ties for ma­jor gaffes. Com­pared to any likely Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, Trump has more ex­pe­ri­ence there, with a na­tional cam­paign and gaffes.

Trump may also have a GOP pri­mary chal­lenger, some­one se­date and ar­tic­u­late who’ll vow to re­store deco­rum, san­ity and real con­ser­vatism to the party of Lin­coln. That vi­able party chal­lenger will not de­feat the pres­i­dent. They never do. That in-house chal­lenger will, how­ever, vir­tu­ally guar­an­tee the in­cum­bent’s Novem­ber de­feat. They al­ways do.

In that sense, for po­lit­i­cal spec­ta­tors the real race to watch from time to time will not be the chat­ter­ing pack of Democrats over-promis­ing good­ies for each of their seg­re­gated seg­ments. The real race to mon­i­tor will be the loud, lonely one on the Repub­li­can side.

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