It might seem absurd to speculate who will be the frontrunners in the 2016 presidential race less than a year after Barack Obama won re-election, but since there are up to 15 people already positioning themselves, and since in America electioneering never really stops, it makes sense to do so. If one wishes to understand the posturings of American statesmen, which have real influence on day-to-day politics here, one needs to look beyond the November 2014 midterm congressional elections to the ultimate prize of the White House.
It is very rare for a full two-term presidency to be followed by the election of someone from the same party; indeed, since the Second World War it has only happened once, when George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1989. Of course history won’t discourage the leading Democrats from running for their party’s nomination, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is presently the leading contender: her campaign managers are already attempting to position her as the party’s inevitable choice, and over $1 million has been put into the “Ready for Hillary” political action committee in the last few weeks by past backers of hers. To follow the United States’ first black president with its first female one would secure the party’s self-image as the progressive force in American politics, and her name recognition — a vital factor in a country with relatively low voter turnouts — is far higher than anyone else’s on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Clinton is presently “resting” from the one million miles of flying that she clocked up as secretary of state, but she is also giving fantastically well-paid speeches, at $200,000 a time. Advised by her husband, whose love of politics is utterly undimmed, Hillary is undoubtedly eying up the Oval Office. Her ruthless (but politically sensible) distancing of herself from her close aide Huma Abedin, whose husband Anthony Weiner continued to send text-photos of his penis to strangers a year after resigning from Congress over an identical scandal, is merely the latest affirmation of her ambition.
Clinton would undoubtedly bring out large numbers of female voters, though not in the same proportions that Obama achieved for blacks, and she would have the formidable Democrat get-out-the-vote machine working for her that so comprehensively put paid to Mitt Romney’s hopes in 2012. For all the Republicans’ attempts to reheat her utterly disgraceful defence of herself during the Benghazi hearings on Capitol Hill — “What difference, at this point, does it make?” — that shameful moment in American history will be five years old by the time of the 2016 elections. Similarly, her total inability to turn the Arab Spring to America’s advantage in either Iran or Syria might well be largely forgotten by then.
Considering how ham-fisted the Republican attack machine has been since that likeable genius Karl Rove left its helm, it is probable that criticism of Hillary might sound like mean-spirited misogyny, and even work to her advantage. This could further blacken the Republicans as the nasty party, despite the Democrats being far meaner political mudslingers. Attempts to point out that Clinton financially benefited from the Whitewater scandal, never won an important case as a lawyer, never passed any significant piece of legislation as a senator for New York, never got her healthcare bill even voted on by the Senate, and has never made a speech — or even a remark — that was both true and memorable, might be thought of as part of that staple Democrat invention, “the Republicans’ war on women”, and backfire disastrously.
The other leading Democratic hopefuls are Vice-President Joe Biden, who will be 74 in November 2016 and is a gaffe-prone national joke, and the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. One hardly gets more Establishment Democrat than Cuomo, son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo and ex-husband of Kerry Kennedy (daughter of Bobby), yet as an Italian-American he rarely misses the opportunity to play the descendant-of-immigrants card. He is handsome, intelligent, a good public speaker and will be 58 in 2016. His real attribute for Democrats will be a proven ability to run a big state in a way that will not frighten off too many Republicans.
As governor he has cut spending without raising taxes (except for the rich), been tough over pensions and holidays with a major public-sector union, signed ethics reform legislation, passed same-sex marriage as a nonpartisan measure, imposed a property tax cap, reacted quickly and effectively to Superstorm Sandy and reformed the notorious New York tax code. His problem is that he is a New Yorker, at a time when few Americans have any affection for the city beyond a place to visit very occasionally. If for some reason Hillary doesn’t run, then the impressive Maryland governor Martin O’Malley probably will, and another Democratic name to watch is the senator from Virginia, Mark Warner.
By contrast with the big three Democrats of Clinton, Cuomo and Biden — two and a half, really, considering Biden hasn’t a hope — the Republicans will be fielding at least seven viable candidates, though more will undoubtedly emerge over the next three years. The frontrunner is presently New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie, a big man both physically and politically, who also had a “good” Superstorm Sandy (although many Republicans criticise him for chumming up to the President too much in gaining his state special subsidies afterwards). Christie is an impressive politician who shows that a Republican can win handsomely in a traditionally solidly Democrat state, something that should impress his party.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush will probably be a contender in 2016, which is not as outlandish as it might sound, considering that his brother George W. has been enjoying high approval ratings since the Arab Spring, and since his tough post-9/11 measures are seen to be still keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks. Jeb Bush speaks Spanish, has made education his forte, was a successful governor and has high name recognition. Paul Ryan, who was considered to have done well as the vice-presidential candidate on the Romney ticket, will also stand, as might Rob Portman, the junior senator from Ohio.
The tough anti-union campaigner Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, is a man to watch, as is the Florida senator Marco Rubio, whose Hispanic parentage Republicans hope might undercut the Democrats in that key demographic (as could the Texas senator, Ted Cruz). Former Senator Rick Santorum has already been seen addressing evangelicals in Iowa, the first state to vote in the Republican primaries, as has Cruz. Bobby Jindal, the ethnically Indian governor of Louisiana, has also spoken at an Iowa fundraiser event. Jindal will be a presidential contender, but unfortunately so will Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky — son of Ron Paul who badly split the Republican vote in 2012 — who looks like running on a libertarian platform. Also not ruling out a run is the Texas governor Rick Perry, who during a debate in his run for the presidency last year managed to forget the name of one of the departments of state he intended to abolish. “That was the weakest Republican field in human history,” he later joked, “and they kicked my butt!” With Donald Trump expressing interest, and even Sarah Palin not ruling herself out of the running, the 2016 line-up might turn into an even worse zoo than 2012 was.
The Republicans’ biggest problem will be that after nearly a decade in the doldrums, the American economy should be strong by late 2016, albeit despite President Obama rather than because of him. Moreover they are consistently on the opposite side of social issues such as same-sex marriage from increasing numbers of the American people. Their tough stance on immigration might appeal to their party’s base, but it undermines their hopes of winning even a significant part of the 12 per cent and fast-growing Hispanic vote, three-quarters of which went to Obama last time. Republicans hope and believe that Obamacare — which comes into operation on October 1, this year — might be the killer-issue for them when it turns into an expensive catastrophe for millions of Americans, but by then it will have had three years to bed down.
Whatever happens, the Republicans must change their suicidal selection process, which scheduled no fewer than 21 debates in which candidates criticised each other so viciously that they effectively did Obama’s job for him. If the Republicans make gains in the 2014 mid-terms, it is not inconceivable that they might win the Senate as well as the House of Representatives. (It’ll help if they don’t choose the same kind of unelectable senatorial candidates as they did in 2012, including one who admitted she had once been a white witch and another who spoke of “legitimate rape”.) Yet even if they do win both houses of the legislature and turn Obama into a lame-duck president in 2014, the Republicans could well be blamed if important issues such as immigration and tax reform stay unaddressed.
Despite historical precedent and however much stronger the 2016 Republican field will be, if the Republicans can’t find a credible unifying cause it is still possible that, in a strong economy, either Clinton or Cuomo — or more dangerous still a Clinton-Cuomo “dream ticket” — might well kick their butts.